Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Best Picture: "Dances with Wolves," 1990

Movie Stats:
Released 1990 (USA)
American, in English (lots of translated Sioux; some translated Pawnee)
Director – Kevin Costner
Stars – Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant

Plot Summary:
Set during the American Civil War. When Northern Lieutenant John Dunbar (Costner) is sent to a far outpost on the frontier, he befriends a tribe of Sioux. McDonnell co-stars as Stands with a Fist, a white woman adopted by the Sioux as a child; Greene as the Sioux tribe’s holy man, Kicking Bird; and Grant as the Sioux Wind in His Hair, who first starts as Dunbar’s enemy but becomes his friend.

A surprising amount of violence & blood for a PG-13 movie (including some distressing violence toward animals). More than brief male nudity (butt only). Non-graphic sexual scenarios.

Bad Stuff:
Knowing little about Native American culture, I have no idea how accurate this movie is in depicting such things. However, I found the depictions of the Sioux and Pawnee as a whole (not the individual characters) to be rather one-dimensional. The Sioux were very “noble savage.” The Pawnee were mindless, evil villains. And as for the white men, of course anyone who wasn’t Kevin Costner was stupid, evil and/or crazy. It made me a bit uncomfortable.

On the other hand, Kevin Costner’s mullet-like hair made me more uncomfortable than anything else. Yikes!

[SORT OF BIG SPOILER] Seems a bit obvious that Dunbar and Stands with a Fist should end up together. They’re both white! Naturally they must find each other sexually attractive! One of the Sioux women says as much at one point, “The people think it’s a good match. They’re both white.” Cue me giving the movie a side-eye.

Good Stuff:
The cinematography is AMAZING. Seriously. I apparently went to the wrong part of South Dakota when I visited. The Badlands (and Wyoming) are where it’s at.

I actually really enjoyed the music. It was a touch on the 90s-sappy side but overall added a lot to the film, I felt.

Fantastic performances from Greene and Grant. I also enjoyed the brief appearance of Maury Chaykin (as Major Fambrough). It was perplexing and yet oddly amusing.

The Verdict:
After seeing this a long time ago, I didn’t recall a whole lot about it but had always held the impression that it was one of those “white man saves the natives” stories. Upon a subsequent viewing, I see that I was wrong. Dunbar doesn’t save the natives. The natives are certainly not incompetents in need of help. If anything, it is the natives who save Dunbar, from himself by giving him both a family and a purpose.

Which I guess is a long-winded way to say that I enjoyed the movie a lot more this time around. It felt very likable and good-natured, a film that meant well. It also had a surprising amount of humor.

I’m normally not one to take my own warnings very seriously. If you’re watching an “R” rated film, I figure you should expect violence and bad language. However, this is a PG-13. Although the violence isn’t graphic per se, it’s very bloody, and that completely took me aback. This is not family friendly unless you’re cool with talking to your kids about the violence afterward.

That having been said, it's a pretty good film. I give it 4 stars.


Patricia said...

Ah, you've reached the movie that sunk my "watch every best picture nomination" project. I got it from the library and just couldn't make myself watch it. Maybe someday. And you gave it 4 stars!

balyien said...

Believe me, no one is more surprised than me that I gave this movie 4 stars. I had loathed it for years. I guess sometimes you really do just need to be in the right frame of mind.

I will admit that the opening scene is very weird, though, and difficult to get through. Once it gets to the part where he's out at the fort by himself it gets much better.