Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dances With Wolves (1990)

Kevin Costner's 'Dancing' Directorial Debut

- Starring and directed by Kevin Costner, Dances With Wolves (1990) is an interesting viewing experience. The film is obviously well put together and is acted to near perfection; its seven Oscar wins is a testament to just how good the film is on a technical level. However, it also disappointed me on a thematic level, not being nearly as emotionally gripping or affecting as it is for many others. The story of Lt. John Dunbar's (Costner) interaction with the wolves and Native Americans while stationed at a remote western outpost, Dances With Wolves did not stir up a bunch of emotions for me but it is a high quality film nonetheless.

The film's featured performances are all great. While Costner is usually hit-or-miss for me much of the time, I do think that he was made for the western genre. Costner gives what is his best performance ever in Dances With Wolves - a layered and subtle portrayal of a very likable character. Costner is also backed up very well with fantastic performances from Graham Greene and Mary McDonnell in supporting roles - all were nominated for Oscars for their performances.

As good as Costner is as John Dunbar, Dances With Wolves (and Open Range (2003), for that matter) is a great example of Costner being much better behind the camera, even when he is pretty good in front of it. The film looks absolutely incredible thanks to Costner's epic vision - his direction and the cinematography by Dean Semler won Oscars for good reasons.

While the characters are well thought out enough to keep the audience invested in the story, I did not find Dances With Wolves to be particularly emotionally gripping. I cannot put my finger on exact reasons as to why but the film left me wanting a little bit more in that area. However, one thing that I did find particularly interesting was how the film portrayed the interaction and culture clash between John Dunbar and the Native Americans. Before they are able to talk to each other with language, Dunbar and the Native Americans must find other ways to communicate. The scenes that feature these uneasy encounters between Dunbar and the Native Americans are incredibly interesting and look very real, no doubt due to Costner's direction and great acting on the part of the entire cast.

John Barry's score for the film is also amazing - it is one of Barry's personal bests and easily the best score of 1990. Barry is one of the finest film composers ever and the film benefits greatly from his beautiful and powerful contribution.




While Dances With Wolves is a high quality film in many different ways, I did have one major bone to pick....


****SPOILERS****
The film's final act is frustrating in its incredibly unbelievable nature. When John Dunbar is taken by the American soldiers near the end of them, they all think that he is a Native American. WHAT? Are you kidding me? I am sorry, but Costner does not look like a Native American in the film - he, quite clearly, looks like a white guy dressed up as a Native American! Then the soldiers ask him, "Do you speak English?" to which Dunbar responds in perfect American English that makes it quite obvious that he has spoken it his entire life. And what do the soldiers do? They *still* think he is a Native American! Not until he says that he was an army captain and the commanding officer believes him do any of the soldiers think that he is a European-descended American! I find the whole situation absolutely ridiculous.

Naturally, the American soldiers (except for the commander officer, played by Charles Rocket), are all portrayed as slobbering, wild, evil schmucks. I suppose I should be getting used to it by now, but here is another Hollywood film that portrays American soldiers as horrible people. I am certain that the American army has had its share of perennial rank-and-file thugs throughout its history but I do not buy into this mass-portrayed Hollywood stereotype of the evil American foot soldier - not for one second!
****END OF SPOILERS****



Dances With Wolves remains a great film in my eyes despite any qualms I have. Kevin Costner's skillful direction and lead performance, the number of great supporting performances, and John Barry's unforgettable score make Dances With Wolves  a must see western.


Still, if it were up to me, I would give the 1990 Best Picture Oscar to Miller's Crossing.


CBC Rating: 8/10

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