This past week I continued my Kevin Costner-athon by devoting a couple of evenings to Dances with Wolves. It took me two nights to finish it because I decided to watch the extended version which is nearly four hours long, and my couch is as old as this movie – so it can only accommodate my rear for two hours at a time before I go numb in the hindquarters. That’s probably more information than you need, but oh well. Regardless, the two-night viewing time was worth every minute. There is a shorter version of it, but I highly recommend going the extra mile for this one – it adds a great deal of information and rounds out the main characters quite nicely. And the movie has been around for 27 years, so if you’re really planning to watch it, you’re probably a bit of a film nerd like myself anyway, and in that case, why not watch the longer version?
I don’t know where to begin with this film, so I’ll just launch in with the statement that it’s a masterpiece all around, in every way, in every sense of the word. It absolutely deserves every one of the 7 Academy Awards it was given back in its day.
Ok, with that out of the way…
The simple truth is that they do not create movies in this way anymore. It was filmed just prior to the revolution that made the use of computer generated images a viable option in film-making, which means if it was being made today, the scenes where they’re riding horses alongside stampedes of buffalo would be done by computers and graphic artists who are sitting comfortably in cushioned chairs, sipping iced cafe breves – rather than by insane camera jockeys in the back of pickup trucks that are bouncing along the prairie at top speed to capture live video of an actual heard of beasts being corralled by dudes wearing loin cloths.
The way this movie was filmed is complimented by the attention that was given to meticulous authenticity. It’s in everything you see; from the weapons, to the clothing, to the council fires in the chief’s lodge – it’s all an accurate depiction of the Lakota Sioux in the late 1800s. It’s also in everything you hear. Pretty Shield, the wife of Chief Ten Bears, was played by Doris Leader Charge (1930-2001), a Lakota woman who lived her entire life on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. She was also a professor of Lakota language at Sinte Gleska University, and her life’s work has been elegantly preserved in the authentic Lakota being spoken in the film. Without her influence on Costner and presence on the set, Dances with Wolves would have been an entirely different movie.
Costner, who also directed the film, plays Lieutenant John Dunbar, a Civil War veteran who is sent alone into Indian territory and takes up residence at an abandoned fort on the frontier. The story takes you slowly through the transformation that happens as he gradually leaves behind his native culture and adopts the life of the Sioux. A note on symbolism: the closer that Dunbar gets to making friends with the wolf Two Socks, the closer he gets to becoming more like one of the Lakota. The less said about the details of his death as a United States soldier and his resurrection as a Sioux warrior the better. Nothing I can say will capture the beauty of how the story is told.
My love and appreciation for this movie is, admittedly, the result of a great personal bias. It’s definitely in my top 10 favorite films. I think it’s true for all of us, that the movies we love the most are the ones that hit us deeply in the personal areas of the heart. That’s why I love this movie too. It was a movie my parents took me to see in the theater when I was 11 years old. I still remember blushing and my mom telling me not to look at the screen during the love scene (which is pretty innocuous by today’s standards), and I also remember my dad laughing out loud when Kevin Costner showed his bare ass. I don’t know why that’s funny, but I laughed when I saw it too this time. Like father like son, I guess. On a more somber note, it’s a movie my grandmother loved and spoke highly of with tears in her eyes. I really miss her, and I wish I could go back and talk to her about it now. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I connect with the parts of the story that deal with transformation and cultural metamorphosis. My heart and soul have inextricably tied it to experiences in my own life (both past and present) that reflect elements in the narrative. I obviously don’t know what it was really like to live back in those times. I don’t know what it’s like to be a soldier, or to have a wife, or to be shot at, or to wonder if my race is going to be wiped out by oppression and greed. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a teepee, get my water from a river, and cook every meal I eat over a fire. I don’t know what any of those things are like. But what I do know is how scary, how awesome, and how beautiful life can become when you leave behind everything you know as safe and familiar and comfortable, and pray that the strangers you meet will accept and love you, and make you feel like you belong with them. And I know what it’s like to have that prayer answered.