“My name is Dances with Wolves. I have nothing to say to you. You are not worth talking to,” said John Dunbar.
By today’s standard, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves would’ve been received differently, possibly with praise over the film’s respect to representation – the use of native people and native language to depict native American, Sioux and Pawnee. At the same time, it might also receive terrible backlash over its ‘white savior’-esque narrative by today’s critical audiences. However, it stormed of Academy Award in 1991 – nominated for 12 and win 7, including Best Picture.
Painted over arid landscape of the Wild West, Dances with Wolves tells a story of a Union lieutenant John Dunbar (Costner) who are stationed in a deserted fort only to befriend a wolf and grow fascination towards neighboring Sioux Indians, who are often considered as a hostile tribe. At first, Dunbar and the Sioux Indians do not get along pretty well, but as time goes by, both party ease up and accept one another. Dunbar has finally accepted as a part of the tribe and given tribal name ‘Dances with Wolves’ as he’s delved deeper into the life of the native Americans.
What makes Dances with Wolves compelling is the consistency to create a story painted over native American society as authentic as possible without neglecting its aesthetic niches. Costner pays fabulous attention to details, especially in manifesting the visual panache. Exotic tribal splendors juxtapose perfectly with the magnificent background to create a vivid visual study to faded American history.
Decision to retain native language to be used over the course of the film is an intriguing one. Yet, it becomes more intriguing when it’s managed to make way into the story not as a mere gimmick; but as a mean of storytelling as it presents conflict to the protagonist that hinders him from being fully entangled to the society at some points in the film.
While the film pays great tribute to the native American background, Dances with Wolves is ironically making it as a mere background to white man romance that becomes its core. Costner’s Durham’s persona overshadows the Sioux characters, who potentially have arcs as big as his. More fatally, the romance arc makes it more ridiculous. Durham meets a white adopted daughter of a Sioux leading man and takes her as a love interest. Can’t you see the irony there?
Dance with Wolves might have revitalized the portrayal of native Americans in cinema and has possibly the top of the league in portraying them in accurate light. However, as a film ‘that big’, it isn’t sensitive enough to present a story, which overshadows the importance of the representation, with such irony.