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Movie Review: Dances with Wolves

Dances with Wolves
Directed by Kevin Costner
Written by Michael Blake from his novel
Orion, 1990

We movie nerds give a lot of crap to Kevin Costner for beating out Martin Scorsese and his Goodfellas in 1990, especially considering that Costner, then the top male star in the world, became best known for expensive flops just a few years later.

However, most movie nerds who revisit Dances with Wolves realize what a great movie this is, and considering the Academy’s history, this is the perfect Best Picture: an epic, a box office hit, and a critical champ.

Lieutenant Dunbar (Costner, also nominated for his acting) is a Union soldier who, after a suicide attempt is misread as a heroic call for battle and leads to a Union victory, wants to go to the American frontier “before it disappears.”  So he is sent to a remote fort that, unknown to Dunbar or others, has recently been abandoned.  Out in the wilderness, Dunbar has only his trusty horse as a companion, and later, a lone wolf who is all but willing to be domesticated in what becomes a cautious friendship.  Meanwhile, Dunbar writes his thoughts in a journal that becomes integral to the picture.

The fort is near a Sioux tribe, and after the expected mistrust, he slowly gains the respect of the natives, mostly through the help of future bride Stands With A Fist (nominee Mary McDonnell, the thinking man’s hottie) and holy man Kicking Bird (nominee Graham Greene).  Long ago, the white Stands With A Fist was separated from her family and then adopted into the Sioux tribe, so she becomes the bridge in the communication gap.  Dunbar becomes Dances with Wolves when the Sioux see him trying to shoo away his wolf companion on a visit to their grounds.

And, so, we all know how white settlers treated the Native Americans, and it wasn’t civil.  It tells a heartbreaking tale of an impossible peace between the races, and doesn’t sugarcoat it with some trace of hope, as if in attempt to rewrite history. 

It’s one of those movies over three hours that don’t feel like it at all.  Writer Michael Blake (who won the Adapted Oscar, and hasn’t really done any screenwriting since) and director Costner have a grand, sweeping epic in mind, never pretentious (always a plus in my mind), always entertaining, and focused in a way that makes me wonder how in the world Costner would go on to do The Postman.

In 1990, besides beating Goodfellas, Dances beat out Penny Marshall’s Awakenings, Jerry Zucker’s tremendous hit Ghost, and the unfortunate nominee that’s there because its predecessors were there, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part III.  It won 7 total Oscars, including Dean Semler’s incredible cinematography and John Barry’s distinctive score.    

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