Dances With Wolves
directed by Kevin Costner
(MGM/Orion, 1990)

Dances With Wolves is a rare production. It lined the cast with Native Americans -- real ones, not Hollywood mimics. It showed a side of the natives that had not previously been seen in a feature film. It revealed a side of the United States government that most Americans prefer to forget. It documented a culture that has been shoved to the wayside and ignored. And it still makes me cry every time I watch it.

This was Kevin Costner's directing debut. I have the original 181-minute version. Once the movie became an overnight sensation, the studio released an expanded version that contains 237 minutes.

Every aspect of this film is extraordinary! And what a cast! We have Rodney A. Grant as Wind in His Hair, Tantoo Cardinal as Black Shawl, Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Ten Bears, Wes Studi as the fearless Pawnee leader and our beloved Graham Greene as the holy man, Kicking Bird, among many others.

Lt. John J. Dunbar (Costner) was serving with the Union Army in Tennessee during the Civil War. He was wounded in the foot, overheard the doctors talking about cutting it off -- without anesthesia, mind you -- and he left the hospital. He returned to his unit, crawled onto a horse and charged the enemy.

Dunbar planned to get killed, but instead became a hero decorated for bravery. He was given medical care and, once healed, was given his choice of assignments. He was also presented with Cisco, the horse that he had ridden in battle.

Dunbar, who always wanted to see the frontier, requests the most remote post available. He is assigned to Fort Cedric, which he finds abandoned. The "fort" consists of a prairie sod shack, a barn/shed, a rail-fence corral and a couple of caves. Everything is falling in, with debris and trash strewn everywhere, and the watering hole is contaminated. Dunbar starts cleaning the post in preparation for the arrival of troops.

But the only people in the area are a tribe of Sioux. Dunbar discovers that everything he has been told about them is wrong. Loneliness, curiosity and his job prompt him to develop a friendship with them. Over time, that friendship grows into something much more powerful -- Dunbar becomes one of them, in part through his bond with Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who was raised by the tribe. His adventures with the tribe -- from a thrilling buffalo hunt to a clash with attacking Pawnee -- bring him even closer into the fold.

It's during this time Dunbar also bonds with a lone wolf that hangs around the abandoned fort and eventually learns to trust its sole occupant. Dunbar gets his Sioux name, Dances With Wolves, from an adventure when Two Socks tried to follow him to the Sioux village and he tried to chase Two Socks back to the fort.

Then the soldiers arrive and Dunbar gets an inside view of what it is like to be a native.

Wow! Dances With Wolves should be required viewing in every high school across America. It might change the general attitude toward Native Americans. If you have not seen it, put it on your list of must-see movies. You have my promise that it will entertain you.

review by
Alicia Karen Elkins

4 October 2008

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