Dances With Wolves



An Essay by Alan Smithee



Dances With Wolves is a western - a rather obvious statement, but its director, Kevin Costner, has created something far removed from the popular western of the 50's and 60's. Westerns have not been a fashionable genre for some time, so Costner had problems getting his project off the ground in the first place as it proved to be something the film industry was not too keen to back. Together with his co-producer, Jim Wilson, Costner decided that the book written by a friend, Michael Blake, was the story he wanted to use to make the first feature for their film company, TIG Productions. As the genre was not considered to be one which would bring box office success, Costner had to provide the funds for the development of the script until financial backing could be found. In fact, the film, about the American West, ended up partly funded by a British backer, Majestic Films International, who made a basic deal including the foreign sales rights. It was only after striking this deal that Costner was able to approach a US studio, Orion Pictures, (the original deal with Island Pictures having fallen through) , who agreed to split the cost of the film on a 50 - 50 basis.

In backing Costner's venture, Orion pictures were really banking on the pull of its director and star, Kevin Costner himself. He had already proved his appeal in films such as No Way Out , The Untouchables, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams . Indeed, baseball movies were just as unfashionable as westerns, but Costner had managed to turn Bull Durham (backed by Orion Pictures) and Field of Dreams , both baseball movies, into box office smash hits. Obviously, they were relying on him to do the same for the western. Costner envisaged his western as being an epic on a large scale, so his budget of $18 million was used up easily supporting a huge cast shooting on location. Costner is the only "star" in the film, the supporting roles being taken by Native Americans and the female lead by Mary McDonnell. Authenticity was something Costner was aiming for in the film, and the lack of well known faces in the film in fact helped him to achieve this. South Dakota, still looking as it must have done in the 1800's when the film is set, was Costner's choice of location, making use of a privately owned herd of buffalo for one of the film's most dramatic scenes, the buffalo hunt. What Costner has ended up with is a film of majestic proportions whose success is partly due to Costner's personal appeal but also the result of the authenticity he was seeking - the audience become caught up in the lives of the Indians and can easily believe that what they are seeing on the screen could have happened - while its success has sparked off a rash of the genre, with Robert Redford working on Dark Wind , Robert De Niro on Thunderheart and the TV company ABC producing a mini-series, Son of the Morning Star.

A good example of the classic narrative structure, Dances With Wolves leaves its audience with a "satisfied" feeling at the end. The opening sequence poses a number of enigmas for the audience which set the whole narrative in motion. The camera is positioned so that we get a limited viewpoint of the scene, but we know where we are: we see the blood-soaked swabs of the surgeons and the instruments they use; we know the figure on the table, from whose viewpoint and level we see the opening shots of the hospital tent, is going to be important; we hear the conversation of the surgeons, which the figure on the table is also hearing, but we don't see their faces while they discuss taking his leg off, a matter of routine for them; the shots of pieces of army uniform, particularly of the pile of boots discarded at the side also help us understand the situation and the setting of the film. By the time we see the face of the man on the table we know that he is going to be important and what happens to him will feature largely in the narrative of the film. The opening sequence further reinforces our interest in the character as through the use of close up, we become involved in his struggle to put on his boot and escape from the hell-hole. The music and sound used in the opening sequence reinforces the setting and our involvement with the character. Although we cannot see his face, we can hear the laboured breathing of the man on the table and we share his pain through his grunts as he struggles with the boot. Once outside, a series of shots shows us soldiers in the uniform of the North during the American Civil War.

They are tired and dirty. The dialogue between the main character and a rather unpleasant soldier further explains the situation. The editing at this point also reinforces the narrative as we see long shots of the enemy across the field and we see a shot of the major they are talking about who looks uncomfortable and indecisive while we are also shown shots of his horse. The editing makes it clear that it is the main character who is looking at the horse and the reason becomes clear when we see him ride out into no man's land. The music during this sequence of the film also underlines the narrative as it has echoes of the last post and military drums. Our knowledge of the character and his situation up to this point lead us to realise that this is no heroic gesture on the part of the soldier, but an act of desperation, reinforced when he says, adopting a Christ like pose on his horse, "Forgive me Father". We know the army have misinterpreted his actions but it has saved his leg. It is only at this point that we learn who he is through the device of the notebook that Lieutenant John Dunbar reads from, used as a voice-over as he rides out (on the same horse) to take up his new post on the frontier. Now we know the story is really beginning.

From then on, the narrative has all the features of the classic narrative. The action centres round a main character, John Dunbar, and it is what happens to him that forms the structure of the narrative. The main thrust of the plot is his developing relationship with the local tribe of Sioux Indians until he becomes absorbed into their culture and his love affair with the white woman turned Indian, Stands With a Fist. While this is going on, we are always aware of the threat from the other soldiers and this is resolved at the end of the film. John's developing relationship with the Indians is reinforced by his parallel relationship with the wolf, Two Socks. As John and the Indians grow to trust each other, John and Two Socks also come to trust each other until Two Socks eventually takes food from John's hand immediately after John has finished writing the last entry in his journal before leaving Fort Sedgewick to go and live with the Indians.

Obviously, Dances With Wolves belongs to the western genre, but not to the genre which shows the Indians as the "baddies" and the soldiers as the "goodies". It is more in keeping with Soldier Blue and Little Big Man and the audience's knowledge of these films aids the suspense of Dances With Wolves as there is always the fear of a massacre at the end, a fear which is enhanced by the editing as we cut backwards and forwards between the Indians and the searching soldiers. Costner has used the icons of the western, which raise certain expectations in the audience, and then given us something else. He has used the typical western hero, the resourceful loner. But the representation of the loner in Lieutenant John Dunbar is much more complex. There is something of the dreamer in John Dunbar who wants to see the West before it disappears and who writes down his thoughts and feelings and observations lovingly in a notebook. The character is presented as having human weaknesses, clearly shown when he faints after his confrontation with Wind In His Hair and when he knocks himself out when he rushes out of bed to chase Smiles A Lot and his friends when they try to steal the horse. He is also gentle and compassionate, demonstrated through his relationship with the animals in the film, particularly Two Socks whose trust he gains until the delightful scene, filmed in close up, when Two Socks takes the food from his hand. His first real contact with the Indians is also a compassionate one, when he takes the injured Stands With A Fist back to her tribe.

Costner has also used a number of other icons from the western, such as the Union soldier, the Indian and the white woman adopted by the Indians. The soldier is usually the one to come to the rescue and a force of good. However, in this film, he is represented as the bringer of ignorance and mindless violence, clearly indicated to us when they mindlessly shoot down Cisco, the horse, and when they viciously beat John Dunbar for "turning Indian". The opening sequence of the film immediately shows the soldiers involved in what seems to be a pointless confrontation, one which no-one knows how to resolve until John Dunbar, out of desperation, starts off the action. The commanding officer at Fort Hayes is clearly mad and we wonder what John Dunbar is being sent to at Fort Sedgewick. The soldiers who arrive at Fort Sedgewick as the Indians are moving to their winter quarters are vicious and ignorant, particularly Private Spivey who lies about finding John's notebook, tries to steal the Indian symbols from around John's neck, takes particular delight in using his position of power against John in a violent way and joins in enthusiastically in the killing of Two Socks. The audience almost cheers when John throttles him with the chains that bind him. There is one soldier who is represented as having some compassion and understanding, however, the young lieutenant who tries to protect John from the violence of the others. John is aware of this compassion, indicated by the look he gives the lieutenant's body after he has been rescued by Wind In His Hair and the others. The soldiers who relentlessly track John Dunbar and the Indians at the end of the film are faceless, represented by shots of feet, blurred faces and figures on horseback.

The Indian is usually the vicious aggressor and a source of evil, but here the Indian is represented as being civilised and living in a close and caring community. The film, however, does not ignore the fact that there were blood-thirsty Indians, and the first ones we meet are fierce and warlike, though even here there is only one who is set on attacking the white man. Our first meeting with the local tribe of Sioux Indians comes in the form of Kicking Bird, and although there is initially a threat, indicated particularly in the music which is low with threatening drum rolls in the background, the encounter is presented in such a way that the audience can tell there is no real threat from this particular Indian. For a start, John has to see this through naked, which makes the situation ridiculous, and the panic of Kicking Bird when he runs away shows he is no real threat, reinforced by the lack of threatening music. We then see the Indians in intimate shots inside the tepee when they hold a conference to discuss the problem of the soldier. They all have their say and the wisdom of the chief is obvious. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the representation of the Indian in this film is the way they are shown to be real people who have relationships like anyone else. This is an aspect of the Indian which is not usually developed. There are small details which give us insights into family life, for instance, the relationship between Kicking Bird and his wife. They talk to each other in bed (first removing the doll some child has left there) and Kicking Bird is given some advice on what he should do concerning Stands With a Fist and Dances With Wolves - it takes a woman to be aware of these things. The every day life of the Indian is also developed, life as they live it without the threat of the white man. The whole community becomes involved in the hunt for buffalo, packing up en mass to follow the trail. The buffalo are their survival, and we are reminded of the white man's threat to this when we see the bloody corpses, killed only for their skins, left to rot on the prairie. In this film, the Indian is the victim rather than the aggressor.

Even the white woman, who is usually rescued from living with the Indians and therefore from a fate worse than death and returned to her own kind, does not follow the traditional mould. In a scene with Kicking Bird, Stands With A Fist demonstrates her fears of being returned to the white man. The Indians are now her people and she realistically struggles with her long forgotten English when she tries to communicate with John Dunbar.

Dances With Wolves is a long film, three hours, which is necessary for the audience to become involved with the Indians and their way of life and to reflect the length of time it takes for Lieutenant John Dunbar to become Dances With Wolves. The countryside is also important in the film and the cinematic techniques used reflect this. During John's journey to Fort Sedgewick a large number of wide angle shots are used to convey the sheer size and emptiness of the land they are crossing. We see a shot of John on his horse on a hill, surrounded by golden colours - a man in harmony with nature - and the camera pulls back to a wide angle shot which keeps growing until the huge vista of the plain fills the screen. The use of wide angle shots is repeated throughout the film, particularly notable when John arrives at the Indian village for the first time and we see the scale of the settlement. This technique is also used to good effect to show us the extent of the massacre of the buffalo by the white men. The director makes a lot of use of close up for various reasons throughout the film. He uses it on a number of occasions inside the Indian tepee to create a feeling of intimacy. We can almost feel the warmth inside the tepee when they discuss what to do about the soldier, reinforced by the golden hues of the lighting. He also uses close up to show reactions. This is used to good effect in the shot before we see the carcasses of the buffalo. The camera pans along the faces of the Indians and we see the looks of sadness and dismay before we see what they are looking at. Equally effective are the close up shots of the bloody corpses and the blood drenched grass swarming with flies. Close up is also used to indicate the growing relationship between John Dunbar and Stands With A Fist. At first they are not actually looking at each other, but in the scene after the buffalo hunt when Kicking Bird and his wife are making love, the editing makes it clear that John's thoughts are on Stands With a Fist and hers are with him. After the attack of the Pawnee, the look passes in close up between them, and another close up, this time of Kicking Bird's wife, indicates that she is aware of the relationship between them. Again, in the love scene between them, close up is used creating the feeling of intimacy.

Editing plays an important part in the film, particularly in the action sequences. In the buffalo hunt, it is important that the audience believes what they see and careful editing makes sure that they are unaware of when they are seeing real buffalo and when they are seeing mock-up animals. The editing also gives a feeling of speed and action to the sequence. Sometimes we are with the riders in amongst the buffalo, sometimes the buffalo rush towards us, sometimes the buffalo come crashing to the ground right in front of us or suddenly change direction. Similarly, the editing plays an important function in the attack of the Pawnee on the Indian village, cutting between the preparations going on in the village and the approaching Pawnee, first seen as silhouettes against a red sky, while shots of their feet to guns to feet again to a child's face give the impression of the threat from the Pawnee as they approach the village. The close up of the dogs shot with Pawnee arrows indicated their ruthlessness. The camera is very often "in amongst" the action, particularly in the sequence towards the end of the film when the Indians rescue John from the soldiers.

Editing is also used to create confusion when the Pawnee attack John's guide. We are shown John burning the debris at Fort Sedgewick then the Indians watching the smoke which we assume is the same and initially fear for John's safety. Again, editing plays an important part at the end of the film, building up tension as the action moves backwards and forwards between the Indians saying goodbye to Dances With Wolves and the approaching soldiers.

Music is used to good effect to underline the narrative of the film. There is a "theme", flowing and haunting, which is used throughout the film, particularly during the "big" scenes of the prairie. Distorted music accompanies John's discovery of the dead deer in the water at Fort Sedgewick, suggesting his fear and horror. The music becomes grand and majestic as the Indians start their buffalo hunt, becoming faster and louder as they approach the herd until the thundering of the buffalo's hooves takes over and they explode on to the screen. The attack of the Pawnee is accompanied by staccato drums which are low and threatening. At the end of the film, a lone wolf's cry accompanies Dances With Wolves and Stands With A Fist as they make their way through the empty landscape, suggesting the lonely life they are being forced to lead.

Other cinematic techniques which help to underline the narrative are the use of costume and the choice of weather. The gradual change taking place in John Dunbar as he comes more and more to trust the Indians is reflected in his costume. He start off as a soldier, putting on full uniform to go to visit the Indians, though it is interesting that by the time he arrives, his flag is being used as a bandage and his uniform is dishevelled. As he becomes more involved with the Indians and their way of life, he gradually loses his uniform, giving his jacket to Wind In His Hair as a trade and losing his hat the same way. The last time we see him in any kind of uniform is when he is married to Stands With A Fist when he wears his waistcoat. Thereafter, the change is complete and he is wholly an Indian. Along with the change in his clothing, there is a change in his hair. He starts with a full beard and moustache, shaves off his beard before visiting the village for the first time, grows his hair longer after the Indians visit him and eventually shaves off his moustache and grows his hair longer still, becoming clean shaven like the Indians.

The weather changes according to the action on the screen and the mood the director wants to create. During John's journey to Fort Sedgewick, something he is looking forward to, the sky is blue and the colours are golden. The weather remains settled during his initial encounters with the Indians. When they learn of the danger from an attack from the Pawnee, this is underlined by the weather, a heavy downpour which hampers their search for the guns at Fort Sedgewick. The day the Indians leave for their winter camp and John goes back to Fort Sedgewick to find the note book and instead finds a company of soldiers, the skies are grey and heavy with cloud. The film ends in winter, with the cold and grey of snow, suggesting the misfortunes which will inevitably befall the Indians.

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