(director: Kevin Costner; screenwriter: from the novel by Michael Blake; cinematographer: Dean Semler; editors: William Hoy/Chip Masamitsu/Stephen Potter/Neil Travis; music: John Barry/Peter Buffett; cast: Kevin Costner (Lt. John Dunbar), Mary McDonnell (Stands With A Fist), Graham Greene (Kicking Bird), Rodney A. Grant (Wind In His Hair), Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman (Ten Bears), Tantoo Cardinal (Black Shawl), Robert Pastorelli (Timmons), Maury Chaykin (Major Fambrough), Wes Studi (Pawnee villain), Tony Pierce (Spivey); Runtime: 230; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Bonnie Arnold/Kevin Costner/Jake Eberts/Derek Kavanagh/Jim Wilson; Image Entertainment; 1990)
“Plodding, simplistic and overlong politically correct Western epic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Kevin Costner (“The Postman”/”Open Range”) makes his directorial debut in this plodding, simplistic and overlong politically correct Western epic, where the Native Americans are the good guys and the soldiers are the bad guys. It tells of a hero’s unlikely hippie-like adventure to the frontier, where he lives among the Lakota Sioux in the Dakota Territory and ends up shedding his whiteness and seeming as if he’s full of horse feathers. It snagged the Oscar for Best Picture, the first Western to win that sucka since Cimarron in 1931. The big-budget film also did a brisk business at the box-office (it reportedly grossed more than $130 million on its theater release).

The film opens during the Civil War, in 1863, as a depressed wounded Union soldier, Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), fearing the surgeon’s scalpel, goes on a Christ-like suicide charge into Confederate lines, only to survive and see that his action roused the soldiers under his command to successfully attack. Rewarded for what is mistaken to be an act of heroism, Dunbar naively chooses the farthest westward post. He says aloud that he wants to see the frontier before it vanishes and to himself says (in the form of a voiceover, which continues throughout as our hero reads from his diary) he wishes to escape the bloody Civil War.

Once reaching the frontier, Dunbar seems overwhelmed in the presence of a mentally disturbed major (Maury Chaykin) who assigns him to his remote post, Fort Sedgewick, in the Great Plains country, and he commits suicide after telling Dunbar “I have just pissed in my pants, and nobody can do anything about it” and then asks his aides for his crown. Dunbar is faced with prospects of great loneliness in this vast uncivilized territory when he finds that the fort he was assigned to has been abandoned, but he’s rescued by developing a friendship with a stray wolf and the passing interest shown by the Sioux to this strange but peaceful white man whom they encourage to visit them. Easily peeling off his whiteness to go native in dress and attitude, he is dubbed Dances with Wolves by the wise Lakota Sioux medicine man, Kicking Bird (Graham Greene). Dunbar begins to heal his soul among the crafty Sioux, as he revels in discovering the harmony the Indians have with nature and how all the Sioux are so noble and not like the savages he always thought.

Now a member of the Sioux tribe, he’s able to help them hunt buffalo (the film’s most eye-popping scene is the buffalo hunt that was directed by Kevin Reynolds) and soon romances a white woman (Mary McDonnell), who was rescued by the tribe as a child after being taken captive by the Pawnee. The Pawnees are used to show the bad side of the Indians, how they can act as punks and bullies. The white woman also has gone native, and is named Stands With A Fist. Settling happily into his new Indian ways Dunbar sadly finds that the cavalry, with its loutish misfit soldiers, comes to rescue him and in the process arrest him as a traitor. There arrival spoils his fantasy of having found paradise, and signals the demise of the Indian way of life in the near future.

During dialogue with the Sioux they use their real language, which prompts subtitles.

This is far from a satisfactory Western, even though Australian cinematographer Dean Semler does a fine job photographing the stupendous vistas (it was shot on location in South Dakota with over 700 cast members) and a few of the set-piece action scenes are watchable. It nobly wants to present the Lakota Sioux in a good light, yet for all its sentiments to wax poetic about them tells us precious little about their culture and their way of life. The liberal revisionist Western script by Michael Blake that is adapted from his novel is disjointed, too flowery in its trivial observation of the Sioux and too manipulative. Costner’s mostly bumbling direction (too many lingering shots of meaningless things) fits more into a vanity project, as it overall lacks the dramatic fortitude needed to give it some gravitas and Costner’s characterization of the hero is merely two-dimensional. The many emotional stirring scenarios seemed moving at times, but more often seemed more sappy than genuine.