Actors turning into directors is always a tricky subject, much like singers turned actors. This is because for every true master like Clint Eastwood who has brought us some wonderful films, there’s always someone who just isn’t built for the job. It is understandable then that Kevin Costner’s decision to both star in and direct “Dances With Wolves” was met with some apprehension. Furthermore there was the subject matter: A western. Didn’t that genre die with John Wayne? The project, it seemed, was destined to fail. However Costner was riding on a wave of successes in the late 80s (“The Untouchables”, “Bull Durham”, “Field of Dreams”) and it soon became apparent that his directorial skills were on par with his onscreen ones.
This was clearly a western of a different type. The screenplay was adapted from his own novel by Michael Blake and tells the story of Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) who, after an apparent act of heroism chooses to be reassigned to the western frontier of America, in search of himself as much as anything else. Finding his post deserted, Dunbar soon comes into contact with a wolf and the local Sioux tribe. However he soon realises that the Indians are far from the thieves many make them out to be but a people of laughter, harmony and peace. Friendships are formed and as Dunbar learns more and more about them and earns their respect he gradually becomes disillusioned with his white kinsmen. The Indians name him Dances With Wolves and as he finds love he decides to shake off the Union soldier altogether. The tale of shedding one’s own values in favour of a culture more spiritually advanced is by no means a new one and has indeed been copied many times since (“The Last Samurai”, “Avatar”).
However what makes this “Dances With Wolves” stand out is in it’s sheer beauty, scale and ultimately its message. Costner has a keen eye for detail, a style some may call simplistic but here it works wonders. The spirit of adventure and the unknown is captured perfectly in the vast spaces of the prairies, a land as of yet undefined by white settlers. It is clear that the nomad culture of the Indians is drawing to a close as ‘civilisation’ encroaches and this gives the picture an idyllic if mournful beauty rarely seen in previous efforts to highlight their struggle for survival. Costner and Blake can do so much more than stage action sequences. But when action is called for boy do they let rip: From the opening firefight emerging from tense waiting to the thrilling Pawnee attack and climatic rescue, the action is every bit on par with the matinee serials of the 50s. The highlight is the spectacular buffalo hunt in the middle of the film. Amazingly (as one of the special features on the DVD reveals) this was done for real with Costner and stuntmen riding among a herd within an enclosure.
It is important to mention however that this isn’t only Costner’s show. With a running time of over three hours – and an even longer directors cut – it is possible for all the characters to be properly fleshed out. It is a joy to encounter the different Indians and their reaction to a white man in their presence from the wild Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) and the wise chief Ten Bears (Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman) to the inexperienced youngster Smiles A Lot, Mary McDonnell’s Stands With A Fist and perhaps the most significantly Kicking Bird played by Graham Greene. He is a thinker keen to understand the white man, eager to learn and becomes Dunbar’s most valuable friend. The fact that much of the dialogue is spoken in Lakota Sioux with subtitles lends the actors an authenticity few other portrayals can match and the inevitably tragic outcome will leave many viewers heartbroken and hopefully reconsidering their stance in relation to present day Indians still living on reservation in the U.S.
Who better to score a tale of romantic adventure than John Barry? Apart from his escapades into the world of James Bond (which launched his career) Barry has become a master of the style and “Dances With Wolves” is in many ways a culmination of all his talents. The sweeping score perfectly captures the expanses of the landscape and the main John Dunbar theme soars whether played as a militaristic trumpet call of as a softer representation of the character. Added to this are two beautiful flute themes “The Wolf Theme” and “Love Theme” and wild percussion and horns to portray the Indians (mainly Pawnee but sometimes Sioux) at their more warlike. On the soundtrack album the best cue is arguably “Journey to Fort Sedgewick.” In any case this is most likely the best score of John Barry’s long career.
Far from being a failure “Dances With Wolves” turned out to be one of the best things about 1990 (OK, I was also born then…) and walked away with seven Oscars, two for Costner (Best Picture and Best Director, although he was also nominated for Best Actor) and one for Barry. If you seek a western that truly explores the meaning of the ‘West’ then this is the one you need to see. Although Costner has taken on other projects (“The Postman” and “Open Range”) he has not yet managed to top this. It’s an absolute masterpiece!
That’s it for another week. Please leave a comment and any feedback is appreciated. Feel free to subscribe to the blog or follow me on Twitter. Until next time.