Written by: Michael Blake
Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney Grant
Perception vs. reality plays an integral part in our development as we grow up. Things we’re led to believe either gets confirmed or shatters a perspective we have held for some time. This happens a lot when students go off to college and experience interacting with individuals unlike them possibly for the first time. In Dances with Wolves, we see this play out in the twilight of the Western Frontier, as rampant misinformation permeates about the Indigenous people in the area.
With the honor to choose his next placement, Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) selects the Western Frontier, as he wants to experience it before it disappears forever. Upon his arrival, he notices the tension between the Sioux and Pawnee people, along with their fears of American intervention in this land. As he begins to learn more about his surroundings, he learns the teachings he has received have deceived him.
Infamous for its Best Picture victory over the far superior Goodfellas, this film has been looked down upon in my lifetime, but it deserves plenty of respect, as it contains incredible quality. Fairly simplistic in its storytelling, but still incredibly effective with its message, Dances with Wolves tells the story of a man learning about the lies told to him his entire life and adjusting properly. In the case of this story, it revolves around the perception of Indigenous people by White Americans. Taking place in 1863, the Indigenous people were seen as savages and that attitude did not begin to shift for an unfortunate amount of time. All throughout his travels in the United States, Dunbar was given a certain depiction of this evil and it remained his perception until his time on the frontier.
Through this experience, he learns more about himself and the people he calls comrades may not be the heroes in this story of expansion. Sure, the story goes completely through the perspective of a white man, but nonetheless, the lesson remains vital because these conversations need to happen even today. How often do people get raised to believe another group of people carry a level of evil? Believe me, I went to a predominantly white institution for college, and the learning curve for some of my classmates would stun you. It all comes from misinformation and the journey Dunbar goes on provides a moment for him to reflect and learn.
Outside of the story, the visual appeal of this film captures the frontier in such a beautiful way. With Costner directing and starring in the feature, he certainly lets loose as a filmmaker in how expansive the story feels. This style allows the frontier to be the gorgeous piece of land the Indigenous people have cared for since the dawn of man and now faces the threat of losing it. With the large landscape captured through the filmmaking, it’s still an individual story of a man and his thoughts amid a sea of the Earth once owned by a group of people facing oppression. Everything feels genuine and has this naturalistic look, which allows us to be fully immersed in the experience. This plays a major part in the romanticization of this experience for Dunbar, as he grows as a human and finds love in a way he never expected.
A major tool of storytelling utilized in this movie comes from the notebook where Dunbar rights down his thoughts and what he has learned throughout this process. It serves as two functions, one for the audience and another as a plot device. For us, we can hear the progress of Dunbar during his time in the frontier, but it also marks down critical information that could be abused if it landed in the wrong hands. The stakes around this bound bundle of paper gains relevance as we continue to experience this story.
A quintessentially American story, Dances with Wolves shows a moment of growth among a group of soldiers unwilling to see the damage we cause those who have already inhabited this land. This film arrives with the purest intentions and succeeds because of the excellence in filmmaking and acting by Kevin Costner. A completely and fully realized vision by this man and it allows him to hold up this movie as a work he brought forth into this world. A vital Western with the ideas it brings forth about the time of the frontier and it deserves a good amount of respect.