Dances with Wolves ★★★★

It would be easy to make fun of Costner’s slow, heart-felt, 4-hour revisionist Western that focuses on a U.S. soldier’s relationship of trust and affection for the Sioux tribe he encounters in Dakota. It’s overly long, sometimes hokey, and mostly obvious...and yet, it works. What Costner lacks in subtlety he makes up for in earnestness and I have to say it pays off. Dances with Wolves is a genuinely affecting film that both reinvigorated a dead genre and passionately sought to right a representational wrong that is as old as the American cinema—the depiction of natives on-screen. 

Costner is not a great director (or even a great actor) but he, like his film, finds a certain agreeable balance. Even though the landscapes are sweeping and the sky looms large, he keeps things close and relational. There is real sweetness in these performances and even Costner’s initially annoying monologue narrations begin to win you over toward the end. 

I have heard people scold this for being a white savior narrative but looking closely at the structure that claim doesn’t really hold up. Sure, there’s a white hero but apart from giving guns to the Sioux to protect them in their fight with the Pawnee he really doesn’t guide their lives or hold their fate in his hands. If anything, his presence with them is more of a threat than it is salvation and the movie touches on the reality of those implications. In the end, it’s the story of a man from nowhere with nothing to define him or give him purpose who ends up finding meaning and purpose and even identity in an unlikely place—a place that can only be reached through mutual curiosity, compassion and patience for the other.

In 1990 the movie struck a chord with audiences and surprisingly this is a film many people today still revere as a favorite from the decade. Hard to imagine a word-of-mouth movie like this even having the chance to make $184 million at the U.S. box office but I guess it represents a by-gone era in that regard too.