Kevin Costner’s directorial debut, which many had predicted would be Kevin’s Gate (a label later recycled for Waterworld), is pictorially impressive and a solid piece of storytelling — though it is undeniably shameless towards the end, at the beginning, and in the middle, too. Costner is Lt. John Dunbar, a valiant Union soldier who arrives at a deserted fort and makes friends with a nearby Sioux tribe. You get the impression that the only decent people in America are Dunbar, the Sioux, and the white woman Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell), whom the tribe kidnapped as a girl. The other whites are all scum, and the other tribes aren’t much better. The movie rather manipulatively introduces us to the Sioux just as their idyll is about to be shattered. Audiences responded to Dances with Wolves for the not-dishonorable reason that they liked seeing Dunbar break away from corrupt “civilization” and bond with friendly, spiritual people. The film is simplistic but satisfying, like most fables, though an epic of this length needs more complexity in its narrative and characters. How convenient, for example, that there is a white woman among the Sioux for the white star to fall in love with — as if we would approve of the movie’s condemnation of whites but balk at Dunbar shacking up with a Native American. (Maybe the plot was rigged that way to avoid protests from Native Americans, many of whose ancestors were raped by soldiers much less sensitive than Dunbar.)
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay (Michael Blake, from his novel), Cinematography (Dean Semler), Editing (Neil Travis), and Sound. With Graham Greene as the solemnly humorous Kicking Bird, Rodney Grant as the hotheaded Wind in His Hair, Maury Chaykin, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Robert Pastorelli, Wes Studi, Charles Rocket, and Larry Joshua. Kevin Reynolds shot second-unit material (including the buffalo hunt). A longer cut running 237 minutes is available on home video, and is the version usually shown on TV. Costner didn’t direct again until 1997’s The Postman.