As Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves reaches its 30th birthday, one writer looks back at what the film meant to them.
Writing this at a moment when big, moving pictures aren’t so readily there for us to lose ourselves in stings, doesn’t it ? We’re living in a bittersweet moment, that’s for sure: the absence of the big-screen compelling us to quietly revel all the more in the happy memory of it.
Those pleasures of the communal, big-screen moviegoing experience really imprinted themselves on me almost 30 years ago at a screening of Dances With Wolves, the feature film directing-debut of actor Kevin Costner, based on a screenplay by the late Michael Blake that he had adapted from his own novel.
It was me endlessly talking (my factory setting it’s fair to say) about the promise of a newly-made, big screen Western that prompted a bit of resistance amongst my friends when I relentlessly encouraged them to come with me to see Dances With Wolves at the Coventry Odeon one early spring night in 1991. “A Western? Really?!” was their collective refrain of reservation. I explained to said pals, probably more than once, about how I’d read good things about the film since its US release the previous autumn. I’d read and re-read the issue of Premiere that had Costner and the film in it.
By 1990, then, the Western had become a movie genre that was starting to really captivate me just as it was being, and not for the first or last time, written off as almost-dead (not true). I’d seen a handful of Westerns by 1990, but Dances With Wolves would be the one that really fanned the flame of my interest; followed not so long after by Unforgiven and then Wyatt Earp.
As a sidenote, I’ll take the opportunity here to recommend the subsequent Westerns that Costner directed: The Postman (a film that seems to have acquired new resonance more recently) and Open Range. The latter film’s opening credits images of a pristine landscape implicitly mourn the historical record of how that terrain was so used and abused by settlers. That sense of mourning also triggers another memory for me: when I was a very young kid I remember that my dad’s copy of the book Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee used to sit on the bottom stair of my childhood home. My dad was reading it on the tube to work and I never forgot the image on the book’s cover: a native American, head lowered, riding a horse across the snow.
That mournful sensibility is at the heart of Dances With Wolves.
What was it then, in Dances With Wolves, that made its mark so immediately and vividly for me ?
It seems to me now that the expansive views of the American prairie and the rivers and mountains without end (to borrow a phrase from a poem) were just intoxicating: their framing and presentation quickly allowing us to understand why John Dunbar, portrayed by Costner, states his mission as follows: “I want to see the frontier before it’s gone.”
The primal, atavistic aspect of John Dunbar story finds its fullest expression in the scene when, watched by Two Socks the wolf, Dunbar loses himself; shedding his white settler and soldier past as he dances around a fire under the stars. It’s an old story that’s part of a much broader tapestry of the complicated and compromised process of American mythmaking and a huge unease that cannot be denied as sitting deep below every Western ever made.
Certainly, Dances With Wolves brought out a sense of the tension of human connection and disconnection from and with the land in terms of the white settlers. By contrast, the film vividly presents the harmony with nature embodied by the native American community that Dunbar encounters. This encounter is threaded with a melancholy that culminates in its final moments and which carries beyond the end credits. Indeed, as I think about it, is there a motif that runs through the film of characters bidding farewell to each other with the gesture of a raised hand?
The filmmaker Stanley Kubrick once made the point that movies have more in common with music than they do with literature in the sense that they should dwell in a series of moods before all else.
Costner’s movie leans into that sense of mood; its images made all the more expansive by John Barry’s score. For all of its big vista moods, though, one of the film’s most affecting scenes is that in which Dunbar demonstrates to the native Americans who visit his lonely outpost how to grind coffee.
Here’s a film, then, that’s a movie-ode to Nature. It’s an eco-movie and back in 1990 this wasn’t lost on audiences. For some, the film was one huge irritation. Pauline Kael’s review at the time being a case in point.
Remembering Dances With Wolves now reminds me of just how forcefully the films that we see when we are kids (and I was still a teenager when this movie came out) find such a powerful place in our inner lives: we give them a significance in the same way that we do the songs that we first hear when we are kids.
And what of the university friend who had really been the most reluctant at the prospect of going to see…a Western ? Well, here’s what he said to me as we exited the Odeon cinema in Coventry: “Thanks for getting us to come with you.”
James’s latest book is Bond: Photographed by Terry O’Neill
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