Ignore the cynics who prematurely pegged this venturesome three-hour western, which is star Kevin Costner’s directing debut, as Kevin’s Gate. For all its excesses in detailing racial fears and violence between whites and Indians in South Dakota in the 1860s, the film is heartfelt and engrossing. Costner rarely indulges in the look-at-me-Ma tricks of most new directors. His expansive style shows a genuine feel for the muscular poetry of the landscape and the Sioux’s language, spoken by a largely Native American cast and translated in English subtitles.
Costner plays Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, a battle-scarred Union soldier who requests a transfer to the West. Assigned to an abandoned prairie post, Dunbar ends up talking to his horse, Cisco, and a friendly wolf that he names Two Socks because of the “milky white socks on both feet.” Dunbar provides a running narration; Costner’s flat delivery deflects pomposity as neatly as it provides humor. It’s an exceptionally astute performance.
Dunbar’s first encounters with members of the Sioux tribe – the fierce Wind in His Hair (Rodney Grant) and the reflective Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) – are magical interludes. Grant and Greene, both Native Americans and experienced actors, make indelible impressions. And screenwriter Michael Blake, who adapted his vividly idiosyncratic 1987 novel, sets up the contrast between two cultures with economy, grace and authenticity.
There are conventional elements, such as Dunbar’s romance with Stands With a Fist, a white woman raised by the tribe since childhood. Though well played by Mary McDonnell (Matewan), the character seems lifted from John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece The Searchers, in which John Wayne rescues his kidnapped niece (Natalie Wood) from the Indians. Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, in 1964, also examined government mistreatment of Native Americans. Both films clearly influenced Costner – he has good taste – though Dances lacks their psychological depth.
In trying to project a positive image for the Sioux, Costner sometimes fosters the clichéd contrast between the white devil and the noble savage. But there’s no denying the historical justification for the tribe’s pain and rage. Costner’s strength lies in his sturdy depiction of the daily life of the Sioux. Through Dunbar, who slowly becomes assimilated into the tribe, the audience is introduced to a culture of enormous pride and sophistication. With the invaluable aid of cinematographer Dean Semler, Costner tells a personal story that never loses touch with the vast Western spaces encompassing and defining it. Dances With Wolves is an epic that breathes. And it’s a beauty.