Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Tribal Lines

Dances With Wolves
Director: Kevin Costner
Cast: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A.  Grant
Released: November 21, 1990

Oscar nominations:

Best Picture (won)
Best Director - Kevin Costner (won)
Best Actor - Kevin Costner (lost to Jeremy Irons for Reversal of Fortune)
Best Supporting Actor - Graham Greene (lost to Joe Pesci for Goodfellas)
Best Supporting Actress - Mary McDonnell (lost to Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost)
Best Art Direction-Set Direction (lost to Dick Tracy)
Best Cinematography (won)
Best Costume Design (lost to Cyrano de Bergerac)
Best Editing (won)
Best Score - John Barry (won)

This is one of my mom's favorite movies, if not her favorite. I don't know what her favorite movie is currently, but at the time of its release, Dances With Wolves was definitely a favorite of hers. In fact, I made her guess what my next film review would be, telling her it was one of her favorite movies. Dances With Wolves was her second guess, after Legends of the Fall, which I didn't even know was one of her favorite movies!

I think my dad bought the VHS (which was on two tapes since it is a three house movie!) for my brother and me to give our mom for Mother's Day or her birthday. And even though, I swear, she was always watching it (though it may have seemed that way to me because it was so long), I had never seen this movie in full, only bits and pieces. My mom claims she had no idea Kevin Costner directed this movie, though I think she probably just forgot because she did admit it's been awhile since she last saw it. She's seen it several times and, as I told her, it says "Directed by Kevin Costner" right smack dab in the middle of the screen during the opening credits. It's kind of hard to miss!

If you remember (and you probably don't because this was eight years ago!), I posted my thoughts on seven Best Picture upsets and Dances With Wolves was one of them, winning over Goodfellas. Even though I prefer Goodfellas, I don't mind it losing to Dances With Wolves (unlike, say, Crash winning over Brokeback Mountain, just to give an example!) because it does feel like an Oscar-winning movie: it's a sweeping epic that's three hours long. It does have that feel of an Academy-Award winning movie. However, and I expressed this in the video, I think it is ludicrous that Kevin Costner won Best Director for his first movie (he's only directed two other movies besides this one: The Postman, which I've never seen, and Open Range, which I remember liking) while Martin Scorsese, well already an established director by then wouldn't win an Oscar for Best Director for another sixteen years! Sometimes the Academy is really stupid.

One of the main reasons my mom loves this movie is because she loves the Native American culture and thinks she would have liked living in a teepee and being part of that community. I don't know how she would have fared, though, because when we went camping when I was a kid, it was only for a weekend! But we would sleep in teepees and ride horses, so we got a little bit of the experience. Of course we didn't kill any buffalo (although they did serve buffalo burgers at the lodge!); we cooked our hot dogs over a campfire. Not exactly like living like a Native American, but close enough.

Dances With Wolves takes place during the Civil War in 1863 and Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) has badly wounded his leg to the point that it needs to be amputated. He would rather die than lose his foot (I would too; the pain would be less severe!) and tries to commit suicide by riding to the front of enemy lines, but is instead hailed a hero because he is able to distract the enemy (who fail to kill him) and the Union soldiers are able to attack successfully. For his act of bravery, he is given a horse named Cisco and transfer to any station he desires. He chooses Fort Hayes because he wants to see the frontier before it disappears. Before he heads out, he is given medical care and is able to keep his foot. I guess whatever they did to it really worked because it doesn't become a problem again for the rest of the movie. He is then transferred to Fort Sedgewich, which is the furthest outpost. It is located in Colorado before Colorado became a state. I always thought this movie took place in South Dakota (before it became a state), but the majority of it was filmed there. I should note that Fort Sedgewich is very close to the Nebraska border so there being no mountains in the movie is not a problem.

Fort Sedgewich is deserted, but he plans to stay anyway. He keeps a journal and whenever we hear voiceover from Kevin Costner, it's Dunbar reading from his journal. Costner's voiceover in this movie is as good as Demi Moores voiceover in Now and Then, which, is to say, absolutely terrible. He sounds like he's reading from a script (yeah, yeah, I know he's supposed to be reading from a journal, but you know what I mean) and I found it very cringe-worthy. Some actors are very natural doing voiceovers and some...are not.

He has his first encounter with Indians when a few from the Sioux tribe try to steal his horse, but always fail. One of them, who is named Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) comes all the way up to Dunbar on his horse and announces (in the Sioux language Lakota), "Do you see that I an not afraid of you?" Dunbar decides to pay the Sioux camp a visit to sort everything out which I don't think is the best idea. While they are a peaceful people (unlike the Pawnee who are portrayed as savages, killing and scalping anyone they come across who is not one of their own), they do not trust the white man. On his way to the camp, he comes across a white woman with unruly hair dressed in Native American garb who is bleeding profusely from her wrists. At first I didn't know what was going on, but we later learn that her husband was recently killed so maybe she was trying to kill herself? I was also confused why they cast a white woman (Mary McDonnell) to play a Native American, but she is supposed to be white. We also learn later that her (white) name is Christine and her family was killed by the Pawnee, but she managed to run away and was taken in by the Sioux. Being that she is the only woman in this movie (aside from another (authentic) Native American woman, but she is married), it is pretty obvious there's going to be a romance between her and Dunbar. I'm sure there are other women in the tribe, but we never really see any. They end up getting married. The Sioux believe since they are both white, that's why they ended up together, which is probably true, and probably because she is literally only the single woman in a one thousand mile radius!

Dunbar brings the wounded woman to their camp, but he is told to get the hell out of there. Of course he doesn't understand what they're saying, but he definitely understands the tone and body language of Wind in His Hair. Later, there is a powwow between the main Indians and the Chief, Ten Bears, sends a group including Wind in His Hair and Kicking Bird (played by Graham Greene) - he's the one married to the only other visible woman, to go to the white man and see what he wants. They don't believe him to be dangerous because he hasn't tried to kill any of them and did bring back one of their own. We see a couple scenes of the Indians trying to communicate with Dunbar and while humorous at times (the scene where Dunbar shows them how he makes coffee is amusing), it is also frustrating because of the language
barrier. I must say, for someone who has never spoken Lakota in his life, Dunbar sure learns it pretty fast cuz he is speaking it fluently by the end of the movie. Hell, he's speaking it fluently by the middle of the movie! I'm not sure the movie's timeline, but it can't be more than a year.

To help with the communication, they decide to bring Dunbar to their camp and ask Christine, whose Indian name is Stands With a Fist to help. She is reluctant to speak the white language, unsure if she is able to remember how. She was probably five or six when she was taken in by the Sioux and never used English again after learning Lakota. I also wonder if she remembers that her birth name is Christine. The audience only knows it because we get that flashback scene. We never see her tell Dunbar that she was once called Christine. She is able to communicate with Dunbar, but her English is broken and her language is stilted. It would have to be challenging to be a native English speaker, but yet playing someone who is fluent in another language and English is difficult for them. When John introduces himself, Kicking Bird thinks he said "Dumb Bear" when he said Dunbar, ha!

Stands With a Fist obtained her name as a young girl. There was an older girl who would call her names and beat her, but one day Christine knocked her down by punching her in the chin. She stood with her fist out and asked if there was anyone else who dared to call her a bad name. She probably acquired her Indian name not long after she joined the tribe, but what did they call her before that day? Did she tell them her name was Christine? Also, what did they call Indians before they received their names or were they all born with their given names? There is a young kid named Smiles A Lot. Did he get that name because he was always smiling as a baby? What happens on days when he's not having a good day and not smiling at all? Am I asking really stupid questions? Probably. My Indian name would be something like Spends Too Much Money on Coffee or Irritable Redhead in the Mornings. Yes, I realize those are both about four words too long for an Indian name. If you didn't already know, Dances with Wolves is the Indian name that is given to Dunbar. They have seen him with a (relatively harmless) wolf who comes around to his camp and has received the nickname Two Socks because of his white forepaws. Now I'm sure you're thinking the same thing I am: Why is it Dances with Wolves and not Dances with Wolf when there's only one wolf? (Yes, there is a different wolf at the end, but we never see Dunbar interact with it). Maybe Dances with Wolves just sounds better or maybe if you dance with one wolf, you dance with all of them? Again, am I asking stupid questions?

Dunbar establishes a good rapport with the Sioux tribe. Like I mentioned earlier, he starts to learn Lakota and pretty much becomes a fluent speaker. Buffalo seems to be scarce lately and the Sioux needs to find some before they starve. Now as we all remember from what we learned at Natural History Museum Day Camp (well, this is what I learned when I attended, and by the way, it wasn't called that even though that's exactly what it was), the Indians used every part of the buffalo. Not only were they used for food, but their hides were used to make their clothes and teepees, the bones were made into tools or weapons, and so on. In the middle of the night, they hear a herd of buffalo go roaring past them, but when they go to find them in the morning, the soldiers have gotten there first, leaving a field of dead buffalo, only having taken their hides and their tongue. I understood why they took the hides, but why the tongues? Is that a delicacy? We know it is soldiers who did this because there are wagon wheel tracks. This angers the Sioux immensely because not only are the buffalo all useless to them now, but it is a huge sign of disrespect in their culture. To them, the buffalo is a sacred animal that provides them with many of their necessities. This is just one of the many times Dunbar feels ashamed of his fellow white man. In one of the saddest scenes of the movie, we see a lone baby buffalo bleating pitifully. If you are an animal lover, this movie will break your heart because this movie is not very kind to four-legged creatures! This includes the Pawnee tribe killing their dogs when they attack the Sioux camp and Cisco, Dunbar's beloved horse being shot and killed by the soldiers when Dunbar goes back to Fort Sedgewick to gather some things, only to find it being swarmed with soldiers. They also kill the wolf just to show the audience that these guys are real pricks. I didn't understand why the wolf didn't run away when it was being shot at, because it did take a few attempts before it was actually hit. I don't think Two Socks was very bright!

They don't have to wait too long before another herd of buffalo come their way. This is probably the best scene of the movie, if not the most memorable. There were 3500 buffalo used in the scene, all of them real. The only fake buffalos were the animatronic ones they used for the ones who went down after being killed by either a bow and arrow or a rifle, Dunbar's contribution to the tribe. One buffalo charges after the young Smiles A Lot and Dunbar aims his gun to shoot it, finally getting it to go down just before it reachers the youngster. I read to make the buffalo charge, they had his favorite treat waiting for him. Speaking of treats (uh, maybe), the Indians celebrate by eating the liver (ugh!) of one of the buffalos and they let Dunbar have a bite of it.

After Dunbar aka Dances With Wolves is caught by the soldiers, then freed by the Sioux who ambush the soldiers and kill them, he decides staying with them would be too dangerous because he is now a wanted man, so he leaves with his new wife, Stands With a Fist who goes where he goes. In a callback to the earlier scene when Wind in His Hair announces he is not afraid of Dunbar, he now rides his horse atop a cliff and proclaims, "Dances with Wolves! I am Wind in His Hair. Do you see that I am your friend?" The film ends with a silhoute of a wolf howling.  

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