Monday, 15 October 2012

Dances with Wolves (1990)

Dir. Kevin Costner
Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant

When you have very little free time Dances with Wolves is just what you don’t need: a three hour epic. It requires a not-inconsiderable commitment of time to watch it in one sitting. In fact I remember when it was shown on ITV in the ‘90s – the previous time I saw it – it had been split over two separate evenings. I found myself cursing the hubris of director / star Kevin Costner for putting together a three hour film for his first feature. However, while time-consuming, I thought Dances with Wolves was well worth the commitment. 

The film tells the story of Union officer Lt John J. Dunbar (Costner, back with a moustache even more impressive than that sported in American Flyers). After an act of conspicuous bravery in the American Civil War he is allowed to choose his next posting. He opts to head out west to “see the frontier… before it’s gone” 

In reality there is not much of a frontier. There is league after league of deserted prairie. The trek ends at Fort Sedgwick – little more than two dilapidated huts. The garrison is gone. Dunbar resolves to restore the fort and wait for reinforcements. However, the rider back is killed by Pawnee Indians. Although he doesn’t know it, Dunbar is alone. Well, not alone. He is spotted by a neighbouring tribe of Lakota Sioux who are unsure of how to deal with this white man. They fear encroachments onto their tribal lands. Led by the thoughtful holy man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) and the impetuous warrior Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) they attempt to make contact. Fro the other side Dunbar is also willing to establish a friendly rapport. With the intermediary of Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonell) – a white child raised by the Lakota – a tentative dialogue is established. 

Much like Diodorus Siculus amongst the Celts, Dunbar comes to admire and love his new hosts. Their simple prairie life is one, to his eyes, of living in harmony with the land. This contrasts with the rapacious ‘sport’ of the white man. One of the most touching scenes is when Dunbar alerts the Lakota to the arrival of the buffalo, something for which they have been waiting with great anxiety. The tribe set off after the herd. Topping a rise, however, they witness a scene of desolation, dotted with the bleeding corpses of the buffalo. White hunters had got their first and slaughtered a good portion of the herd, taking only their hides and their tongues and leaving the meat upon which the Lakota depend to fester upon the plain. Whenever a white character – with the exceptions of Dunbar or Stands With A Fist – appears, they are mostly unpleasant individuals, be they the Confederate soldiers trying to pick off Dunbar during his suicide ride, the uncouth Timmons (Robert Pastorelli), or the unpleasant Union troopers who capture Dunbar and then take potshots at Two Socks, the wolf that has been accompanying him. 

It is because of this wolf that Dunbar was given his Lakota name – Dances With Wolves. Or something rather similar in Lakota anyway. I found it funny that Stands With A Fist would automatically translate the Lakota names into English: it’s like introducing yourself to someone as ‘Blessed of Jehovah’). His relationship with Two Socks is symptomatic of his relationship with the Lakota. The wolf is at home in this terrain, majestic and fierce yet curious. Kindness wins companionship, then loyalty. And then the magnificent creature is cruelly destroyed for sport by interlopers into its domain. And it has to be said: Two Socks’ experiences with Dunbar have contributed to his destruction. If Dunbar had not tamed out the wolf’s wild edges it would have fled the gunshots and survived. This probably contributes to Dunbar’s thinking towards the film’s end. By his presence among the tribe he has made them targets. A postscript notes that the last of the prairie tribes was crushed just thirteen years later. 

The message of the film comes across clearly – if maybe a little heavy-handedly. United States policy towards the native Indians was appalling. They were seen as the enemy without any real reason. Policy-makers never took the time to get to know or understand the people they were legislating against. This theme was touched on in another never-ending epic of roughly the same time, Legends of the Fall, but there Indians were bit-part players in a white man’s world. Here we see the native civilisation through the eyes of a white man. A culture that lived in harmony with the land and its resources was supplanted by an acquisitive and gluttonous one. There is a divide. Whites are bad. Lakota are good. The grey factor is the ancestral enemies of the Lakota, the Pawnee, who are characterised as blood-thirsty savages who later go across to the US side. But I’m sure if one were to interview a Pawnee they would have a different take on it. Having visited the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. it is notable that every tribe says that they were preyed on by their stronger neighbours. Let us not forget that the Lakota send out their own war party to attack the Pawnee. 

The question I found the film raising in my head was this: was the ‘victory’ of the expanding United States over the plains Indians inevitable? What was the quantative difference? Guns certainly played a part. Bad faith from Washington or on the ground from those in charge of expansion probably did. But in the end it was probably numbers. Numbers and an idea. The myth of the United States was enough to remake all whites, whether Union or Confederate, native born or immigrant, into ‘Americans’. For those willing to Go West the divisions of the Civil War were soon put behind them. Innovation, expansion and acquisition – views of the future – were more important than tradition, culture and history. Meanwhile the native tribes lived sustainable existences in marginal surroundings. They had no desire to head elsewhere other than their traditional homes. Their way of life did not support population booms. Their historic enmities and rivalries prevented a united front against the interlopers until it was too late. The idea of the future beat the idea of the past.

At three hours Dances with Wolves is a long film. Yet, unlike Legends of the Fall or The Deer Hunter there is very little flab. Perhaps some of the earlier scenes – such as his Apocalypse Now-esque encounter with Maury Chaykin’s mad major (“I have just pissed in my pants and nobody can do anything about it”) – could have been trimmed. But once Dunbar reaches Fort Sedgwick I think the journey he takes, and the lush cinematography is vital to the success of the movie. The camera lingers on the expansive contours of the terrain, it peeks almost anthropologically into the routines and rituals of the Lakota, it celebrates the culture and the attraction of the plains Indians. The native characters encountered by Dunbar are not cardboard cut-outs – they are drawn and portrayed more convincingly and in more depth than the white characters. Graham Greene’s Kicking Bird is just lovely. Always curious, often baffled, but always willing to extend the hand of toleration, it is one of the most charming depictions I have seen recently. There are issues with the film. As I have stated several times, I tend to dislike voice-overs, and Costner’s here is limp and dull. Apparently the natives speak the female form of Lakota (though I’m not sure how many people would pick up on this). And the white characters are, it has to be said, somewhat stereotyped. Yet this should not detract from the fact that the film is an astonishing achievement, one which touches upon real and uncomfortable issues, and one which never feels too long.

"No Dougal, those are not small - those are far away..."

The fact that Dances with Wolves was ever made in its current format shows just how far and how fast Kevin Costner’s star had rised in just a few short years. In 1983 his scenes were cut from The Big Chill. In 1985 he featured in American Flyers – a relatively minor flick. But then in 1987 he starred in The Untouchables. Just two years later and he could be found on the South Dakotan prairie outlining his plans for a mass stampede of buffalo with horsemen wheeling in and out of them. He refused to trim down his vision to less than three hours. I think he was right. 

What have I learnt about South Dakota?
In the 1860s the Dakotas were frontier territory. ‘Frontier’ needs to be defined however. The word conjures up images of fences and border posts. In reality the frontier was just a grey area where the authority of the United States government gradually petered out. Local rulers were military commanders several days travel back east, with only isolated sentry posts adrift in an empty landscape to prosecute policy. Communication between the two was intermittent. Likewise the notion of a frontier was alien to the native peoples who inhabited this land. They saw the entire continent as theirs to roam, changing location as the seasons or the buffalo herds dictated. 

The United States authorities defined the natives as ‘enemies’. However they were not the savages contemporary propaganda made them out to be. They were a civilised culture with respect for the environment and their interrelationship with it. Yet they were scared by the arrival of the white man and did not understand what impact these newcomers would have upon their way of life. Eventually the whites would supplant them totally. 

The landscape is majestic. We see the gorges and mesas of the cracked and broken Badlands, the epic sweep of prairies, and the forested and snow-bound valleys of the Dakotas. Wildlife includes deer, wolves, eagles and, of course, the buffalo upon which the native lifestyle depended. 

Can we go there?
Dances with Wolves was filmed on location in the magnificent natural setting of South Dakota’s Badlands and Black Hills. It is inspiring to see that such great swathes of prairie exist to this day. A visitor might even be lucky enough to spot a buffalo or two! 

Dunbar starts out from Fort Hays, Kansas. This was filmed in South Dakota, and the buildings of the fort can still be found at the Fort Hays Chuckwagon just south of Rapid City The wagon journey to Fort Segwick that Dunbar undertakes was filmed in the Sage Creek Wilderness Area of the awe-inspiring landscape of the Badlands National Park. The fort itself was constructed within the grounds of the Triple U Buffalo Ranch near Fort Pierre. This was also where the buffalo stampede was filmed. The ranch hosts the largest herd of buffalo in the U.S. Rather horrifically you can pay to go ‘hunting’ them there. The winter camp of the Lakota is Spearfish Canyon of the Black Hills, not far from the notorious Deadwood.

Lakota Sioux still hold lands in the area in the form of reservations. The nearest would be the Oglala Sioux Nation (Pine Ridge, south and east of Badlands National Park), the Rosebud Sioux tribe of the Sicangu Oyate (east of Oglala) and the Cheyenne River Sioux  (northwest of Lake Oahe). 

Overall Rating: 4/5

No comments:

Post a Comment