Monday, February 17, 2014

Dances with Wolves: 24 Years Later, an Appreciation

Last night Chris and I settled in and watched Kevin Costner's 1990 classic Dances with Wolves. 

                                    Kevin Costner stars as Civil War Lieutenant John Dunbar

   Films like this, that are so iconic to those of us old enough to have seen them on the big screen, sometimes feel like they are beyond discussion. After all, like me, everyone has seen Dances with Wolves a couple a dozen times, right? Everyone knows it won all of the top Academy Awards in 1991, right? What's to discuss?

  But then I forget about the young people. My nieces and nephews coming of age. Kids -- this post is for YOU.

 Dances with Wolves tells the story of a wounded and disillusioned Civil War soldier who gets sent to a deserted, delapidated fort deep into the frontier. Completely alone, he takes refuge in his journal. Slowly he begins connecting with the land, the animals and the sky around him.

 Inevitably, contact ensues with the Lakota Sioux, upon whose land the fort was built. Slowly, over time, the tribe and Lieutenant Dunbar learn to trust each other, and their lives entwine. Together they deal with the reality that the white man is coming. When Kicking Bird asks Dunbar "How many white men are coming?" Dunbar replies: "As many as the stars."

                                      Rodney Grant is the volatile, passionate "Wind in his Hair"

                                  Graham Greene is the wise, curious medicine man "Kicking Bird."

    24 years later, a real tribute to this film is the fact that it does not feel in the slightest bit dated.

                                 Well, to be fair, Kevin DOES have a bit of a 1990 mullet here...

    But other than that, it still feels FRESH today. Also, it's completely original. There is no other film in my memory that captures this place and time in such a realistic, unpretentious way. It's really a knockout.

  Additionally, even though this is, of course, a "western" -- it doesn't FEEL like a western. It just feels like a powerful, funny, endearing, heartbreaking, beautiful story.

 And yes, there is romance. The tribe adopted a young white girl whose family was killed by the enemy  Pawnee tribe when she was 9 years old. Now a grown woman, she acts as a translator for Lieutenant Dunbar and the tribe elders.

                                                   Mary McDonnell as "Stands with a Fist"

       In addition to awe-inspiring cinematography, there are humorous moments as well. Yes, the American soldiers Dunbar must content with are portrayed pretty much across the board as buffoons or heartless killers, but there are standouts.

                                       Maury Chaykin nearly steals the whole movie in his
                                   5 minute cameo as psychotic, alcoholic Major Fambrough.
                                                      He's hilarious and heartbreaking.

  Comparisons to Dances have been made to the film Avatar, and I see the connection -- especially in 2014.

 We as Americans have no choice but to deal with the reality and human repercussions of our actions on this continent. The blood is not just on our hands -- it's in our hair and it's caked under our fingernails. And it's baked into the land.

         Dances with Wolves is playing on Netflix streaming until 3/1, when it goes away. Yes, it comes on TNT every couple of years, chopped up by so many commercials that it's enough to break your heart.

See it while you can as God intended: in one piece.

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