Oscar Review: Dances With Wolves (1990)
Our next look at Best Picture winning films comes in at #75 on AFI’s list of the Top 100 Films of All Time. Winning in 7 of the 12 categories for which it was nominated – including Best Picture, Director (Kevin Costner), Cinematography, Editing, Original Score (John Barry), Sound, and Adapted Screenplay – Dances with Wolves is a fine piece of American cinema.
We first meet Lt. John J. Dunbar (Costner) as a wounded Union soldier about to lose his leg during the Civil War. He steals a horse and rides across the battlefield; maybe to commit suicide, maybe to just draw the fire of the Confederate troops, but without a doubt he becomes a hero and gains the admiration of the general and his choice of postings.
Wanting to see the frontier before it’s gone, Lt. Dunbar opts for Fort Sedgwick, a remote post in the Great Plains, where he will serve alone. Making the most out of the rundown fort, the lieutenant sets up a work schedule, rations his supplies, and makes do with his new home.
Not entirely alone, Lt. Dunbar makes friends with a shy wolf, “Two Socks,” and the horse he rode on that fateful day. After months without word of relief, the lieutenant is startled from his bathing to find a lone Sioux (Graham Greene) snooping around the fort. After scaring the man away, Lt. Dunbar decides that he should make friends with his neighbors and begins the journey to their village. Along the way, he comes across a woman, Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell), who is mourning the loss of her husband and ritually cutting herself.
These chance encounters spark a series of events that lead to mutual understanding and friendship between the two stranger cultures. Lt. Dunbar leaves his old self behind as he adopts the Lakota lifestyle and name: Dances with Wolves.
A strikingly beautiful film, Dances with Wolves is a fantastic tale of a man and his journey from duty to self discovery.
If memory serves, this film was the first Best Picture winner that I had seen in the theater. I was immediately taken in by John Barry’s score – I even have the soundtrack – and the rolling hills of the Midwest – shot near where my mom grew up.
It is an ambitious film. Clocking in at 3 hours, even longer in the extended edition, at first glance one might think it unwise to make a movie run so long. But the story carries itself with a balance between moments of humor, passion, adventure, drama, and self-realization.
Dances with Wolves takes a thoughtful look at the life of one man and how love and understanding can be found across all barriers and how who you are can change if you have the courage to take the step into the unknown.