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human bonds. Post-Sidney Poitier Hollywood has to some extent sorted out the on-screen treatment of Afro-Americans to the point where the black/white buddy routine from The Defiant Ones right down to Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder or Mel ‘n’ Danny in the Lethal Weapon pictures has become a narrative commonplace. But Costner’s Dances With Wolves has still managed to create a bit of a stir because it joins that select band of Hollywood movies— Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950). Arthur Penn‘s Little Big Man (1970) among them - which seriously set out to portray friendly relations between a white protagonist and genuinely dignified Indians.
While the stereotypical savage has undoubtedly been most frequently glimpsed on our cinema screens. an alternative vision of inter-ethnic blood brotherhood is to be
found in many of the classics ofAmerican literature. The pairing ofwhite frontiersman Natty Bumppo and loyal Indian Chingachook in James Fenimore Cooper‘s The Last Of The Mohicans. the growing mutual dependency of Huck and Nigger Jim as they travel downriver by raft together in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and Herman Melville’s bonding between narrator Ishmael and Native American shipmate Queequeg in Moby Dick. In each case, the white protagonist evinces an uneasiness with the constraints of decent settled middle-class society and morals, a feeling that manifests itself in both a subconscious attraction to the social other that is his coloured bosom pal, and an eagerness to escape to pastures where civilisation’s rules and regulations no longer apply.
Costner’s Dances With Wolves fits snugly into this classic mould. In this revisionist epic Dunbar‘s fellow Union comrades are shown as boorish, ignorant, cruel, and. in at least one instance, quite insane, so it’s hardly a surprise that our hero wants to be rid oftheir society and out in the wild blue yonder, ‘lighting out for the territory‘ in Huck Finn’s famous words. Removed from white civilisation he is therefore free to undergo the familiar process of redemption through unprejudiced contact with the coloured man, in this case the neighbouring Sioux tribe. Much research and collaboraation with Native American historians has gone into the production, the casting oftalented Indian actors and the sub-titled Lakota language offering an accurate. detailed and sympathetic picture of Sioux life.
First and foremost, Costner‘s protagonist finds in the Sioux a reasoned and caring way of life that’s in harmony with the ecosystem of the plains and provides a model of near-paradisal existence far preferable to his experience ofwhite society. The key relationships in the film are, ofcourse. between the menfolk. Communication first of all opens up between Dunbar and Sioux holy man Kicking Bird (played by Canadian Oneida Graham Greene). an intelligent and gentle father figure. but it‘s the developing mutual respect between the Lieutenant and initially hostile warrior Wind In Ilis Hair (Omaha and former Marine. Rodney A. Grant) that provides much of the narrative impetus.
Ostensibly, the love interest is provided by Mary McDonnell’s Stands With A Fist. an orphaned white brought up by the Indians as one of their own, yet her character seems to represent the film‘s major cop-out. Fair enough. the contemporary audience demands that Kev fulfil the role of romantic leading man, but Dances With Wolves doesn‘t take the opportunity to bring him together with a Native American. instead saddling him with the dewy-eyed McDonnell who’s wholesome enough and white enough not to offend. and whose main function seems to be the translator who usefully helps move the action along. The handsome Wind In His Ilair, seems to remain the film‘s most eroticized character however, his long hair and glowering looks throwing out the signals of forbidden sexuality, and the moment where he and
Dunbar exchange items of clothing is perhaps the most highly-charged instant in the whole three hours.
While the portrayal of the vicious Pawnee raiders as all-round bogeymen is a sad lapse into easy cliche. the prime emphasis in the arc of the story is on Costner's outsider’s quest to find peace with himself. Dances With Wolves may use a motifofexchange (language. clothing. ideas) between the white man and the Redskin and derive its title from the Indian name given to Dunbar. but the core of the film is all about what he gets out of his contact from the Native Americans. Ideological exploitation it might be. but he gains from his time in Dakota a mode ofexistence that he can apply to his own life — stressing family. caring for others. looking after the environment — and one which also handily stikes a chord with today's movie audience.
In the end. no matter how sympathetic it is to the cause of the Sioux. Dances With Wolves is still about the problems of the white consciousness. Costner‘s film mines a vein ofNew Age unease with the contemporary urban industrial lifestyle. and as such joins a sort of l Iollywood counter—tradition whereby white middle class intellectual concerns of the day are played out on the background of the old West. This is the process at work in 50s predecessors like Broken Arrow where inter-ethnic understanding is also a plea against the intolerance ofthe McCarthy witch-hunt. or Richard Brooks‘ The Last Hunt (1958) where the slaughter ofthe buffalo with the purpose of reducing the Indian population has definite parallels with the Nazi genocide of the Jews. While the later depiction of the US cavalry brutally murdering near-defenceless Indians in Arthur Penn‘s Little Big Man and Ralph Nelson's Soldier Blue (both 1970) deliberately conjured up the excesses of America‘s involvement in Vietnam at a time when the My Lai massacre was still fresh in the mind.
Dances with Wolves though is a much less overtly political animal than either ofthose two. rather it‘s a stirring adventure tale that refuses to treat the audience like children. Not quite the masterpiece you‘ve been hearing about perhaps but commercial fare of rare skill and integrity. a film whose triumphant and unexpected success (and you just watch the statuettes pile up on Oscar night) has inevitably set the ball rolling for a plethora of Native American projects in I lollywood.
We have yet perhaps to hear the same story told in an authentic voice. and although the Native American community remains a highly marginalised ethnic grouping within America‘s panoramic cultural output. the Costner effect could mean that a breakthrough movie along the lines ofCharles Burnett‘s or Spike Lee‘s early independent work might be just that little bit closer.
Dances With Wolves (1.3) opens in ('entral Scotland through the ( 'annon and U ( 'l chains from Friday 8 March. See Film ()peners and L istin gs‘fbrfitrt/mr details.
The List 8 — 21 March 19917