Dances With Wolves (1990)
Critic Consensus: A grand, sweeping epic with inarguably noble intentions and arresting cinematography, but one whose center, arguably, is not as weighty as it should be.
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as Lt. John Dunbar
as Stands With a Fist
as Kicking Bird
as Wind in His Hair
as Chief Ten Bears
as Black Shawl
as Lt. Elgin
as Maj. Fambrough
as Stone Calf
as Pretty Shield
as Sgt. Pepper
as Sgt. Bauer
as General Tide
as Christine's Mother
as Big Warrior
as Escort Warrior
as Sioux No. 1/Warrior ...
as Sioux No. 2/Warrior ...
as Toughest Pawnee
as Sioux Warrior
as Sioux Warrior
as Sioux Courier
as Kicking Bird's Son
as Kicking Bird's Eldes...
as Kicking Bird's Daugh...
as Village Mother
as General's Aide
as Confederate Cavalrym...
as Confederate Soldier
as Confederate Soldier
as Wagon Driver
as Union Soldier
as Ambush Wagon Driver
as Smiles A Lot
as Christine's Mother
as Sioux Warrior
as Gen. Tide
as General's Aide
as Young Cavalry Soldie...
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Critic Reviews for Dances With Wolves
This is a big picture in love with our landscape as much as with the Sioux Indians who inhabit it.
The important issues raised by the film- centered on the cultural, racial and moral struggle that took place on the American frontier-are glossed over in favor of a juvenile fantasy of male bonding around the campfire.
This collective array of talent has yielded a western that is at once original and traditional. Dances With Wolves looks back to the masterworks of the past and, with its relevance to our present, it deserves to be ranked with them.
Dances With Wolves is a clear-eyed vision. Authentic as an Edward Curtis photograph, lyrical as a George Catlin oil or a Karl Bodmer landscape, this is a film with a pure ring to it.
Audience Reviews for Dances With Wolves
Costner's half-hearted media apology to the Indian nation for the atrocities committed against them in the name of unrivaled,
unapologetic, rapacious greed (for which the people of One Nation Under God have made good - not) makes for a nice pass of time even if the lead characters are ironically Caucasians (though adopted by Native Americans). My favorite sequence: the sweeping Remington inspired Buffalo Hunt.
Many people think the 1990 Oscar for Best Picture should have gone to GoodFellas; I might have preferred that also, but don't discredit this film for that reason. This is a great film! Along with 92's Unforgiven, Dances With Wolves revamped the Western genre, making it popular again. Nominated for 12 Academy Awards and winner of 7, this classic film is a must see!
It may be a clichéd complaint, but more often than not the Academy has got the Best Picture Oscar dead wrong. Sometimes, as with Crash, their mistake is obvious and the outcry is instant; on other occasions, as with Citizen Kane, both the Academy and the public have taken time to see the error of their ways. And then we have Dances with Wolves, which beat Goodfellas to the big gong to deny Martin Scorsese his Oscar for a third time. While not as crass a mistake as the others, time has not been kind to Kevin Costner's debut, which now seems long on principle but short on actual story.
The obvious way to prey on Dances with Wolves would be to attack Costner's subsequent career. His later efforts behind the camera have left a lot to be desired, with Waterworld running hugely over budget and The Postman being the dictionary definition of tedious. His acting style and drawling delivery suggest a man who takes himself far too seriously, rivalling only Nicolas Cage for stony-faced absurdity. But a quick glance at his back catalogue reveals a slightly more complicated picture. Lest we forget, Costner was once an admired and popular actor, who acquitted himself perfectly well in No Way Out, The Untouchables and Field of Dreams. And for all the gaping flaws in his directorial efforts, you could never accuse him of going in with anything but the very best intentions.
The most obvious quality of Dances with Wolves is that it is very even-handed towards its subject matter. It approaches the relationship between Native Americans and American soldiers with the same restraint and intelligence that Clint Eastwood applied to the subject of revenge in Unforgiven. There has clearly been a lot of effort expended by Costner and the writer Michael Blake to get away from the clichéd depiction of Native Americans as a backward, violent people, who deserved everything they got from the brave, civilised white men driving them off the land in the name of God and Progress.
You also have to applaud Costner's ambition as a director. There are few actors, let alone big stars, who would have taken on such a big project first time out. Costner was shooting in mostly external locations for four months, including several elaborate sequences with hundreds of real horses and buffalo. His commitment was such that he nearly broke his back from doing his own stunts, and stumped up over $3m of his own money to cover the costs incurred by bad weather. Costner was prepared to take risks with Dances with Wolves, and that deserves praise regardless of whether the film works or not.
A further point of admiration comes in Costner's decision to have much of the dialogue spoken in the Lakota language. The fact that the film grossed more than $400m worldwide, and $184m domestically, is a massive raspberry to the notion that Western audiences won't pay to watch films that aren't in the English language. But it also proves that the respect for the different cultures within the film is genuine, not just a device for boosting Costner's artistic standing. This remains the case even after Russell Means pointed out the flawed translations, which left all the men in the film speaking in the female Sioux dialect.
In terms of the admiration it generates, Dances with Wolves is in the same league as Battle of Britain in terms of pure good will. But like Battle of Britain, this admiration does not guarantee good drama, and little by little Costner's film begins to look earnest to the point of being dul. It ends up stuck halfway between Unforgiven and Heaven's Gate, being neither as gripping nor elegiac as the former, nor as wretchedly pretentious as the latter. It never becomes as well-meaningly dull as Battle of Britain, but its flaws in terms of pacing and emotion cannot help but prey on our minds.
The first 45 minutes of Dances with Wolves are very slow and very portentous. Costner is clearly pulling out all the stops to make us admire and believe in the character of John Dunbar, but he ends up both trying too hard and not enough. The opening battle sequence features Costner attempting suicide by riding straight at the Confederate front line with his arms held out in a messianic pose - a decision which results in sniggers or sneers rather than feelings of empathy. In the various scenes that follow, where Dunbar is sent out to the frontier, too much effort is expended trying to express his bravery and not enough made on showing him as a rounded human being.
When I reviewed (500) Days of Summer, I argued that the presence of a narrator in any kind of film creates an element of certainty which can sometimes work against dramatic tension. In the case of Dances with Wolves, one could argue it is necessary since the diary is integral to the later stages of the plot. But while it is partially justified on a narrative level, Costner's delivery of it is frankly third-rate. His readings feel rushed and increasingly desperate, as he tries to convey the gravity of the situation without much success.
The narration aside, there is precious little about Dances with Wolves which is rushed. At just over 3 hours long (4 hours in its Director's Cut), comparisons with Heaven's Gate are unavoidable; the project was even nicknamed 'Kevin's Gate' after the production delays were leaked to the press. Costner's film is nowhere near as baggy as Heaven's Gate, let alone as self-serving, but it is every bit as drawn out, especially in its final act. Had Kevin gone through with a pair of scissors and lost even 30 seconds from every scene, it would have made a world of difference.
The biggest problem with Dances with Wolves is that it constantly tells us how important the events are without doing enough to show us why this is the case. There are many beautiful or poignant images throughout, from the hundreds of dead buffalo lying on the plains to the couple's departure from the winter camp. But these images don't carry the weight that they should because we haven't invested enough in the characters to make them any more than pretty compositions.
The film is so respectful towards the Sioux that it is almost hesitant to scratch the surface and ask the difficult questions about how their society works, such as the relationship between fathers and sons, and the position of women. This is understandable up to a point, considering the negative depiction of Native Americans in Hollywood throughout the 20th century - a fact which, if you believe Marlon Brando, led him to turn down his second Oscar. But you would think that if Costner were brave enough to embark on something of such scale and ambition, the last thing he would be worried about was mildly offending people.
Fortunately, the film does pick up after the first 45 minutes and has moments where the action and characters do take flight. Many of these scenes find Costner willing to let his hair down, whether it's dancing with Two Socks around the camp fire or giving audiences a clear view of his naked bottom. It is hard not to get swept up in the chases scene across the plains, diligently matched by John Barry's stirring score. And some of the lighter moments within the camp help us to relax as well; when Dunbar interrupts Kicking Bird's nearby lovemaking, Graham Greene's facial expression says it all.
The romantic aspect of Dances with Wolves is well-played for an epic, if only because the central relationship develops at a reasonable rate. We don't get that agonising sensation as in Out of Africa, where we know the characters are meant to kiss and are begging them to get on with it. The scenes of Stands with a Fist interpreting between Dunbar and Kicking Bird are well-played, serving their purpose while conveying the sexual tension between the characters. Their relationship conveys the conflicted identity of the central characters and the possibility of future harmony between the nations.
Dances with Wolves is ultimately a very middling film. It's too long to adequately serve its story, but not so long that we lose all patience with it. Its respect for its characters undercuts the drama, but not to the extent that we sit there drifting into a coma. And its direction is uninvolving, but not in an artsy, egotistical way. Calling it an average or ordinary film is to belie Costner's ambition, but any higher praise is impossible in light of its flaws. It remains significant but not stirring, admirable but not engaging, important but not profound.
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