By Scott Ross
I was just thinking that of all the trails in this life, there are some that matter most. It is the trail of a true human being. I think you are on this trail, and it is good to see. ― Kicking Bird to Dances with Wolves
I am about to make an appalling confession, one that may land me in some sort of critical Purgatory from whose bourn no traveler returns. Certainly it will pain the shade of Pauline Kael. It’s just that… I liked Dances with Wolves. I liked it a lot. Enough to see it twice when it was first released, and enough to sit down recently with the 4-hour, extended “Director’s Cut” DVD. I still like it. In fact, I like it even more in this version. So I guess there’s really no hope for me.
The critical brickbats that came Kevin Costner’s way in 1990 seemed to me at the time as overblown and hysterical as the sniping that attended Barbra Streisand’s Yentl in 1984. Kael, for all her acumen and her varied gifts as a stylist and a critic, often exhibited a remarkably low tolerance for sincerity of feeling. In “New Age Daydreams,” her review of Dances with Wolves in The New Yorker, Kael slammed the movie and its maker/star with typical panache: “This is a nature-boy movie, a kid’s daydream of being an Indian. When Dunbar has become a Sioux named Dances with Wolves, he writes in his journal that he knows for the first time who he really is. Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head.” Next, right on schedule, came the carping from identity-politicians masquerading as historians: The Sioux were no less guilty than of atrocity than the Pawnees, personified here by the terrifying, implacable character known as “Toughest”; the Lakota dialect employed by the filmmakers was all wrong; the movie was as much as a shuck as its racist movie ancestors.
Yet Michael Blake, who based his screenplay on his own novel, was vastly influenced by Dee Brown’s anguished Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; causing offense to Native Americans was the furthest thing from his mind. And as with Yentl, as a first feature by a novice director, Dances with Wolves was exceptional in many ways, and Costner showed a genuine flair for making movies; epic movies, moreover, which require a set of skills not given to many. After all, how many great epics have there ever been? Lawrence of Arabia, uniquely brainy as it is, and sharply controlled by David Lean. What else? Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days, both travelogue and satire. Gone with the Wind, despite its original author’s avowedly racist pedigree, is pretty grand as entertainment, and funnier than most of us remember. Bridge on the River Kwai, another unusually intelligent endeavor via Lean. Parts of Spartacus (although not enough of them to justify its size, length or expense.) Reds, over-lush as it occasionally is and built on a daring premise which perhaps only that consummate deal-maker Warren Beatty could pull off: A three-hour paean to American radicals nestled within a romantic cocoon. Almost everything else is flummery: Half-baked Biblical nonsenses, over-produced musical blancmanges (although I suppose Fiddler on the Roof qualifies as an epic in its way) and mindless exercises in cinematic elephantiasis with no particular style or discernible reason for being beyond the dazzle-’em-with-size excess of hack producers, and studios desperate to make a buck on the latest trend, even after it’s dead. As bright and gifted a filmmaker as William Wyler came a cropper with his foray into the genre; aside from its justly celebrated chariot-race (much of it shot by others) Ben-Hur is a beautiful dud: un-felt epiphanies and emotional wallowings, the perfect setting for the paste-jewelry that was its star.
As extreme as the slanging of Dances with Wolves was the over-praise of Costner’s achievement in making it. That the Motion Picture Academy awarded him its Best Director prize could not possibly shock or surprise anyone who understands that actors make up the largest voting bloc; they routinely award other actors in this category, as though in relief that one of their number can do something other than act. (Always excepting you are Barbra Streisand, anyway.) I had no special issue with the movie winning Best Picture; it’s exactly the sort of big, emotional and expansive movie the Academy goes for. But for Costner to win this award over Martin Scorsese, whose GoodFellas was, at the time, the best-directed picture I’d seen in years, was patent absurdity. Yet, taken on its own, now that the moment has passed, Costner’s clean, character-driven direction, especially in the longer cut, is (if you are open to it) deeply satisfying.
Made on what, even then, was considered a paltry budget ($14 million) Dances with Wolves benefits enormously from its exquisite South Dakotan locations, a splendid ensemble of Native actors, and, especially, from Dean Semler’s crisp and lovingly framed compositions which, despite their beauty, are wedded to word and action and never descend to postcard banality. (Compare his work here with Billy Williams’ “Look! Don’t you wish you had the money to live here?” nature montages in On Golden Pond to understand the difference.) On a theatre screen, the famous buffalo hunt was a visual and emotional experience that could stand comfortable comparison with David Lean and Freddie Young’s siege of Aqaba in Lawrence. (Interestingly, Lean said of Costner’s movie, “I’d like to show that young man how to cut 20 minutes from his film.”)
While Blake’s spare screenplay, from a novel Costner and the movie’s co-producer, Jim Wilson, urged him to complete, may understandably be accused of naïveté and a certain idealistic elevation of Native practices over the perceived failures of American whites, there is more than ample historical evidence to support the contention that, taken on the whole, those whom we, with the supreme arrogance of the Caucasian with superior mechanical arms, labeled “savages” understood far better than their foes the responsibility of people to the earth from which we all take sustenance. The Hopi term koyaanisqatsi (“life out of balance”) sums up, all too neatly, the attitude of far too many inhabitants of the earth: that astonishingly egoistic sense that the planet is ours to destroy and which is most aptly described as Dominionist — in more ways than one. As we stand now at an abyss largely of our own design, what some, like Kael, deride as flower-child over-simplification feels sadly and ironically justified.
Are the whites in Dances (Costner’s somewhat laconic Lt. Dunbar and Mary McDonnel’s incandescent Stands with a Fist obviously excepted) unfairly depicted, almost to a man, as slovenly, disgusting, physically repulsive, usurious, bigoted, thoughtless, cavalierly wasteful and grotesque when not, as with Maury Chaykin’s Major Fambrough, altogether clinically insane? Perhaps. But so they must have seemed, these marauding intruders, motivated as they were by the appalling certainty, maintained even now, that the white race is the natural inheritor of the earth, to those whose mere presence stood in the path of “progress” and who must be annihilated, or at the least, “tamed” and separated, for the original sin of their very existence, if not for their uncivilized astonishment at people who believed others may own the earth. After nearly 90 years of cinematic vilification at worst and dismissive marginalization at best, wasn’t it well past time for the movies to look, just once, through their eyes?
And what eyes they were! The intelligence, curiosity and guarded warmth of Graham Greene’s Kicking Bird; the gentle authority and sad wisdom of Floyd Red Crow’s chief Ten Bears; the knowing humor of Tantoo Cardinal as Kicking Bird’s mate, Black Shawl; the sweetness and almost ethereal beauty of Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse’s Smiles a Lot; the rock solidity of Rodney A. Grant’s initially hostile, later affectionate, Wind in His Hair; and the luminous vitality of Doris Leader Charge, who both portrayed Ten Bears’ wife and worked with the cast on its Lakota dialogue. There is a whole world in those faces, rich and variegated. Setting out to make Cheyenne Autumn, John Ford needlessly denigrated himself as a portrayer of one-noted Indian savagery, but there is a wealth of respect in the depiction of Native characters like Chief John Big Tree’s Pony That Walks in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (as there was earlier, in his Blue Black of Drums Along the Mohawk) that belies Ford’s self-proclamation of dishonor. Still, not even Ford, that subtle poet of the Western, ever had a cast remotely like this.
The 1990 release print played roughly three hours and, with no intermission, was a little logy in spots. The “Director’s Cut” runs four, and feels completely airborne. Costner made some small cuts (eliminating the poor matching shots in a sequence with Robert Pastorelli’s bestial Timmons, for example) and the additional hour’s footage expands the movie’s contours without over-stretching them. Each new sequence adds a layer, a color, a texture, that enriches the narrative and the characterizations. And while Kevin Costner is a limited actor, he is exactly right for Dunbar, just as McDonnell’s wrinkles and laugh-lines enhance her radiance and her remarkably subtle interpretation; the way she seems to pull out of her numb, un-responsive lips the English words Stands with a Fist has long forgotten is a feat of performance that takes the breath away.
One especially pleasing aspect of the longer edition: There’s even more of John Barry’s magnificent, and deeply felt, music to be heard. That alone constitutes a pleasure very close to sublime. And if my liking Dances with Wolves makes me a hopeless case critically, I am as one with Kicking Bird. Perhaps I too have feathers in my head, but in this image-mad world of instant (and just as instantly forgotten) pleasures, just occasionally, the making of a cinematic mensch is good to see.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross