Kevin Costner (USA, 1955), already a famous Hollywood actor, made his
directorial debut with Dances with Wolves (1990), a three-hour adaptation of Michael Blake's 1988 novel.
It is slow and overlong, and the action is largely predictable.
This would be ok if there were some profound meditation or some stunning visual language. Instead the film simply rehashed old stereotypes of western movies and uses the most conventional of camera languages.
Some scenes could easily have been omitted (like the lengthy hunting scene, so
long that, when a wounded buffalo is about to kill a kid, we're rooting for the buffalo - or like the ridiculous erotic scene in which the woman suddenly becomes a horny modern Western woman instead of the prudish mourning Indian woman).
It's only in the last 30 minutes that the film creates a bit of pathos.
During the Civil War of the USA a wounded officer of the North is taken to an improvised hospital where is leg is about to be amputated. The doctor is too tired to perform
the surgery. While the doctor takes a break, the officer gets up and, despite the extreme pain, walks back to the front.
He mounts a horse and rides straight towards the Confederate soldiers and
then rides horizontally in front of them, expecting to be killed.
Hundreds of soldiers shoot but miss. Eventually the
Union soldiers charge to save him from certain death.
The Confederate army is routed, John Dunbar is decorated as a hero, and a general
personally intervenes to make sure that his leg is not amputated.
Dunbar requests to be transferred to the western frontier where the US army is fighting the "Indian" wars.
Dunbar arrives at a fort of the Far West run by major Fambrough, and explains
that he always wanted to see the frontier.
Somehow the major dislikes Dunbar and assigns him to
the furthermost outpost of the realm,
Fort Sedgwick, that must be reached through
wild and hostile country.
Then the major, clearly demented, tells Dunbar that he pissed in his pants.
As Dunbar begins his journey on a mule wagon with a companion who knows the route, the major shoots himself.
Along the way they find an abandoned wagon and a skeleton from which Dunbar pulls out an arrow.
Dunbar's companion Timmons is rather obnoxious.
For days and days they see no buffalos and no "Indians".
They finally arrive at Fort Sedgwick. There's nobody: the fort has been abandoned.
Dunbar shocks Timmons with the decision to stay, even alone: it is now his post.
Timmons thinks Dunbar is gone crazy. Dunbar has to pull out his gun to convince
Timmons to unload the provisions.
Then Timmons leave and Dunbar remains, the lone person in a vast emptiness.
He keeps writing a diary. He sets out to rebuild the fort.
He finds scenes of destruction but no dead bodies.
He finds caves but cannot explain why people decided to live in caves.
His only companion is a wolf that shows up every day.
Meanwhile, Indians kill Timmons while he is cooking his meal and scalp him.
This means that nobody is left who knows where Dunbar is.
One day, while he is bathing in the river, an Indian enters his camp and tries
to steal his horse. The Indian is not much of a warrior: when Dunbar shouts,
the Indian flees in panic (and Dunbar is even naked).
Dunbar barricades in the fort. He keeps hoping that reinforcements are on the way.
Meanwhile, the Indian tribe is discussing what to do with him.
They think that whites are dumb and can't survive in their wilderness, but
are also afraid that more whites will come. The old chief decides to think it over but four kids sneak out and ride to the fort, determined to steal the horse.
One falls and break his arm and they ride back in disgrace.
The following day a gang of older ones,
led by the bold Wind In His Hair,
comes and they do steal his horse. Luckily the horse escapes and returns
to the fort.
Dunbar decides to confront the Indians. He grabs the US flag and rides
towards the Indian camp holding the flag high.
Before the camp he meets a woman weeping and chanting under a tree.
He is shocked to find a white woman. She is bleeding because she has been
using a big knife to hurt herself.
Dunbar quickly realizes that the white woman doesn't speak English: she has
grown up with the Indians.
She faints and he carries her on his horse to the Indian camp.
The Indians are puzzled to see a lone white man advance towards them.
One Indian simply grabs the unconscious woman and unceremoniously drags her away.
That night the old chief of the Indians decides that a delegation should go
and talk to the white man.
He learns a few words and teaches them a few words.
On their next visit he even offers them coffee.
One of them, the mighty warrior Wind In His Hair, thinks that Dunbar is just demented.
However, medicine man Kicking Bird is intelligent enough to understand what
Dunbar is telling him.
Kicking Bird is also smart enough to know that the white woman used to speak
the white man's language when she was a child, and she could be a translator
if she tried to remember it. But she is afraid that white people will come
to take her away. She just lost her husband and is emotionally fragile.
We see a flashback as she remembers when, as a child, she witnessed her family
massacred by Indians. She was the only one to escape.
Kicking Bird and Wind In His Hair come back to give his a gift: a buffalo fur.
The Indians invited him to their camp.
The tribe welcomes him as a curiosity.
Kicking Bird offers him to smoke the calumet and then calls the white woman
to act as a translator.
That's how Dunbar finds out Kicking Bird's name and that he is a medicine man.
The white woman tells Dunbar that her own name translate as "Stands with a Fist".
Slowly her English improves and communication becomes easier.
One night Dunbar is woken by the earth shaking. He runs out and sees an
immense her of buffalos.
He immediately rides to the Indian camp to inform them.
He arrives at a bad time, while they are performing some kind of ritual dance,
and is initially attacked. But then they understand. The following day
the entire tribe set in motion. Dunbar is amazed by the
efficiency with which they pack everything and start riding, including women and children.
He is invited to join them and treated like a hero.
They find many buffalos dead and skinned: tracks of wagon clearly point to
white men for the massacre. Nonetheless, the Indians eventually find the herd
of buffalos and kill plenty of them.
Dunbar also saves the life of a kid who is about to be attacked by a wounded buffalo.
Wind In His Hair is now a good friend. He even trades his outfit for Dunbar's jacket. Over dinner Dunbar entertains the tribe with his jokes.
Another Indian steals his hat but, a few moments of tension, is forced by the other Indians to pay for it and offers something that Dunbar accepts.
Every day Dunbar is amazed by the organization of the tribe.
One day Dunbar rides to the Indian camp and realizes that the wolf is following him like a dog. He starts playing with the wolf and the Indians see it.
They give him the name "Dances with Wolves".
When the Indians prepare to go to war against another tribe, Dunbar offers
to join but the medicine man tells him to stay and protect his family.
While the men are away, Dunbar flirts with the white woman, who, however,
doesn't like it. Someone explains to Dunbar that the white woman is in
mourning since her husband died.
Nonetheless one morning she suddenly kisses him passionately, and undresses
for him. While they are making love, she hears the sounds of war preparation.
The enemy tribe is advancing. Dunbar volunteers to arm his friends with the rifles he has buried at the fort (so that the Indians wouldn't steal them).
The guns make a huge difference on the battlefield.
The village is saved and the enemy chief killed.
The wife of medicine man
has guessed that the white woman is in love with
Dunbar and tells her husband. The white woman is their adopted daughter.
The following day the medicine man coldly announces that her period of mourning
The warrior Wind In His Hair tells Dunbar that he was initially hostile to him
because the dead husband was his best friend.
Dunbar is allowed to marry the white woman in a traditional wedding.
One day he admits to the medicine man that many more white people will follow.
The medicine man tells the big chief, who orders the tribe to move to their
winter camp. When they are ready to move, Dunbar realizes that he cannot leave
his diary at the fort because it would provide the US army with the information
to chase them. Dunbar rides to the fort to pick up his diary but soldiers
have arrived and they don't even wait to interrogate him: they shoot his horse
and hit him in the head.
Meanwhile the tribe marches away and the medicine man is worried that Dances with Wolves has disappeared. He orders two men to ride to the fort and see what has happened.
Dunbar is beaten by the soldiers as a traitor because he is dressed like an Indian. Dunbar cannot prove that he is the officer in charge of that post because nobody ever knew that he was, and his diary has disappeared.
The commander of the troops demands that Dunbar leads them to the Indians.
Dunbar refuses to help the soldiers track down the Indians.
The commander orders him to be treated like a deserter: the punishment is hanging.
We see that a soldier has stolen his diary that would prove his story.
Another soldier asks him for toilet paper and he gives him pages of the diary.
The two Indian scouts, unseen, witness what is happening.
The soldiers of the US army are a bunch of brutal barbarians compared with the Indians.
Dunbar is loaded on a truck and taken away by six soldiers.
The wolf follows the truck. The soldiers see it and starts shooting.
Dunbar tries in vain to stop them, almost killing the bastard who stole his
diary, who is the most vicious of them all. The wolf is killed.
While wading a river,
Dunbar's Indian friends attack. Dunbar personally kills the vicious bastard.
The Indians think they have killed all the others. One escapes but is killed
by the Indian kid who was watching the horses.
Dunbar's diary drifts down the river.
Dunbar is taken to the Indian camp, which is now in the snowy mountains,
and rejoins his wife Stands with a Fist.
Dunbar tells the big chief that the soldiers will chase him because they now hating him more than they hate the Indians.
Dunbar wants the Indians to move the camp and he will leave them.
Dunbar and Stands with a Fist are about to leave when a kid returns Dunbar's
diary (he must have picked it up while it was drifting down the river).
Meanwhile, we see the US army advancing on the mountains.
They reach the camp when the tribe has already left and only find smoking ashes
and a howling wolf.
The ending informs us that 13 years later the surviving Indians surrendered to the USA.
After producing Kevin Reynolds' much better Waterworld (1995),
Costner directed The Postman (1997),
based on David Brin's 1985 sci-fi novel.
Open Range (2003)