Union Lt. John Dunbar commits an act of near-foolhardy heroism in a skirmish with Confederate forces draws an implicit link with the spectre of slavery and serves to underline the relationship between white colonist and coloured subject which lies at the centre ofthe film.

Transferred from one front to another at his own request, Dunbar soon finds himself in deepest Dakota taking up his duties at a deserted military outpost, luxuriating in the wide open landscapes of the frontier but wary that the absence of his expected comrades may be down to a previously fatal onslaught by the local Indians. Thus ensconced, preparing for the inevitable confrontation with the neighbouring Sioux and Pawnee tribes, he is at the cutting edge of American 19th century expansionism. As a Union officer he is both footsoldier of


Yankee rationalism, part of the blue-uniformed fighting machine that went to war against the Southern States to uphold the Revolutionary principles of liberty, fraternity and equality on which the US constitution is based, but at the same time a cog in the machinery of America‘s internal imperial adventure, the centuries of slaughter that reduced the Indian population from around five million at the start ofthe 16th century to a mere 250,000 or so at the end ofthe 19th.

Empty-headed US patriotism may continue to cast the country as ‘the land of the brave and the home of the free‘ but in the nation‘s cultural tradition there is an unwillingness to accept such idealism at face value. In white America’s treatment ofthe coloured man, the red and the black, there remains a guilty conscience that will always

Lt John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) scouts for buttalow


ilh Kicking Bird (Graham Greene).

undermine the rosy self-perception embodied in the myth ofthe great US melting-pot.

There are two distinct artistic responses to the ghosts ofthe past. The reactionary writer or filmmaker at least partially justifies the harsh actions of history by demonising the coloured man as an anarchic threat that had to be overcome before the foundations of civilised society could be laid. Such an impulse finds expression through much of the lnjun-conflict school of Western movie, wherein befeathered Redskins fall from their horses by the dozen to leave thc land free for white settlers and white nuclear families.

Having a hard time ofit in the face of historical fact, there is an opposing position that sets up the friendship between the white and the coloured man as the deepest ofall

5The List 8— 21 March 1991