Dances with Wolves ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I can still vividly recall the first time I saw Dances with Wolves. My uncle, who rarely came out our way in those days, for some reason spent the afternoon at my mom's house with just me. I have no idea where my brother was or why my uncle had nothing else to do that day, but we rented it and watched it in the living room. It wasn't until after we'd watched and returned it that we learned we'd checked out the expanded edition and that there was a theatrical cut an hour shorter than the cut we'd watched.

A few year later, my U.S. History teacher in high school showed us the theatrical cut in class. Because our classes were 50 minute blocks, it took an entire school week to watch and finish. Those are the only two times I've ever seen the film, so it's been a good 15 years.

Tonight, I was amazed how vividly I could recall the film while watching it. There was only one scene that felt unfamiliar to me; where Dunbar (Kevin Costner) cleans up the abandoned outpost. I don't recall previously watching him round up deer carcasses. Otherwise, the film was exactly as I remembered it, as though it was one that I re-watched often rather than one I'd only seen twice and not at all since the Clinton administration.

The biggest knock on Dances with Wolves has always been that it's ham-fisted about manipulating our emotions. It's a fair criticism to level against the film, because very clearly, white people are evil. They're wasteful, selfish gluttons whose obsession with mindless violence makes them not only appalling, but dangerous.

The funny thing is, we're so used to various minority groups being stereotyped that we forget what that there is a stereotype of white Americans...and that stereotype is exactly what's shown in this film. It is reductive and simplistic, especially the outpost officers at the end of the film, but sometimes we need to be reminded of how reputations are acquired. The truth is, white Americans have historically been selfish, wasteful and prone to senseless violence.

I don't know what it says about me as a viewer, but by far the most emotional scenes in the entire film are killings of Cisco and later Two Socks. Those scenes are heartbreaking to witness, which of course is the point. They're downright Spielbergian, really, and especially hard to stomach once we find out that the diary Dunbar so foolishly left behind in the first place and that drew him back to the outpost wasn't even important to anyone.

The cast is solid, though for some reason once Costner shaves his mustache halfway through the film, I find it distracted me and took me out of the movie. At that point, I just saw Kevin Costner as he appeared in the early 90s with that big hair mullet thing he had going on. Because of that one thing, the first half is a film set in the late 19th Century; the second half is a film made in the early 90s. Mary McDonnell's uncertain articulation of English is still a bit distracting and borders on being unintentionally funny, but there's an earnestness to her performance that buys my patience.

I do wish Fox had released the Blu-ray with a branching option to show either of the two cuts because 236 minutes is a tremendous investment of time to be asked to make. The theatrical cut's 181 minutes are demanding enough as it is.

Dances with Wolves Re-Ranked on My Flickchart (#87)

Dances with Wolves > This Film Is Not Yet Rated --> #87
Though Dances with Wolves is guilty of being overtly manipulative, the fact stands that it succeeds in engaging me emotionally. For that, it gets the nod.

Dances with Wolves > The Music Man --> #87
The Music Man has the distinction of being one the very few musicals I truly enjoy...but I didn't enjoy it enough to pick it over Dances with Wolves.

Dances with Wolves > Fat Girl --> #87
Both are visceral and engaging. Where Fat Girl is courageous and startling, Dances with Wolves is measured though sometimes clumsy. Going with Costner's film here for its scale.

Dances with Wolves > Six Days, Seven Nights --> #87
I actually really enjoyed Six Days, Seven Nights. It's a lot of fun, and I'm far more likely to want to re-watch that than Dances with Wolves. However, re-watchability isn't a compelling enough reason to pick it here.

Dances with Wolves < The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance --> #87
I enjoy both of these tremendously, but I gotta go with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance here.

Dances with Wolves > Hot Fuzz --> #69
Hot Fuzz gets funnier and cleverer each time I see it. Dances with Wolves overtly seeks to manipulate my emotions...but despite myself, it often succeeds. For that success, it gets the nod.

Dances with Wolves < Persona --> #69
I remain enamored with Dances with Wolves despite its occasional clumsiness. I can find no flaws with Persona except that it's out of print and I don't own a copy.

Dances with Wolves < Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith --> #69
I can forgive the Spielbergian heavy handedness of Dances with Wolves more easily than I can forgive the nonsense of Revenge of the Sith...but God help me, I love both of these and I love Sith just a little bit more.

Dances with Wolves > WALL-E --> #66
If Lt. Dunbar had been successful, WALL-E would never have been needed. Both films are unapologetic about their social commentaries, though I suppose it's more acceptable from the animated WALL-E. Still, I'm picking Dances with Wolves here. Even when I object to the way it tries to engage me, I admit it succeeds.

Dances with Wolves < Ghost World --> #66
I love both of these. Ghost World gets the nod for not having the glaring "white Americans are evil" clumsiness. (Though, admittedly, white Americans *are* evil.)

Dances with Wolves was re-ranked to #66/1473 on my Flickchart

63rd Academy Awards (1990)
(N) ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE -- Kevin Costner {"Lieutenant Dunbar"}
(N) ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE -- Graham Greene {"Kicking Bird"}
(N) ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE -- Mary McDonnell {"Stands With A Fist"}
(N) ART DIRECTION -- Art Direction: Jeffrey Beecroft; Set Decoration: Lisa Dean
(W) CINEMATOGRAPHY -- Dean Semler
(N) COSTUME DESIGN -- Elsa Zamparelli
(W) DIRECTING -- Kevin Costner
(W) FILM EDITING -- Neil Travis
(W) MUSIC (Original Score) -- John Barry
(W) BEST PICTURE -- Jim Wilson and Kevin Costner, Producers
(W) SOUND -- Jeffrey Perkins, Bill W. Benton, Greg Watkins, Russell Williams II
(W) WRITING (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium) -- Michael Blake