Phil Konstantin's Review of "Dances With Wolves."




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Dances With Wolves


I wrote this review in August 2003.

From the Internet Movie Database website ( http://www.imdb.com) : "Plot Summary for Dances with Wolves (1990): Lt. John Dunbar is dubbed a hero after he accidentally leads Union troops to a victory during the Civil War. He requests a position on the western frontier, but finds it deserted. He soon finds out he is not alone, but meets a wolf he dubs "Two-socks" and a curious Indian tribe. Dunbar quickly makes friends with the tribe, and discovers a white woman who was raised by the Indians. He gradually earns the respect of these native people, and sheds his white-man's ways. Summary written by Greg Bole {bole@life.bio.sunysb.edu} ; or Having been sent to a remote outpost in the wilderness of the Dakota territory during the American Civil War, Lieutenant John Dunbar encounters, and is eventually accepted into, the local Sioux tribe. He is known as "Dances with Wolves" to them and as time passes he becomes enamoured by the beautiful "Stands With a Fist". Not soon after, the frontier becomes the frontier no more, and as the army advances on the plains, John must make a decision that will not only affect him, but also the lives of the natives he now calls his people. Summary written by Graeme Roy {gsr@cbmamiga.demon.co.uk}

There are several ways to look at this movie: just for entertainment, a history lesson, social activism, beautiful scenery, a way to understand Lakota society in the 1860s, and several others. Some Indian activists have decried this movie as just another white man's attempt to exploit American Indian culture. The main characters are the two white actors. Some activists felt that the leads should have been Indians, with less emphasis on Costner's character. Other Indians applauded the movie for it more realistic approach in depicting Indians. The Indian characters came in all varieties and were much more three dimensional that most other movies. Many people gave Costner credit for teaching the movie-going public more of the real story of what happened to the plains Indians and how they lived.

The Lakota language was used throughout much of the movie. Doris Leader Charge (who plays the character Pretty Shield) was the movie's Lakota expert.

Michael Blake wrote the novel on which the movie is based. He also wrote the screenplay. Like many people, he was highly influenced by Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee." Blake said, ".I was stunned, heartbroken, and enlightened." It is that spirit that he brought to the story.

Originally, the story was set among the Comanche. One of the most dramatic scenes in the movie is the buffalo hunt. The production company began looking for actual herds of buffalos. They found one of the largest private herds just outside of Pierre, South Dakota. The obvious supply of American Indians in the area who could act as extras, the wide open (and undeveloped) spaces made South Dakota the scene of the movie, instead of Texas or Oklahoma. So, the tribe was changed to the Sioux (Lakota). Even a non-expert can notice the differences between the Pawnee and the Sioux in the movie. This is a definite plus for the movie, in that everyone does not dress the same way.

There are two forts mentioned in the movie. Fort Hays was in Kansas. The real fort's website says, "Generals George A. Custer, Nelson Miles and Philip Sheridan, Major Reno, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody and James B. "Wild Bill" Hickok are part of the history of this outpost. Established in 1865 in the land of Cheyenne and Arapaho, Fort Hays protected railroad workers and travelers on the Smoky Hill Trail." I visited this fort when I was a teenager. The strongest memory I have was how high off the ground the beds were in the commander's quarters. The website for the real fort is at: http://www.kshs.org/places/forthays/ . The other fort that is mentioned is Fort Sedgewick. This fort was abandoned after only seven years. It was located in the northeastern corner of Colorado, near Julesburg.

Many people did not realize that several "Indian wars" were going on during the Civil War. Some historians have felt that many of the officers and soldiers who served on the western frontier during the Civil War not of the highest caliber. Some of this is reflected in the nature of the soldiers in the movie.

When Kevin Costner's character Lieutenant John J. Dunbar arrives at Fort Sedgewick, it is abandoned. Even with enough game around that a buck was found dead in the pond, the soldiers appeared to have barely survived the winter. The Sioux even mention this. Some feel this symbolizes the waste of the European culture. It also reflects poorly on those who depict the Indians as socially inferior to whites.

One of my favorite lines in the movie can be paraphrased as "stories of depredations spread faster than stories about kindness."

Wes Studi plays another "bad Indian" in this movie. He is making something of a career playing the "heavy." He does a convincing job of it. I found it interesting that his character's listed name was "Toughest Pawnee."

One of the things I noticed about the movie was the number of times that Kevin Costner's character falls down. I counted at least nine times that he falls down or is knocked unconscious.

On Interstate 8 near San Diego, there is a Dunbar exit. I work in the California Highway Patrol dispatch center. One of the problems commonly faced by the dispatchers is difficulty in understanding people who are calling us on cellphones or the emergency callboxes. Several times, I have heard dispatchers repeating the word Dunbar while trying to determine if that is where the caller was. Each time I have heard this, I have been tempted to say, "Dun Bear." This is part of an exchange between Dunbar and Kicking Bird as they try to learn each other's name.

I was very impressed by the acting by all of the characters in the movie. While it is not perfect, I highly recommend it to people who have never seen it. A new "extended" version is now available on DVD. It adds another 30 minutes, which is used to help further define the characters.

Finally, I will repeat a story I believe I have mentioned here before. My late wife Robyn took me out to see Dances With Wolves when it first came out. She had expected me to be very excited about it if for no other reason than the realistic way it showed the Indian characters. She was surprised that I was not very talkative after the movie. I am almost always talkative! I was almost sullen. She asked me why I was so quiet. I told her that the movie had once again reminded me of what happened to the native people of this hemisphere. I was angry at not only what had happened in the movie, but about what had happened in real life.



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