(Originally published as “DANCES WITH WOLVES at 25” on November 20, 2015, now updated.)
I’m as big a fan of the Academy Awards as they come, but it’s foolish to judge movies based on Oscar wins and losses. It’s unfair to the films themselves, not to mention our own perception of them.
There’s perhaps no better example of this than Dances With Wolves, winner of 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director for star Kevin Costner. From that ceremony to this day, many serious film critics and cinephiles have berated Dances With Wolves, in part, on the basis that the long-overdue Martin Scorsese deserved Oscar gold for what many consider his masterpiece, Goodfellas. (The Academy finally made amends in 2006 with Scorsese’s The Departed.) In their minds, Costner had no business as a first-time director defeating America’s premiere auteur.
Suffice it to say, that Oscar battle (over which Costner had no control) should in no way color our final view of either film’s merits. In truth, they’re both American classics. Dances With Wolves plays more closely to Academy voter sensibilities, to be sure, but perhaps the most decisive factor was this: while the greatness of Goodfellas surprised no one, the artistic and financial success of Dances With Wolves defied a negative pre-release buzz which had, sight unseen, branded the epic a complete and total failure.
Before hitting theaters nationwide on November 21, 1990, “Kevin’s Gate” (as it was infamously dubbed) had all the tell-tale signs of a disaster in the making. A passion project by a Hollywood A-lister who’d never directed. A troubled shoot beset by multiple delays. It eventually went over-schedule (the Bison Hunt sequence itself took 3 weeks) and over-budget (Costner had to pitch in $3 million of his own money just to keep the production going).
To compound the difficulties, once word got out that the final cut would be three hours, that half of it would be subtitled from the Native American Lakota language, and more would be narrated in journal entry voice-over, the expectation was that this Kevin Costner vanity project would be dead on arrival.
Then it opened, and every elitist naysaying prediction instantly vanished.
Though it never reached #1 on any given weekend (due to the Home Alone juggernaut that had begun just five days prior), Dances With Wolves was embraced, praised, and beloved by critics and audiences alike (CinemaScore reported the extremely rare “A+” average grade from viewers). It consistently stayed in the Top 5 for its first three months, and then returned to that sphere for the month following its Oscar sweep.
But the question now is, 30 years later, does it hold up? Between its current 82% rating on Rotten Tomatoes along with some gradual post-Awards revisionism that it’s too soft (some detractors have vilified Dances With Wolves as a “White Savior” movie, a slander that shortsightedly belies the film’s final act), the long-term impression that began to evolve was that it’s a good-but-not-great epic at best, and narcissistically indulgent at worst. Costner films such as Waterworld and The Postman no doubt helped fuel that sentiment.
(Claims that Dances With Wolves whitewashes history are undercut by powerful shots like this one. In a single frame, we see how indicting the material is – through thoughtful, intentional cinematic expression no less, rather than soapbox preaching.)
With every revisit, my admiration for Dances With Wolves isn’t merely reaffirmed; it grows. I’d confidently suggest that not only is it at as good as it’s ever been but, perhaps bolder still, it’s even better than you remember it (regardless of what that memory may be). 30 years on, Dances With Wolves truly stands as one of the great American movies.
The first thing that stands out in its “looks like a suicide” opening prologue is how Dances With Wolves resurrected Westerns from the cultural scrap heap: it modernized them. A genre defined by stark black-and-white morality, we’re instantly thrown into a story of a hero who wants to kill himself. From there, the movie continues to evolve in shades of gray, humanizing the traditional good guys and the bad – or, respectively, the White Men and Native Americans. The former are no longer bastions of virtue and the latter no longer crude barbarians.
But neither are the roles simply reversed. Instead, what we see is perhaps the first fully authentic vision of humanity on the American frontier. In both races and cultures, we see that some are savages, others are noble warriors, others still are peacemakers, and the rest just want to live simple lives with their families. In this Western, both cultures are like every culture, filled with the breadth of the good and the bad that is universal to all nations and peoples. In this fundamental regard, Dances With Wolves is nuanced and true.
Through it all, Costner does right by the story, the characters, the history, and his craft. As a director and actor, he’s always in service of the film and not the other way around. It’s the “vanity project” that doesn’t feel like one.
That’s saying something for a three-hour movie, but even its length defies the notion of excess. Could it be shorter, even by a full hour? Sure, the story could. But not the themes. Not the characters and relationship arcs. Not the re-examination of the American Frontier. The “extra” hour makes it all real; it makes it resonate. It allows the material and its ideas to breathe; for us to contemplate them, and be moved by them. The beautiful irony here is that the length of the piece makes Dances With Wolves less pretentious, not more. The three-hour “indulgence” actually makes for a more humble work (a virtue only enhanced by the four-hour director’s cut).
So yes, not only does Dances With Wolves hold up. I dare say it has improved with time. Its merits are now more clear, and anyone’s opinion of it – good or bad – would only increase on a fresh viewing. It’s easier, also, to now see how it helped raise the sophistication of the masses. After Dances, lengthy epics not only returned but could be hits. Subtitles were no longer audience kryptonite. We saw broad, epic ambition again – from Unforgiven to Braveheart to The English Patient to Titanic – be rewarded at the Oscars and the box office. It also inspired other genres to be reinvented and reborn; its difficult to imagine a three-hour-plus blockbuster take on Lord of the Rings being possible – let alone being taken seriously – without the road that Dances With Wolves first paved.
But even with all the ways this film changed the industry, Dances With Wolves still towers as a self-contained masterpiece in its own right, by its own account, in the vacuum of its own self, free of any exterior context or influence. There are too many moments to list that strike our emotions deep (and too many more shots to gawk over and praise), so I’ll just mention one. The one that still always gets me.
In the Sioux tribe that Costner’s John Dunbar befriends, there’s a young warrior who’s initially skeptical. Upon their first meeting, this warrior is compelled to show strength and strike fear, charging Dunbar as he yells, “I am Wind In His Hair! Do you see that I am not afraid of you?!” It’s an intense moment that, once over, causes Dunbar to collapse where he stands. And then hours later, after we’ve gone through this long and powerful journey, to see the film conclude with a callback to that initial aggression, and then flip it on its head, well, it’s an unforgettable moment of soulful, heartbreaking pathos.
Defying all rules, setbacks, and expectations, Dances With Wolves inspired an entire industry to take risks again. 30 years later, in what is probably the most calculated and risk-averse era in Hollywood history, we could use another one just like it.