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The Best Picture Winners: Dances With Wolves (1990)

11 Jan


Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
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By the dawn of the 1990s, the traditional western movie genre had been deep-sixed by the by the rising tide of political correctness.  It was no long appropriate to pit cowboys against Indians Native Americans and make heroes out of the settlers that had raped and pillaged the American landscapes.  Added to that was the movie-going public who made it clear that after the culture shock of Star Wars, there just wasn’t an interest in westerns anymore.

Enter Kevin Costner, who had made himself a star in a string of varied hits like No Way Out, Field of Dreams, Bull Durham and The Untouchables.  He was a immeasurably handsome leading man with the kind of soft-spoken pacifist demeanor that we remember from Henry Fonda.  With that, it might have surprised no one that he not only wanted to direct but that his debut would be an unapologetic, sentimental western that seemed to have political correctness written all over it.

I don’t say that to be negative.  Dances With Wolves is a splendid experience and a valiant attempt to update the western by giving light to a specific group of people that Hollywood had generally written off as stock cliches.  It is nice that someone would go to all the trouble to spend this much time dealing with the plight of the Native Americans and not sentimentalize their suffering.  Although one might be tempted to turn a crooked eye toward Costner for casting himself in the lead and giving himself the plum part.

He plays John Dunbar, a weary Union lieutenant who is order to an outpost to await his orders.  Waiting out in the desert for weeks, he carefully makes friends first with a wolf and then eventually with a nearby Sioux tribe.  What sets the film apart is that Costner and his screenwriter Michael Blake (who also wrote the book) gives equal time to the Native American characters.  They are not just background filler, but fully realized souls, not just in their sad destiny but as individuals.  By the time the movie is over, we feel that we have gotten to know them.

If I stand on one minor problem with the movie, it comes at the film’s ending.  Dunbar and his wife are separated from the Sioux Tribe with the inevitability that all will eventually perish.  Given that, why didn’t Dunbar just stay with the tribe?  If there was the be murder by the military, why not stay in the safety of numbers? It leaves an open door that leaves too many questions in my mind.

Also, I’m troubled by Costner himself.  He won two Oscars for directing and producing Dances With Wolves but his subsequent directorial efforts never reached this height again.   What happened?  What element went into Dances With Wolves that The Postman and Open Range lacked?

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