When Dances With Wolves first came out in 1990, I watched it. Once. I resisted the lure of the movie because a) everyone was raving about it, b) it was Kevin Costner and everyone was raving about him and he was just so full of himself in those days, and c) everyone “discovered” the movie before I did. Yeah, I can be that petty — or I used to be. We’re talking about nearly fifteen years ago. Clearly, it took me a lot longer to shrug off aspects of puberty than most people.
But I did enjoy it and when it was re-released on DVD a few years ago and I found a copy in the bargain bin at the supermarket I picked it up for a couple of bucks. It’s been gathering dust on the shelf ever since, unwatched. Probably for the same reasons. I just don’t remember the movie being that compelling to watch. And I do remember it being looong. Sort of like a North American version of Out of Africa – a favourite of mine.
But I was looking around for something romantic and escapist to watch on the weekend, and I didn’t have to cater to Mark’s criteria, which meant historicals and sagas could be included. I hummed and hawed over Dances and finally put it into the Blue Ray player because it would at least be almost novel, as I’d only seen the movie once.
First up. Dances With Wolves IS romantic. It’s sweeping, a saga, and you’ll weep by the end of it. The romance in the movie, though, sucks big time. It’s well enough done, I suppose, but there’s no conflict. No angst. It’s one of those “romantic interest” things — the nod of the writerly hat that caters to the mixed gender movie audience that expects the hero to get the girl by the closing credits. Mary McDonnell, who plays Stands with Fists, is great playing against Kevin Costner’s John Dunbar/Dances with Wolves, but the tension is almost completely absent.
It took me this second viewing to figure out why I never got back to the movie for so long. And that’s why. I’d always thought of it as a romance…and it had proved to be a tepid one at best.
But it’s not a romance at all. It’s a guy movie. This movie is all about Dunbar and his mates– The Sioux. How he makes his bones, literally. There’s long loving scenes featuring the buffalo hunt, and his growing reputation amongst the Sioux, then he marries into them (Stands with Fists). Just before the wedding scene, there is one of the key scenes in the whole movie. Wind In His Hair comes to Dunbar’s teepee to help him prepare for the wedding, and confesses that Stands with Fists’ first husband was his best friend, and that he hated Dunbar when he first come amongst the Sioux. But now he sees that Stands’ husband and his friend had to leave in order for Dunbar to come into their lives, and it had all worked out for the better.
But the pulse pausing moment comes at the very end of the movie. The Sioux have killed US troops in order to get Dunbar back (he was a prisoner). Now, Dunbar knows he must leave the tribe, because the US army will continue to hunt for him, and the tribe, and will annihilate them when they find him. As he and Stands leaves, Wind In His Hair sits at the top of the ravine where the tribe is camped and cries out his friendship for Dances with Wolves, and that nothing will end it.
That’s the moment. That’s the heart-stopper. You can see Dances with Wolves (he’s not Dunbar then — he’s left that identity behind months ago) hang his head, trying to find the courage to keep moving, to keep on with his plan to leave as everyone around him watches him take Stands and walk out of their lives…for their sake.
And he does.
It’s not romance as we usually tend to think of it, but it breaks your heart anyway.
Looked at that way, you can see why it won all the Academy Awards.