Dances with Wolves is an historical drama about a United States soldier who crosses cultural boundaries to connect with the native people of the then-unsettled Western U.S. plains. The film strives for as much authenticity as possible in the course of telling this tragic American tale.
The other nominees for Best Picture that year were Awakenings, Ghost, The Godfather III and Good Fellas. In addition to Best Picture, Dances with Wolves also won Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music (Original Score), Best Sound, and Best Writing (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium - the novel by Michael Blake, who also wrote the screenplay).
Costner plays Lieutenant John Dunbar, a Civil War hero who accepts an assignment at a far-flung outpost on the Western Plains. When he arrives, riding on a supply truck, the post has been abandoned, but he dutifully unpacks the supplies and takes charge of the post, believing his fellow soldiers will return.
As it turns out, they do not, having been ordered by their war-weary commander to desert, so Dunbar lives a lonely, quiet existence, writing in his journal, making repairs on the post, and attracting the attention of the local Sioux Indian tribe, as well as a curious wolf he names "Two Socks."
Communication is initially difficult, but Dunbar manages to connect with the Sioux and learns their ways of co-existing with the land. Inevitably, of course, this leads to conflict as another regiment of soldiers sweeps through the land, intent on possessing it. Dunbar must decide which path to choose, which people he can truly call his own.
If Avatar viewers think the plot sounds familiar, remember that this film was made nearly 20 years earlier. While there are similarities, Dances with Wolves is a far more complex film, exploring subtle ethical questions and resisting typical Hollywood expectations.
In the making-of documentary on the DVD, the filmmakers spoke about decisions that gave the film its authentic look. Costner insisted on shooting on location in South Dakota with live animals, including two real trained wolf, rather than wolf hybrids. He also had the Sioux portions of the script translated by a native speaker into the real Sioux language, Lakota, and subtitles were used. Many of the actors, even those with Sioux backgrounds, had to learn their lines from a linguistics coach, since they had never learned to speak it.
Rodeo riders were brought in for the scenes involving horses, but Costner did most of his own riding. This allowed for camera movements that swept in from a distance into his face, rather than cutting to a close-up.
Costner chose McDonnell to play his love interest: a white woman who has been living with the Sioux and goes by the name Stands with a Fist. He chose her, he said, both because of her acting prowess and because he wanted someone "with lines on her face," someone who had experienced life and was believable in that role. At the time, McDonnell was 38, and Costner was a young-looking 35.
Graham Greene does an exceptional job as Kicking Bird, the Sioux tribe's healer/shaman, who is the first to see the value of communicating with the white lieutenant. Far from a movie stereotype, his character is multifaceted: both open-minded and cautious, brave and selfish, but willing to overlook character flaws in order to find greater truths.
Costner's acting in this film was among his best screen work to date, portraying his character as a thoughtful man with a sense of duty and a firm moral compass. Viggo Mortensen, who was Costner's first choice to play the lead, will play the role in the upcoming sequel, The Holy Road, due out in 2011.
Despite a few moments which were clear emotional manipulation (and which probably should not be viewed by easily-upset women in their seventh month of pregnancy, as I am), I found the narrative to be compelling and well-balanced, raising questions about America's past while bringing to life some fictional characters.
If you have seen Avatar and have not yet seen this movie, rent it right away. Or do what I did, and watch it again, as if for the very first time. Soon, it will be obvious to you while this film, which did have breathtaking visuals, won the Best Picture Oscar while Avatar did not. Despite all the care that was taken towards creating a believable look, Dances with Wolves was always, ultimately, about the story.
Rating: **** (4 out of 5 stars)
Some snarky movie comparisons are actually valid.