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As I heard my Sioux name being called over and over, I knew for the first time who I really was.

Movie

Dances with Wolves
(1990)

 

Kevin Costner’s Oscar glory has become something of a punching bag for a certain brand of “white saviour” storytelling, so much so that it’s even crossed over seamlessly into the SF genre (Avatar). It’s also destined to be forever scorned for having the temerity to beat out Goodfellas for Best Picture at the 63rd Academy Awards. I’m not going to buck the trend and suggest it was actually the right choice – I’d also have voted Ghost above Dances, maybe even The Godfather Part III – but it’s certainly the most “Oscar-friendly” one. The funny thing, on revisit, is that the aspect standing out most isn’t its studiously earnest tone or frequent but well-intentioned clumsiness. No, it’s the way its moments of greatest emotional weight – in what is, after all, intended to shine a light on the theft and destruction of Native American heritage – relate to its non-human characters.

Which isn’t to say these points were ignored at the time; one of the first things anyone seeing the film would comment on was how sad it was when White Socks is shot (punctuated heartbreakingly by John Barry’s score). And that, coming after John Dunbar’s horse has already been shot from under him. But it’s only at this point, as John is divested of his animal – as opposed to human – companions, that the picture feels as if it is really taking on affecting heft and stakes. Before that, as an audience member, it’s easy to be carried along rather ambivalently by what is, as Pauline Kael put it in one of her last reviews, a “middle-of-the-road epic”.

Did I like it more at the time? I’m sure I did. It’s a film that very much benefits from being appreciated on the big screen, where its open-plains vistas make up for an otherwise fairly rudimentary directorial style in the Eastwood mould (which isn’t to say Costner’s a bad director – Open Range is expertly put together – simply that he’s no auteur). Indeed, it’s those vistas, combined with Barry’s magnificent score, that explain much of how this pill of a white hero pointing the finger at his fellow genocidal countrymen went down so agreeably (behind the majority of middling Best Picture winners there’s a highly persuasive score).

In an era where well-meaning patronisation from white (male) filmmakers is tantamount to being guilty of the very acts they’re seeking to ameliorate (Green Book), it’s easy to dismiss Dances with Wolves in the same manner many at the time dismissed Driving Miss DaisyDances is no masterpiece, just an old-style western that happened to be elevated beyond its place by a rapturous Academy. Not really its fault.

Costner, who seemed to be born middle-aged, was unsurprisingly Republican-leaning during the ’80s, and his Dunbar is very much a right-of-centre protagonist, liberal where it counts yet keen on huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’. But crucially, almost painfully uncynical with it. What’s most noteworthy about Costner’s approach is the way that, in certain key areas, Dunbar is very much not the honed, can-do hero. He makes an arse of himself when introducing himself to his new neighbours, he isn’t a particularly effective fighter, and Costner’s narration of Dunbar’s journal entries is commendably unpolished, almost boyish in its sincerity as he blithely elevates the Sioux to the level of sainthood.

Of course, that’s not to let the director off his conceits. Dunbar’s suicide ride rewarded as bravery may be intentionally ironic, but it still involves a very silly Jesus Christ pose; one suspects Costner cobbled it together after seeing the death of Elias in Platoon. And if Dunbar’s low-key and reticent about revealing the dangers of his co-invaders to the Sioux, it is he who carries the burden – in terms of the denouement – of losing even more than they!

He gets to pair with Mary McDonnell’s conveniently Sioux-raised squaw, but nobly chooses to exile himself from his adopted tribe, knowing his ex-army colleagues will be after him. He thus gives himself the ultimate hero’s ending, suffering in worthy silence and isolation. The character’s also furnished with an entirely non-regulation mullet, one that would follow Costner around through a couple of time periods, notably fifteenth-century Nottingham, before he dispensed with it to save Whitney Houston’s life.

While Dances’ sentiments (and sentiment) may seem at-best naïve now, Costner was notably made an honorary member of the Sioux Nation for his efforts. Although, that might have been partly due to his airbrushing Sioux history as peace-loving, when accounts of the period had the Pawnee as more frequently their victims. With Wes Studi as their leader, soon to be irrevocably associated with ruthless Native American villainy as Magua in Last of the Mohicans, it couldn’t be otherwise.

The portrait of the tribe is very much of the veneration-first disposition, replete with clichés of strong silent types, wise elders and bonding through common humorous touchstones. Graham Greene’s Kicking Bird – besides his deep and abiding kinship with Dunbar – is most singled out by mystification at his missus – unfathomable women, eh, the great cultural leveller! – while initially antagonistic Wind in His Hair (Rodney A Grant) becomes Dunbar’s staunchest defender.

The Union Army are mostly cruel idiots or crazy (Maury Chaykin makes a strong impression early in the proceedings), such that it comes as a surprise when a sympathetic figure appears (Charles Rocker’s Lieutenant Elgin) and soon after meets a brutal end.

It can seem hard now to place just how and why Costner became the biggest movie star on the planet for a couple of years, but I think the key was probably the flavour of honour and dependability he brought to his most famous roles. It’s a quality from a bygone era; he never fared quite as well when he tried to rough things up in contemporary or futuristic fare like Revenge and Waterworld. It’s why, whatever else you may want to say about Man of Steel, he was perfect casting as Pa Kent.

If you look at the pictures he made when was riding high – The UntouchablesField of DreamsDances with WolvesPrince of Thieves, even The Bodyguard and JFK – they suggest irreducible, straightforward values (there are a few wrinkles too, No Way Out and Bull Durham being two of his most interesting pictures of this period). That also means there isn’t a whole lot of depth to his iconography. It doesn’t matter too much when you’re dealing with the mythic or quasi-spiritual (De Palma/Mamet and Alden Robinson’s entries), but the seams begin to show when all you have between you and pure corn is Alan Rickman hamming or a diva hammering out an old favourite.

So the Oscar. Awakenings now stands out only as a “What were they thinking?” in its status as a strictly middling disability movie in the mode of Rain Man and My Left Foot, but lacking their slickness and punch respectively (but with De Niro doing some attention-grabbing gurning/drooling to secure it the necessary cachet, and Robin Williams in mawkish sincerity mode). The Godfather Part III is a case of everyone putting it forward really hoping they were wrong and that it was worthy of its predecessors (seven nominations, no wins); this was, after all, an awards season where everyone had been tipping The Bonfire of the Vanities for honours before they got a whiff of the goods. And no, I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as its rep; it’s just far from great. And Ghost, the kind of unfettered, cheesily sincere romance that just plain works, but was never in serious contention of taking the top prize.

None of them can hold a candle to Goodfellas, but it’s often easier to go for a quick fix of emotional uplift with a twinge of melancholy after a hard year making movies, combined with patting yourself on the back for your sensitivity towards injustices, than immersing yourself in a fetid bath sordid violence, avarice and criminality. That, and a western hadn’t won in a long while. Of course, a much, much better one would only then go and win again only two years later.

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