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USA 1990
Directed by
Kevin Costner
236 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Dances With Wolves (Director's Cut)

Already an A-list actor of the day Kevin Costner hit the high note of his career with this impressively ambitious directorial debut which was a huge commercial and critical success. It won him the Best Director Oscar and as its producer, Best Picture, and did much to re-vitalize the Western (Clint Eastwood would emulate Costner’s success two years later with Unforgiven).

Set at the time of the Civil War, the story concerns Lt. John Dunbar (Costner) who, after a close shave with Death, by his own choice is sent to a frontier post in South Dakota.  He finds the post deserted but, as a good soldier does, sets about making everything shipshape and Bristol fashion, his only companions being his horse and a lone wolf. One day he encounters the Sioux nation and gradually comes to learn their ways, much aided and incentivized by the presence of a white woman (Mary McDonnell) who has lived with the tribe since being taken as child in a raid. Eventually he decides to join their tribe but when the U.S. Army arrives looking for “hostiles” and finds that he has “turned Injun” he must face the inevitable.

In parts revisiting the territory of Sydney Pollack's Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and Arthur Penn’s not-so-successful Little Big Man (1970), Dances With Wolves is an intelligent Western that won praise for its portrayal of Native American, in particular for its respect for Sioux culture and language, the latter being spoken with sub-titles for a good part of the film.  In contrast the white establishment, which is the US Army, is shown in all its blind stupidity, the atypically thoughtful Dunbar, from whom we hear intermittently in a voice-over, making an ideal means by which to contrast the two ways of life.  

Unfortunately the desire to achieve authenticity takes a serious blow once Mary McDonnell arrives on the scene. It is not just that she has the looks and dress sense of someone who has spent two weeks locked in a shopping mall rather than 30 years roaming the hills of South Dakota but that it duly leads to the obligatory romantic dalliance. Costner, who, with his mullet at times looks like a stand-in for Mel Gibson, or n other words your stock-standard screen idol, nevertheless maintains a pleasingly understated central character.

Did Costner need four hours to do this (the original theatrical release was already a hefty183m)? Probably not, but no doubt he wanted to portray a sense of time and place (the impressive cinematography picked up another Oscar for Australian Dean Semmler, whilst John Barry took home one for his lush score as did Michael Blake for his adaptation of his own novel) and he does achieve a wistful epic quality in telling what we know is going to be a story with a tragic outcome.

Costner's directorial career was down hill from here but as they say, no-one can take Dances With Wolves away from him.




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