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Film Review: Dances with Wolves

Film Review: Dances with Wolves

Dances with Wolves is a 1990 film, starring Kevin Costner. He’s been in a lot of historical dramas, including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. However, Dances with Wolves is set on the American Plains, and he plays a Union Army soldier sent to an outpost right on the edge of the US. This was during the Civil War, so Kevin Costner’s character was fighting for the North, and the edge of the US then would be in what is now the middle of the US – e.g. North and South Dakota. The film was based on a book by Michael Blake, but there are a fair few differences between the adaptations.


Kevin Costner’s character, Lieutenant John Dunbar, ends up at this abandoned Western post because he is something of a war hero. He asks to be sent out there because he wants to see the wilderness for himself, before it completely disappears. He sets about repairing it, and is instructed to wait for other Union soldiers to come. Despite the threat of nearby Native Americans, John Dunbar enjoys being alone, and he records his thoughts in his diary. However, when the only two people who know about his posting there die, he effectively becomes trapped there. As time goes on, he tries to talk with the local Sioux tribe, meeting a white woman (who was adopted into the tribe as a young girl) who acts as a translator. John Dunbar does what some other people living on the fringes of the US did – “gone native”. For this, he can be punished, but he does not regret what he did.


Most of it was filmed in South Dakota, with a few scenes done in more mountainous Wyoming. It was quite difficult to do, as the weather was often bad. Also, the scene in which Dunbar and the tribe go hunting and cause a stampeding buffalo herd was real, so that was quite dangerous. Kevin Costner almost seriously injured himself. As quite a lot of the film is spoken in Lakota (a Native American language, but there are English subtitles), there was a Lakota Sioux language instructor on set to tell the actors how to pronounce certain words.


The film has received very good reviews, despite some heavy cynicism and scepticism from the critics at first. Because it was Kevin Costner’s first time directing, the film ran over budget and he personally had to pay money (from his own wealth) to make up the difference. Films portraying Native Americans can be controversial, as they are often too romanticised, or Native Americans play the evil bad guys. However, many Sioux saw the film as a more accurate portrayal of their history, and Kevin Costner was adopted into the Sioux Nation as an honorary member. It also won loads of Oscars at the time. In 2007, the Library of Congress put it on the list for preservation in the US Film Registry, because of its significance.


However, both Native Americans and white Americans have criticised the film. Apparently, when the actors speak in Lakota, they are pronouncing it incorrectly as they were taught to speak it by a woman, and women have a different version of the language to male speakers. Some white critics say that the film is a little bit “white saviour”, meaning that the tribe could not have survived without the protection of John Dunbar. Whether you agree with them or not is up to you, but taking some time out of your day to watch this otherwise excellent film is definitely worthwhile!


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