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 induced.

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 savage?"

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 voice says,
"The field was proof enough that it was a people without value - without soul".

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 with them.

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 think not!

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 so".

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 pattern.

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 million dollars.

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".


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