Dances With Wolves won the 1990 Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Writing for an Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Film Editing. It’s also one of the reasons I have absolutely zero faith in the Oscars to recognize a decent movie.
The story is pretty simple considering how many times it’s been done. Kevin Costner stars as John Dunbar, a US Army lieutenant out on the western frontier in the days immediately following the Civil War. He has some encounters with the Sioux Indians that are on the unpleasant side. Seeking some mutual enrichment, he sets out to find where they live, instead coming across the injured Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell). He gets her back to the Sioux camp, which earns him the respect of the tribe. This gradually grows until he’s basically initiated and given the name Dances With Wolves, which eventually sets him at odds with his former employer, the United States government.
Let’s start with the most obvious thing about Dances With Wolves. It’s long. Three hours long. Not only that, but there’s an extended version with something like 45 minutes of deleted footage thrown back in. Needless to say, there’s not nearly enough story here to justify three hours. When you consider the fact that so much of it seems to consist of people staring around and admittedly majestic shots of the geography, the real action of the movie comes across as less than 2 hours. Of course, you already know this if you’ve seen any movie where Costner directs. It’s just what he does. Some people with chronic insomnia probably think this is great. It’s not my cup of tea.
This isn’t to say there aren’t any good parts at all. The observations on Sioux life and culture are neat. It’s just not enough. The cinematography is wonderful, and, I concede, worthy of any award granted it. However, it gets a bit old once you realize that every five minutes Costner will be calling for another sweeping shot of the plains. It’s too much. Mix it all up with a bland performance from Costner as the lead (shocking, I know), spread it across 1/8 of your day, and it isn’t a very enjoyable experience. I hesitate to say “painful” because people might think I’m over-stating things. The simple fact is that Costner is just not a good actor, and three hours of him is too much.
There isn’t any explicitly Catholic message. However, the scenarios presented by the movie are of some interest for Catholics, simply because it raises the issue of what it means to leave the world as defined by your surrounding culture to partake in something completely alien. More and more, I think this is what Catholics face, even if we don’t realize it. There’s not much left in our environment here that is in any way compatible with the Faith. The problem with the lesson as it applies to us is that we don’t have the Dunbar option. There’s a place for him to go that hasn’t been “corrupted.” We don’t have such a place. I suppose that there is some value in recognizing that things familiar to you may also be bad for you, but I don’t think it goes much farther than that.
One factor that is often overlooked is that this movie, despite proclaiming a politically correct message about the injustices committed against Native Americans, still manages to be racist in a backhanded sort of way. The only beautiful woman that attracts the protagonist's attention in the film, though she lives amongst Indians, is white. (if the plot is about a white man living in harmony with the natives, why not write in a Sioux female lead?) The Sioux cannot resist the U.S. Army until the white protagonist shows up and brings them unity. It is the white protagonist that leads their resistance and flight into the wilderness at the end of the movie. It's as if the message is, "White man, bad. Indian, good. Indians being led by white man, even better."
The rating should probably be a little heavier than PG-13, but definitely not an R. There is some sex, with all the relevant parts hidden. However, I do know some parents that were upset at having their 13 and 14 year olds see what was happening. The profanity is mild and not very prominent. There’s a good bit of violence, some of it graphic (scalping, for example).
Dances With Wolves is probably most recognized now as the king of all the “oppressed innocent minority taking a stand against the evil, arrogant, materialistic majority” movies (though arguably Avatar may have taken this title). It won a billion Oscars, after all. Its fame is nothing but a recipe for disappointment once you see it. Overrated is not even close to capturing its essence. There is enough good here that the film could have lost about an hour and been decent. Instead, you’ve got a bloated and indulgent snooze-fest, which is a shame. For a better film about Indian-white relations during this period, I recommend Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which has its own problems but is still better than Dances With Wolves. As for this film, I give it one point five tiaras: