Set during the Civil War, Dances with Wolves tells the story of a Union soldier, John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), who through his own suicide attempt aided the army to win a battle, and upon promotion, requested to be stationed at a post on the edge of the frontier. Utterly alone there, where he hopes to see herds of wild buffalo and Indians he befriends a wolf he calls Two-Socks and becomes accepted by an entire tribe of Sioux Indians.
From the moment John rides his horse across the battlefield, arms to the heavens just asking to die, we know he’s not like the other soldiers. I don’t think he gives two cents about the war. The fact that he wants to be out in the frontier alone, to witness it before it is gone and overrun by the white men, shows a respect for nature that his peers don’t have. He writes with a more intelligent and insightful tone than I would expect from any average Joe from the Civil War era. He’s one of the few men of his time who could befriend and understand the Sioux.
Though John has an obvious lone wolf mentality, he still has a need for human connection that drives him to seek friendship with the Sioux. The moment where he has Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) and Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) at his place and tries to ask about the buffalo is amazing. John gets on his knees, puts his hands to his head to represent horns and tries to mimic a buffalo’s movement. Wind in his Hair, the warrior, just dismisses John as crazy and wants to go, but Kicking Bird, a holy man, is more curious and tries to communicate.
A moment like that hardly ever happen often today, we don’t try to understand one another, or we just don’t have the need. The closest I’ve come to such a moment was being lost in a German city and asking an old man on a bench for directions. I didn’t speak German and he didn’t speak English, but we both knew just enough Spanish to help me find my way. Today, I would just pull up the GPS on my phone and deny myself a meaningful human interaction.
Thankfully, the tribe has a way to get past the language barrier quickly. At a young age, a white woman, Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell) was adopted by Kicking Bird and can still speak English. Reluctantly, she helps translate John’s English, revealing to Kicking Bird how insightful and friendly John is compared to other white men. As the bond between John and the tribe grows, Stands With A Fist teaches him to speak the Sioux language, they fall in love and become a married couple within the Sioux tribe. Unfortunately, John is still a Union soldier and when men find that he has “turned injun,” he and the whole tribe are seen as a traitorous threat.
Of the seven Oscars the film won, the Cinematography of Dances with Wolves is what completely blew me away. I don’t think I could have even imagined the rolling hills and plains of the west looking this majestic. There are beautiful images of wind whipping through the tall prairie grass, the mountains far in the distance and the lake still enough too see a perfect reflection of horses on the other side. It’s just amazing to see such natural beauty of the few places left in the American frontier captured so well. And the buffalo scenes make your eyes grow wide and still your breath.
Dances with Wolves is one of those films everyone should see at some point. This film is especially important to the few who know we have Native American ancestors. It does not only preserve a culture and time that is now gone because of the narrow minded ambition of men, but teaches us about embracing, learning from and accepting people different from you.
“I was just thinking that of all the trails in this life, there are some that matter most. It is the trail of a true human being. I think you are on this trail, and it is good to see.”