Reflections on “Dances With Wolves”,
directed by Kevin Costner, written by Michael Blake,
starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell and Graham Greene
A video presentation of this material is available here.
“Dances With Wolves” starts with a battle in the American Civil War during which Lt. John Dunbar is badly wounded and is due to have his foot amputated. Rather than face the pain and (as he sees it) degradation of this life-changing amputation, he sets out to face his enemy one last time in a vain attempt to secure death. Although he fails in his mission, he inspires others to action, victory is gained and he is rewarded with foot-saving surgery and his choice of a new posting (he opts for the Western frontier). Thus begins Dunbar’s great adventure and transformation.
The Civil War, apart from being the catalyst for Dunbar’s future life, may also be viewed as the encapsulation of the breakdown of the society Dunbar has grown up with, with men no longer able to live together without dispute and the eruption of violence over issues such as race, creed, colour, social standing and social structure.
Dunbar is clearly a man of honour, dignity, principle and courage, and we see him react to personal circumstances rather than out of political or social motivation. While he has fought out of a sense of duty (doubtless in common with many of his fellow soldiers), he is keen to turn his back on conflict and what has become of “civilisation” to set off west and explore the frontier (and his own character and nature).
As he heads west we are treated to panoramic views of wide open spaces and beautiful vistas. Nature (in all its forms) is a recurring and pervasive theme – Dunbar is visibly more at ease and relaxed as he distances himself from “civilisation”, and he regularly expresses admiration for the beauty around him, even gently stroking the long grass during a break in his journey. This respect and admiration will also be displayed through his relationship with various animals, repeated inclusion of images of water, land and trees, and of course man’s natural tendency toward society and friendship where these are allowed to develop untroubled by bias, jealousy, ego and ambition.
The farther Dunbar leaves behind civilisation, the more “natural” he becomes, though there are reminders of the effect and influence of the society he has left behind in the form of his rather uncouth and dismissive driver (who is harmless enough, but has failed to appreciate and embrace his surroundings as Dunbar appears to do). And then there is the outpost commander who simply cannot cope in the face of the spare and difficult living conditions imposed by nature.
Once Dunbar arrives at his isolated fort, survival and development become his priority – he establishes himself through sheer hard work and effort and is pleased with the progress he makes. He leaves behind the conflict, social ambition, greed and selfishness associated with society and there is a steady lessening of military mentality and protocol embodied by his gradual abandonment of uniform (he is entirely naked at his first encounter with Kicking Bird, surely suggesting Kicking Bird sees the man and not what he represents within the framework of society).
As he abandons military structure and conventions and he becomes increasingly self-reliant, he learns to appreciate the loyalty and friendship of his horse Cisco. He also develops a relationship with a wolf he names Two Socks, eventually gaining enough of the wolf’s trust to allow him to feed the wolf by hand, demonstrating not just his respect and admiration for nature but also his willingness and desire to work with it.
Through respect and consideration developed in his isolation, and by focusing on essentials rather than on social conventions, Dunbar learns to be at one with the land and wild life, and this attitude extends to social interaction.
The story of the evolution of Dunbar’s relationship with the Sioux may be somewhat idealised, but it displays and underlines the potential for good relations and friendship between people when this is based on mutual respect, understanding and tolerance, and when focus is maintained on what they have in common rather than what divides them.
Both Dunbar and the Sioux are wary and defensive on their first encounters, but neither resorts to violence and each shows respect for the other, though that trait is not necessarily shared by everyone. Dunbar’s driver was dismissive of all Indians, but Dunbar’s first impression of Kicking Bird (who is seen stroking the long grass in exactly the same way as Dunbar did earlier) is that he is a “magnificent looking fellow”, while the Sioux talk of white men in disparaging terms, but Kicking Bird respects Dunbar as he showed no fear at their first meeting. There are clearly similarities in character and attitude between Dunbar and Kicking Bird, despite having been brought up in apparently vastly different cultures.
We discover that Dunbar and the Sioux share the same core values, share adherence to similar familial and social structures, and share a closeness to nature. Dunbar’s first view of the Sioux encampment suggests beauty, peace, tranquillity and above all else, a oneness with nature with tepees set up next to a fast-flowing river, surrounded by green plains and alive with the hubbub of people happily going about their business of getting by.
Communication is achieved first through mime and then through language as Dunbar’s curiosity and willingness to learn enable him to gradually adopt the language of his friends. He does not insist on English or try to impose his culture on the Sioux. Rather, he adapts to a life and culture he finds appealing. Language is seen as nothing more than a tool (as opposed to a symbol of authority imposed on others), and loyalty to formative education and social influences can be abandoned in favour of something more personally satisfying and enriching.
Stand With A Fist (or Christine) has also adapted to her circumstances. Originally kidnapped by some Pawnee as a child after a massacre, Stands With A Fist accepted her lot, adapted and evolved, finding happiness and fulfilment with the Sioux, marrying, and even contemplating suicide after the death of her husband. She demands respect and within the Sioux social structure, she receives it.
As Dunbar shares experiences, adventures and life-threatening situations with the Sioux, he becomes an integral part of their community (and vice-versa), cemented by his romantic involvement with Stands With A Fist and his ever-increasing use of Lakota, the Sioux language. Belonging is not necessarily restricted to birth, but can be brought about by action and conviction. When Dunbar (who has been given the name Dances With Wolves due to his friendly interaction with Two Socks) marries Stands With A Fist in an Indian ceremony and in Lakota, his transformation is complete and he has abandoned his former life. He has found people who share his values, share his respect and admiration for nature and who, above all, are willing to share their lives with him. He is happy to leave behind his former existence in favour of a simpler yet more profoundly satisfying existence based principally on an appreciation and acceptance of nature.
Of course this idyll in isolation cannot last – the basis of drama is conflict and Dances With Wolves must face his past and his former culture.
Reinforcements reach Dunbar’s outpost and Dances With Wolves realises he has left behind his highly detailed (and lovingly maintained) journal of his experiences (and transformation), a journal that could provide potentially devastating information about the Sioux if it were to fall into the wrong hands. Dances With Wolves therefore sets off to retrieve it.
Dressed in Indian clothing, Dances With Wolves is captured, beaten and chained, and is to be transported to Fort Hayes for hanging as a traitor. The contrast between the conduct and attitudes of the soldiers and those shown by Dunbar on course to his transformation could not be more striking and informative. At the same time as underlining how far Dunbar has come in his sojourn out West, the conduct and attitudes of the soldiers do much to explain his desire to leave behind “civilisation”.
In contrast to Dunbar’s hesitant and wary, yet curious, respectful and positive initial meetings with the Sioux, the first reaction of the military is to fire upon their “enemy”, thoughtlessly killing Cisco in the process (in total contrast to the mutually meaningful development of friendship and loyalty between Dunbar and Cisco).
Dunbar’s lovingly kept history of his evolution is discovered by illiterate, immature and distinctly unprofessional young soldiers who proceed to use its pages as toilet paper, once more emphasising the distance between Dances With Wolves/Dunbar and his former colleagues who appear to be unwilling to entertain customs or cultures outside their own.
As Dances With Wolves is being transported for hanging, his captors spot Two Socks (loyally following his friend) and, purely for their own indulgence, they take undisciplined pot shots at him until he is fatally wounded, again in complete contrast with the patient development of trust and friendship between Dunbar and Two Socks, and Dunbar’s determined attempts to be at one with nature.
Dances With Wolves is saved by his Sioux friends who attack his captors with vigour and pride. They are fired by a sense of righteousness and moral outrage while the decidedly uninspired young soldiers defend themselves, but through fear and without conviction or belief in their cause.
This battle takes place in the middle of a river (an image of nature used frequently in the film) which may symbolise the flow of nature and constant change. Dances With Wolves enters the river on one side and leaves it on the other, a different man with no chance of going back. If his transformation was complete before, he has now broken all ties with his past. As though to emphasise this, there is a shot of his journal (containing the story of his life) floating away down river – the past is gone, now he must think of the future.
The film concludes with the departure of Dances With Wolves and Stands With A Fist in order to protect the rest of the tribe from vengeful action by the soldiers who continue to pursue Dances With Wolves/Dunbar.
There is much sadness as all are prevented from seeing out a peaceful and natural destiny due to the imposition of one culture on another. Much is made of being remembered and appreciation of the influence of friends on one’s life, and ultimately there is, I suppose, little more one can hope for.
“Dances With Wolves” is a rare feat in that it manages to combine poetic content with an engrossing storyline. The achingly human tale of John Dunbar’s transformation into Dances With Wolves is brilliantly told with beautiful photography, excellent pace and stunning music which captures the sweep and elegance of the surroundings while at the same time expressing the feelings of the characters. Huge kudos to Kevin Costner for managing to create such a heart-warming yet thought-provoking film, especially with liberal doses of humour mixed with the pathos.
After recently viewing “Dances With Wolves” for the first time in years, it struck me that the splendid photography and sweeping shots of stunning scenery merited investment in a Blu-Ray disc. As I picked up the disc in a local store, I looked along the row of Westerns and spotted “The Searchers”, a film I’ve long admired. With both discs in hand, I realised both westerns were influenced by the Civil War, involved kidnap victims and solitary central figures involved with Indians. In my head, I sought other areas that might be worthy of comparison and quickly came to the conclusion that actually, “Dances With Wolves” is virtually the antithesis of “The Searchers”. While that term might be a bit strong, there are several points of diversity and contrast:
In “The Searchers”, Ethan remains virtually the same throughout the film – his character is examined and reasons for his mindset are only hinted at or alluded to. Much of the interpretation of his character remains in the mind of the viewer, but Ethan is very much an anti-hero who doesn’t really develop in the course of the film. We see the same dogged determination tinged with hints at personal trauma in a variety of situations, but it is his unwavering resolution that makes him admirable and useful.
In “Dances With Wolves”, on the other hand, John Dunbar develops, evolves and adapts almost constantly, and his reactions and reflections are shared with the audience so we can follow the various stages in his transformation. Dunbar is also undoubtedly heroic – his attitudes and actions are clearly intended to be inspirational.
Where Ethan is single-minded and reduces life to a single purpose, Dunbar is open-minded and desires new experiences.
Ethan is profoundly disgruntled and disappointed in life (and may have indulged in criminal activity) while Dunbar remains principled and generally positive, even idealistic.
In “The Searchers” there is no real exploration of Indian culture (beyond what helps them in their search for Ethan’s niece). The only Indian we really get to know is Scar, who is just as damaged as Ethan. In “Dances With Wolves” there is total exploration. Kicking Bird is as open as Dunbar and is as ready and willing to learn as Dunbar.
Ethan eventually finds the kidnapped Debbie and returns her to civilisation, while Dunbar meets Stands With A Fist and joins her in an attempt to get away from “civilisation”.
Stands With A Fist adapted and developed within Sioux culture, unlike the vision of the insane kidnappees presented in “The Searchers”.
Society is presented in the form of homely, hard-working and principled homesteaders in “The Searchers”, while Dunbar finds his militaristic society prejudiced, bigoted and uninspiring.
At the end of “The Searchers”, Ethan is virtually shunned by those he has supported, while Dances With Wolves and Stands With A Fist opt to leave their friends in order to protect them, much to the chagrin of their fellow tribesmen.
I do not necessarily contend that Michael Blake (author of “Dances With Wolves”) set out to produce a work which contrasted so markedly with Alan Le May’s “The Searchers”, but I do consider that comparison of the two works offers a valid and rich source of discussion.
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