Early on in Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, a disturbed military bigwig tells Costner’s Lt. John Dunbar, “I have just pissed in my pants, and nobody can do anything about it.” The same can be said about Academy members in 1990, who famously screwed Martin Scorsese out of the Best Director statuette for Goodfellas in favor of Costner’s proficient but overrated work; 13 years after its original release, the film remains nothing more than a well-polished but generic example of epic Hollywood filmmaking. The tale of Lt. Dunbar’s spiritual journey from disenchanted Civil War soldier to revered member of the Great Plains Sioux tribe is one that admirably forgoes demonization of the country’s original inhabitants in favor of a compassionate portrait of indigenous people attempting to survive the encroaching hordes of American settlers.
Dunbar, electing to take a post in the middle of nowhere rather than continue to do battle with his fellow countrymen, finds himself surrounded by both the Sioux and Pawnee communities, neither of which is interested in accommodating white strangers—except, that is, for prescient Sioux holy man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), who correctly surmises that a man stranded alone in the vast plains isn’t looking for a fight. Soon, lonely Dunbar is accepted by the Native Americans, dubbed Dances with Wolves (for his friendship with a stray wolf) and falls in love with a white woman named Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell) who had been kidnapped and raised by Kicking Bird as a child.
Despite its empathy and respect for Native Americans, the film has very little going for it besides its admittedly majestic trappings. Working with cinematographer Dean Semler on location throughout the American West, Costner captures a dizzying array of gorgeous panoramic compositions that situate tiny silhouettes of humans amid expansive stretches of green fields and blue skies. What the first-time director doesn’t do, however, is infuse these images with any thematic weight or import—they are, in the end, just pretty landscape shots. Unlike legendary western directors John Ford or Sergio Leone, Costner doesn’t intend for these snapshots of sprawling vistas to symbolize much of anything (here, they’re just transitional devices or mere filler material), and thus the size and scale of the film, although logistically quite immense, seems, in terms of emotional resonance, to shrink before our eyes.
If the film’s visual splendor lacks profundity, Costner does provide a handful of transcendent moments, the most spellbinding of which is Dunbar’s participation in a Sioux Buffalo hunt. And I’d be remiss in not congratulating the actor-director for taking a leisurely, contemplative approach to a story that could have functioned as mere pretense for extravagant and indulgent open-field battle sequences (a pitfall Mel Gibson would fail to avoid in 1995’s ponderous Braveheart). It’s a laudable adventure that neither redefines nor simply mimics the genre’s storied conventions, a sturdy, mildly stirring revisionist cinematic portrayal of the American West as a place where manifest destiny meant not only modernity’s expansion, but also ancient cultures’ decimation. But time hasn’t changed the fact that Scorsese remains a victim of Grand Theft Oscar.