Friday, July 2, 2010

Dances With Wolves

I saw Dances With Wolves when it was released and liked it a lot. What's not to like in a race traitor story? I've been a sucker for them forever, maybe starting with Little Big Man and A Man Called Horse, both of which I should see again. But then I noticed a number of anti-racism theorists knocking Dances With Wolves when complaining about Avatar, which made me wonder if I'd missed something. Then I saw Ta-Nahisi Coates say he was fond of the movie, so I decided to watch it again.

Quick reactions:

Black Shawl is a great character played by a great actress, Tantoo Cardinal. I wish she'd had a lot more screen time. She reminded me of Ojibwe women I've known: funny, capable, and unwilling to take any shit from men.

Kicking Bird, played by Graham Greene, is perfect. I would love to see a movie that was all about Kicking Bird and Black Shawl.

All of the Lakota characters and actors are mighty, mighty fine.

The first part of the movie is too slow. If I was the editor, I would run the opening credits over bits of the Civil War battle scene, then cut to Dunbar's arrival at the abandoned fort.

Kevin Costner, as Dunbar, gives a fine performance. The character is remarkably incompetent. The only thing he does to help the Indians is provide them with rifles, and he only manages to do that because a Lakota boy helps him.

Mary McDonnell gives a great performance as Stands With A Fist, but her hair is all wrong. She grew up Lakota. Her hair should've reflected that. I understand that in times of mourning, Lakota men and women cut their hair, so maybe her hair would've been loose for part of the movie, but at the very least, she should've braided it when her mourning ended. (In historicals, Hollywood almost always screws up the hair of the female star.)

And when she gives Costner a big welcome-home kiss and embrace in front of others, it felt too Hollywood. Maybe I'm wrong (I need to ask a Lakota someday), but my suspicion is a Lakota woman's welcome would've been more controlled. I think that was a moment of Hollywood logic, the director feeling the actors had to surrender to the moment so the audience would know they loved each other desperately. Americans have trouble reading polite passion.

There's a scene that Costner as editor should've included: the Lakota attack on the buffalo hunters. When Dunbar is able to accept that, he's truly changed sides.

There's a smidgen of classism in the movie: the only sympathetic white characters are Dunbar, a Lieutenant, and there are strong hints that the officer who shows up at the end is troubled by the way his men treat Indians. But historically, it was more likely that lower-class whites would go native than officers.

Quibbles aside, it's a damn fine movie. Will-Bob gives it 4.5 stars.