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June 2024
2min read


Released in 1990 and now available on DVD, Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves was, incredibly, the first Western ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (unless one counts Cimarron , 1931, from the Edna Ferber novel, which is often listed in video guidebooks under “Drama”). Given the dearth of Westerns coming out of Hollywood these days, it may very well, along with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven , be the last.

Dances With Wolves is one of a handful of odd, self-consciously revisionist Westerns (Arthur Penn’s highly politicized film version of Thomas Berger’s great novel Little Big Man comes to mind) that seem more dated in retrospect than the films they were supposed to supplant. Its story begins during the Civil War, when Kevin Costner’s disconsolate Lt. John Dunbar tries to get himself killed in battle only to be proclaimed a hero and offered his choice of assignments.

For unclear reasons, he is allowed to choose a command on the Plains. (The U.S. frontier army during the Civil War consisted entirely of pre-war regulars and had virtually no connection with the massive volunteer armies fighting in the East, but let that pass.) There he finds a tribe of Lakota Sioux (led by two superb American Indian actors, Graham Greene and Rodney Grant) with a natural bent for ecology, family, and racial tolerance.

The problem with the plot soon becomes apparent: Old or New Age Western, you still need bad guys. For that we have the Pawnees, evil and bloodthirsty and decked out in greasepaint and punkish hairstyles, looking more post-apocalyptic than the biker gang in The Road Warrior . Why one tribe of Plains Indians would be so noble while another was so brutish can only be ascribed to the mellowing influence of Kevin Costner; a few months of Lieutenant Dunbar would seem to be enough to turn savages into Frisbee-tossing Eagle Scouts listening to Windham Hill CDs.

The self-righteousness of Dances With Wolves derives from its confidence that it is the first film ever to be fair to American Indians, as if Westerns from the silent classic The Vanishing American , starring Richard Dix, to John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn —and nearly every one in between—hadn’t attempted to do the same thing. Even the historically ludicrous Custer bio They Died With Their Boots On took care to identify the true villains as corrupt white Indian agents.

Far more balanced and nuanced than Dances With Wolves is a film that seems to have served as its inspiration, Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow of 1950. No Western before or since has been so honest in its depiction of the brutalities that whites and Indians inflicted on each other and of the deep emotional scars caused by vengeful violence. And there is no more affecting portrayal of two men who struggle across the barrier of race hatred to become friends than fames Stewart as the Indian agent Tom Jeffords and Jeff Chandler as Cochise. Broken Arrow is often written off by modern historians because of its horrifyingly realistic depiction of Indian violence and the unfortunate fact that whites are granted most of the key Indian roles (though Jay Silverheels, who later became better known as Tonto, is a very effective Geronimo). Yet Broken Arrow is more firmly rooted in historical fact than the films that later set out to debunk it.

—Allen Barra

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