Yes, it hugely simplifies a massively complicated subject and part of history. Yes, it does (occasionally) fall into the trap of the “White Man Knows Best” meme. Yes, the ending is weak compared to the superb beginning and it’s a little too convenient that he ends up with the only white woman in the tribe (hey, Hollywood still has problems with mixed race couples twenty years later), but all of these things don’t matter to me. Dances with Wolves deserves its place on my list because quite simply it’s one of the most romantic (in the truest sense of the word) looks at what was then thought to be a dying genre, a film that decided it was okay to wear its heart on its sleeve rather than try to present a revisionist image of the genre (something Clint Eastwood would do superbly two years later with Unforgiven), but rather the image as seen by John Ford and Howard Hawks, a large scale canvas with an almost black & white morality. Dances with Wolves may not sit up to twenty years of scrutiny, and subsequent films on similar themes (Avatar the most obvious instance) have somehow detracted from its appeal, but for me it remains one of the best films of that decade. Only ET is as blatantly sentimental as this, but like ET it’s because it is unashamed of this fact that it remains watchable. A film like this requires commitment to its principals at all times to succeed.
The opening ten minutes are the strongest of the film, not only in that they define the principal character but that they also define the context, the Civil War is unimportant apart from the fact that it damages men on both sides. The whole film is one about redemption (for many of the characters involved, not just Costner’s Dunbar), and whilst it is easy to say this is part of what makes it occasionally sentimental it works perfectly here. The film begins with him choosing his own way out, although the first time it is desperation due his own fate, come the end it is desperation for the fate of his friends. None of this is important, it’s the journey to making that decision that becomes the focus.
The “suicide run” also introduces us to one of the defining elements of the film; John Barry’s superb score that not only accentuates the on screen action but almost proves to be a character itself. The film required a big, lush, old fashioned score and Barry delivered one in spades – for me only Taxi Driver on this list has a score anywhere near as good as this, and I think of his own scores only On Her Majesty’s Secret Service comes anywhere close to this in terms of quality. The inclusion of Barry also underscores one of Costner’s strengths – he clearly understood that a lot would be resting on him for the film and he needed to trust everyone implicitly or be overwhelmed. Kevin Reynolds provided advice as a second unit director, helping to develop key sequences. The film was more than one man’s version.
It’s easy to forget how big a risk this was at the time. Costner was on his way to becoming one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, his everyman demeanour striking a chord with the public, but a moderate scale (the budget is lower than the film looks) adult-orientated film in what was thought by many to be a dying (if not dead) genre was a massive risk, the possibility of an unwatchable vanity project sat on the horizon. Costner the star delivered, deepening the persona he had created with a genuinely heartfelt performance (for me, only his performance in JFK is better) that grows better with the film. Meanwhile Costner the director showed that he’d quite clearly been taking notes from every director he’d worked with, delivering a wealth of scenes from intimate character moments through to breath-taking action sequences (aforementioned Suicide Run and the Buffalo Hunt), approaching everything with a sense of complete control that was astonishing for a first time director. These were also the pre-CGI dominated days, many of these sequences would these days be shot on a green screen and then created afterwards, the Buffalo Hunt in particular works because it remains hugely physical, shot as a mixture of on location footage and clever puppet work that gives it all a sense of weight lacking from a lot of films these days. Costner would direct two more films, but neither comes close to being as assured and confident as this.
Unusually (in the context of this list especially), it is the longer cut that emerges as the better film as it fills in all of the missing detail from the original theatrical cut, allows supporting characters room to breathe and relaxes the overall pacing of the film. Even at nearly four hours it doesn’t feel like a particularly long film as it’s packed with so much. Costner (as director) allows the film time to breathe between the superb set pieces (and this is a film that is full of set pieces), not as a means of allowing the audience to recover but to focus the story back on the personnel, for all of its scope this is a deeply personnel film, about people rather than events. For all of its grandness in terms of scope, the size of the cast and the vastness of the landscape it often returns to a more intimate form of filmmaking to get its message across (and never in a particularly preachy manner), the shots of Two Socks coming to eat scraps of food, two friends sitting and sharing a pipe – yes, it’s sentimental but it works.
A huge throw back to the western of old, proof that they do make films like they used to, Dances with Wolves isn’t a glittering example of what modern cinema is capable of, but of how films used to be crafted.