Dances With Wolves
An Essay by Moira Gray
"My movie is not a history lesson, or an attempt to set the record
straight, but I do hope our efforts to authenticate the people and
places we're dealing with will finally show a side of their legacy
that has long been forgotten - their honour". (Kevin Costner)
Kevin Costner's film Dances with Wolves has been
described by John Powers of the LA Weekly as a " classical Hollywood
boy's adventure story about a heroic white man who finds peace and
truth by going to live with the Sioux Indians".
It is debatable to what extent this film is 'classical narration' or
'historic materialist narration'. Costner may refute any didactic
intent but Dances with Wolves is an experience which
leaves the viewer in a turmoil of guilt and the children of the
western genre are confronted by a new icon. We are introduced neither
to ' the savage ' or 'the noble savage', but to the Indian who is and
was a person with an acute intelligence and a highly developed
civilisation and an admirable life code of morality and honour.
Costner may not have intended to lecture us, or to put history into
proper perspective, but he has nevertheless succeeded.
The film displays many of the features of classical Western genre.
All the icons are there: cavalry, warpainted Indians, bows and
arrows, horses, scalpings and teepees. It deals with a classic story
- a soldier, John Dunbar, who has come close to death in the civil
war, wishes to experience the frontier before it disappears. On a
lonely isolated outpost he acquires new friends - firstly a 'savage'
wolf and secondly, 'savage' Indians. This deliberate parallel recurs
throughout the film and the more Dunbar 'dances' with these savages,
the more he recognises that these wild creatures are civilised and
that white civilisation is savage. Both become part of himself and in
a beautifully constructed and crafted movie, Costner dispels the fear
and loathing of both 'animals' which Hollywood stereotyping has
A classic love story also unfolds between Dunbar and 'Stands with a
fist' - a white American woman who was adopted by the Sioux and so
Dunbar's life intermeshes inextricably with the Indians.
The representations in this film are not always subtle. The mise en
scene in the opening sequence, when Dunbar tries to commit suicide,
clearly portrays him as Christ. We see him astride his horse, arms
raised in crucifiction, riding between the forces of good and evil:
'the Confederates' and 'the Union', armies. Immediately the question
is posed - Who is good and who is evil? This is the central enigma of
the film. The death ride is shown in slow motion and the heavenly
angelic music reinforces the viewers spiritual experience which the
symbols of Christianity induce.
With a gasp "Forgive me father!" is uttered and the parallel is
unmistakable. A hellish battle ensues with all the symbols, guns,
bloodshed and gore. Extensive cross cutting reinforces the
cataclysmic effect and, finally, with wild exciting military music,
the battle ends. Silence results; Dunbar is seen apparently in death
but his 'resurrection' is facilitated by a God-like presence - the
General, complete with white beard and widom - and with the words
"We've got an officer whose worth somethin' lyin' here ". The calibre
of Dunbar is presented to the audience unmistakably. Here is a
classic hero of Christ-like proportions.
As the film continues, the viewer might be forgiven for assuming that
here is a traditional western. When Dunbar is sent on his journey to
the frontier the mise-en-scene is iconic. We see panoramic views of
the prairie and the desert is dotted with sheer cliff faces. A long
shot of Dunbar, on top of a cliff, overlooking the prairie - facing
the unknown - leaves us in no doubt that this is the true frontier.
The music is in traditional western style. French horns bellow
gloriously and excitingly. The wagon, photographed in a long shot on
the horizon, is tiny and vulnerable against the panoramic view of the
desert and a signal of danger is clear to the audience. Here are
pioneers in typical western style.
Our first introduction to an Indian presence reinforces our
traditional stereotyped view. Panoramic views suddenly cut to a clear
index - a skull and an arrow - the menace is unmistakable - the
savage Indian is lurking somewhere. A cut to a close-up of Dunbar
reinforces our fears. His expression displays agreement with our
conclusion. The Indian is a killer and sinister music compounds our
fears. Costner has now 'set up' his audience which has been well
tutored by Hollywood to expect 'the savage'.
The next series of shots reinforce the stereotyping. The savages
fulfill their expected code of behaviour when the Pawnees brutally
murder and scalp the drover. All our expectations are being
fulfilled. After the body is left to rot, the camera suddenly cuts to
Dunbar. With this clever montage his isolation and vulnerability are
reinforced and even more so when another 'savage' wolf lurks around
the camp and has to be driven off. The index is unmistakable and
reflected in the chilling music and the audience holds its breath as
another painted savage appears on the horizon.
The hermeneutic code is disturbed, however, when the camera cuts to
an intense discussion among the Indians. The effect of the big
close-ups and the dark backdrop and warm front lighting indicate that
they are in a teepee. The iconography feathers, pipes, patterns,
paint, are unmistakable. Our expectations are upset, first by the
language - Lakota - with subtitles - and secondly, by the quality and
nationality of the discourse. These are no savages plotting a 'cat
and mouse' murder; these are intelligent men who are obviously as
confused by Dunbar as he is by them. The chief is not a psychopathic
murder as we have been trained to expect, but a man of wisdom who
advises caution and patience. The viewer is being confronted by a new
and confusing image - the civilised savage. Here is the essential
enigma of Dances with Wolves . As Dunbar's relationship
with the savage Indian develops, it is paralleled by the development
in his relationship with the wolf. The message 'Don't judge a book by
its cover' - is gradually understood by the audience.
Another interesting parallel is drawn in this film. The two forces of
evil - the white traders and the Pawnee are linked by clever camera
work. When the white traders ride off from the buffalo, they are
shown in black and white in stark contrast to the technicolour of the
rest of the film. Similarly, when the Pawnee ride across the river to
attack the Sioux they are in black and white. This is a device to
link the forces of evil. Costner is asking us "who is the
In this film, the narrative structure is interesting. The story is
told using a journalistic technique, quite literally. Dunbar is
writing a journal. This is useful device as the viewer can be told
exactly what the hero, and therefore the writer, is thinking.
Comments which are made are profound and thought provoking for an
audience indoctrinated by Hollywood brainwashing. Dunbar 'teaches' us
a new way of thinking about Indians and white Americans.
An example of this can be seen clearly in the scene where the tribe
is moving to a new location in search of buffalo. The mise-en-scene
indicates that Dunbar has become accepted by, whilst not yet totally
integrated into the tribe - he still wears his uniform. Throughout
the film his manner of dress reflects his state of integration.
The Indian's acceptance of him is gradual. This is a departure from
tradition - they are judging him. Dunbar proves his loyalty to them
when he tells them he has seen buffalo and the tribe move for the
hunt and we see him riding beside Kicking Bird. In medium close-up
the camera crabs with this duo, while in the background, the whole
tribe seems to pass. This leaves the viewer in no doubt of the volume
of people and animals and belongings. The tribe, united and proud,
industrious and efficient, move as a unit stoically and soberly.
Dunbar's expression is serious and full of admiration and we too are
forced to admire this noble people. The music is majestic while the
voice-over explains Dunbar's admiration. He is still not one of them
but he is accepted as a friend. This is shown unmistakably when the
camera zooms in and we see an elderly Indian profering a gift.
"I have now become a celebrity".
Our stereotyped views are being reduced to rubble and we are being
forced by skilful direction to accept the value of the Indians.
The mise-en-scene and montage in the next scene again conspire to be
subtly didactic. Dunbar and the Indians are seen mounting the crest
of a hill. He is privileged to be invited to see the buffalo - a
measure of acceptance. The camera pans with them then cuts to the
front of them. It then crabs from left to right in a big close up of
their faces and finally it rests on Dunbar. His expression is at one
with theirs - horror and disgust. In an over the shoulder shot the
audience can look with their eyes on the scene of carnage stretching
across the plain. The sonorous music reinforces our shared depression
and shock. We, the viewers, look with their eyes on the scene of
mutilation as dead buffalo stretch as far as the eye can see. The
people are silent; the camera cuts to horrified children. Dunbar's
"The field was proof enough that it was a people without value -
The music continues its plaintive cry and the audience is shocked
into realising that this brutality has been commited by white
hunters. Costner is again chipping away at our misconceptions about
Indians and whites.
The buffalo hunt follows. This is really a climatic scene and is a
mastery of mise-en scene and montage. These animals are the essence
of Indian life and the subdued excitement in the preparation for this
is signified by the uneasy pacing of the warriors and they and Dunbar
ritualistically prepare their faces and horses - he is becoming more
at one with them by adopting their traditions. The iconic whoop of
the Indians as they set off is drowned by the majestic movement and
noise of the buffalos. The camera pans across the stampeding animals.
In a series of quickfire cuts we capture the excitement speed and
danger. The camera tracks Dunbar from a variety of angles amidst the
racing animals. A variety of special effects are used to increase the
excitement. The camera, bedded into the ground, shoots the animals as
they jump over the bunker and the weight and speed and danger of
these beasts is intensified. The camera also mingles with the animals
and so the viewer's pulse races in excitement. We are not spared the
horror of the kill. Costner has made clear, however, that no animals
suffered in reality. Man made buffalo are speared and 'killed' and
the montage is such that the viewer is unaware of the deception. This
scene is spectacular and exhilarating. The viewer feels totally part
of it which is an accolade to the director.
At this point, Dunbar truly becomes part of the tribe when he saves a
boy brave from certain death. The viewer's stomach turns in horror
when he is presented with the ultimate accolade - fresh raw liver.
Dunbar accepts the gift, by licking a mouthful and in doing so
becomes one of them. This acceptance is reinforced later when
symbolically he swaps his soldiers jacket for some Indian garb. He is
one of them - the symbolism is complete. The mise-en-scene and
montage have been used to highlight a new stage in his relationship
It is significant that the buffalo hunt follows the scene of carnage
left by the white hunters. The contrast is implicit. The white hunter
kills indiscriminately and futilely, but the red hunter pursues his
craft for the benefit of his people. The film leaves us in no doubt
that every scrap of buffalo will be used and we realise that the
hunt, for Indians, is a necessary part of survival. 'Who then is the
savage?', we are being asked and we are in no doubt that it is
not the Sioux.
Throughout the film our whole code of understanding of Indians is
challenged and destroyed and we are re-educated and left feeling
ashamed of white brutality. Indians are represented in a totally new
way - as gentle peace-loving people with a highly developed
civilisation and sense of family and morality. Costner does this, not
only in the narrative, but by giving women and children a high
profile in the film. Children are seen as naughty and playful and
loving - as children are universally - not as miniature savages.
Throughout the film we meet sad Indians, happy Indians, worried
Indians, wary Indians, confused Indians, nasty Indians. The whole
gamut of human emotions is run, among these people whom we have been
brainwashed into seeing as 'killing machines'!
The film, however, is not universally popular. Michael Horse who
plays 'Hawk' in Twin Peaks has accused Costner of
naivety e.g. everyone in the Sioux tribe is portrayed as peaceloving
and everyone in the Pawnee is portrayed as evil. Costner used
authentic Indians and Lakota was spoken throughout the film but
critics ask why the hero had to be a white man. If this had not been
done, however, could whites have so realistically been portrayed as
the savages which undoubtedly they were at the end of the film when
the soldiers captured Dunbar and he refused to speak in English - I
Here he unmistakably stated his allegiance to the Indians - his
brothers. It is ironic that the final scene in the film shows Dunbar
- Dances with Wolves and his half white, half Indian
bride being forced to leave the tribe, not because of the threat
which they bring to him but the threat which he brings to them - the
wrath of the savage white man. The viewer is left feeling despair and
disgust and shame at what our forefathers did to impose
'civilisation' on 'savages' - How ironic!
Costner's use of native American Indians is a break from tradition.
As George Burdeau of the Institute of American Indian Arts states,
"Pre-Costner producers were unconcerned about authenticity about
Indians. Very few producers have had any contact with Indians but
Costner insisted on changing this in order to authenticate his film
and to thereby enable him to terminally attack Hollywood's portrayal
of the native American and it is to his great credit that he did
Dances with Wolves is definitely a film of the 90s but
it is not the first film to try to redress the balance of truth for
Indians. In the 1950s in the film Broken Arrow - the
Indians were looked on more sympathetically but this was a 'one off'.
In the 60s because of the Vietnam war and the discontent with white
brutality there, they were again portrayed in a less harsh light by
Henry Fonda in Comanche . Costner's film takes on board
a variety of issues such as spiritual values and ecological values.
The Indians lived life according to a strict moral code, in deference
to their 'Gods', they used the buffalo to survive - nothing was
wasted. Life was lived by hard work, in total harmony with nature.
These are all issues which are of great concern today.
The portrayal of women in Dances with Wolves is also contemporary.
Not for Costner the voluptuous, sexy, beautiful female who typifies
the choice of Hollywood casting directors. Mary McDonnell who plays a
white woman raised by the Sioux is not a classic beauty but she
portrays wholesomeness, strength of mind and honour. All the Sioux
women are seen as strong characters who work for their families and
are powerful within the tribe despite the apparent dominance of their
men folk. This is a 90s representation of women.
It is difficult to say if this film conforms to the auteur theory
because it is the first that Costner has directed. What can be said,
however, is that it is consistent with other films in which he has
acted e.g. he played 'Eliot Ness' in the Untouchables ;
'Ray Kinsella' in Field of Dreams and in a recent film
he plays 'Robin Hood' in Prince of Thieves . He appears
to revel in playing the part of the loner, swimming against the tide.
Dances with Wolves certainly conforms to this
The fact that this film ever reached the box office may be due, in
part, to the 'star system'. Kevin Costner is 'hot property' in
America. Without a doubt his presence helps to sell it. But obviously
its creation owes far more to him than merely star appeal. On the
face of it, the film was a non-starter. Costner pushed his friend
Michael to write the novel and once he read it he claims, "I went and
read this thing and it was the dearest idea for a film that I'd ever
read". He felt this so strongly that he funded it himself until the
film studios took over. He could not raise interest in America so
eventually Guy East, managing director of a British film company
'Majestic Films International', took over the foreign sales rights
and the US rights. This did not materialise but it did enable Costner
to persuade 'Orion Pictures' to fund the picture. Orion and Majestic
agreed to fund it 50-50 and split the budget of 18 million dollars.
Ex 'Goldcrest Films'; chief Jake Eberts was now head of his own film
investment outfit 'Allied Filmmakers' and they came in to cover any
shortfall in the budget.
What is truly remarkable is that Costner was allowed, with little
interference, to produce this film with his co-producer Jim Wilson,
who admits that Costner was in charge - it was his 'baby'. This is
due, in part, to Costner's conviction and, in part, to his fame. The
film was referred to as 'Costner's last stand' or 'Kevin's Gate'! It
was predicted to be a flop. This was partially due to the length -
three hours - and also because he insisted on using authentic Indians
and the Lakota language which all of them had to learn. It also
involved the use of a private herd of buffalo, the largest in
America, 3,500 head, belonging to governor Roy Hick. The film was
shot in Pierre - the capital of South Dakota - near to the Sioux
reservation, so hundreds of extras were available. Costner's faith in
this film has been totally vindicated. It has grossed more than 100
Partly because of Dances with Wolves , there has been a
revival in interest in Western genre. The Sioux now have a new
stereotype - they are 'spiritual'. The film deals with the theme of
'civilisation'. The wolf - in both cases - was found to be tame (i.e.
beast and man).
Costner has succeeded in breaking down the Hollywood image of the
native American and that of the 'pioneering' white American. Costner
achieved his aim with tremendous success. Dances with
Wolves is not just a film - it is an education. As he says,
"I'd like to think the film is a benchmark. It will be difficult
after this for a film-maker to revert to the old ways".