Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dances With Wolves: A Look Back

Where does the time go? It has now been twenty years since Kevin Costner's epic and winner of multiple Academy Awards, "Dances With Wolves" was the toast of Hollywood. 

Twenty years later it's still a fantastic film and holds up well. So well, in fact, that James Cameron's "Avatar" is pretty much "Dances With Wolves In Space". They both have a similar theme. A group of harmonious people are infiltrated by outside forces whose only goal is to take. But that's something entirely different, so back to "Dances With Wolves".....on earth.

Sure, the movies are dramatized, but they are also romanticized. So, when I watch this film, I can't help but feel like our (human beings) ability to see things as they really are, isn't very good. After we hit the continent by storm and started our own nation we really let it rip when it came to claiming territory. We "discovered" a land that already had people on it, we destroyed their culture and stole what was theirs. Before you think I'm on some sort of liberal rant here, I'm not. It's what we do. Groups of humans conquer the weak or technologically inferior of their own species. Hell, the Native Americans did that to each other as well. It's part of the way things are, to this very minute you sit here reading. But, it doesn't have to be.

Costner pushes the Native American "good", white man "bad" thing, but he also tells the story of how there were massacres and "regime changes" among the Native Americans (the Pawnee and Sioux in this case), even as white settlers were heading their way. In the history of cinema, how often do you get to see a film shot almost entirely from the view of the Native American side?  Costner's character, John Dunbar, is the subject and yes, most of the film is shot from his viewpoint, but that viewpoint is fluid. He comes to the western prairies with a notion that we (Americans) will swallow it up just as we did the east. Dunbar sees the disregard that the "white man" shows for the new territory, in the way that the land, animals, and people were treated. He knows killing and power struggles from having fought in the Civil War, but begins to tune himself into the Native Americans, as he becomes friendly with them.

For the first time, he sees a battle between tribes and recognizes that it's not only the settlers and Americans who can be savage to one another. All things being equal though, he sees that the Native Americans share a commonality even when they are in battle. They respect the land and nature. They know that they are only temporary visitors to the land and that it's their responsibility to ensure resources are used, but not wasted. Nothing in the film brings this home the way the buffalo slaughter scene is shown. We don't get to see the hunters killing the buffalo. We see what the Native Americans and Dunbar see. A small valley with the bodies of the buffalo left rotting in the sun. Only their tongues and skin were taken. Late the film shows the Native American hunt. For them, the hunt is about a way of life and the necessity for survival. They do not hunt for sport or profit. They hunt and take what they need, not just what they want.

Besides the themes that are touched on (misuse of land and resources, racism, greed, imperialism) the film is also visually stimulating. Many times during the film, the director of photography, Dean Semler, is able to capture how the open territory must have looked and felt to early settlers. My favorite shots are the ones that show the characters in the film against vast backgrounds. Pit that against the urban sprawl and the lack of natural space we have for any sort of meaningful distance today.

While Costner's career, in both directing and acting, surely peaked with this film, it doesn't ruin its' legacy. Not even "The Postman" or "Waterworld", both of which seemed to want to show us what human beings could do to the world and civilization on a larger scale, tainted the legacy of "Dances With Wolves". The entirety of the film, could really be summed up in the relationship between the wolf and Dunbar. Early in the film, Dunbar sees the wolf studying him. He raises his rifle to shoot it, but hesitates, and decides not to. He recognized that the wolf was not presenting a problem. The wolf was existing in his habitat. Dunbar was the outsider and he needed to be the one to act with humility and trepidation. This is a lesson that he also realized, as he started interacting with the Native American, Sioux tribe. More than one type of organism could share and use the same space, if they respected one anothers needs and way of life. The native people, the animals, and white men could all survive together. There didn't have to be a conquered or conqueror.

If you have not seen the film or if you have not watched it in a long time, I urge you to dust off the VHS copy, your DVD, or go pick up the blu ray version (which looks beautiful on an HD television). Contrast the underlying message with our world today. Overall, it seems we (the human race) never learned that we could all survive together while maintaining tradition and respect. The survival of our species depends on us being able to see each other from another point of view. What does it cost to show respect for another persons (or people's) way of life? What does it cost to look for a solution that doesn't involve the domination of one culture for the survival of another? It shouldn't be hard to learn from our past, nor from films such as "Dances With Wolves". Film can be a great way to expand a person's mind to looking beneath the surface and understanding what's really at stake in our relationships with other people and our environment. Costner can go to his grave knowing that he created one of the most entertaining and thought provoking movies of the modern era. Twenty years from now, I'll bet the film will remain just as highly thought of.

They killed us in our tepee
And they cut our women down
They might have left some babies
Cryin' on the ground
But the firesticks
and the wagons come
And the night falls
on the setting sun.

Neil Young

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