There was a time when I swear I put Dances with Wolves (1990) on the television in the middle of the day, fell asleep shortly after it began, awoke four hours later, and it was only half finished. Officially speaking, the film clocks in at one minute over three hours. It was being shown on a cable network with commercials, though I cannot remember the precise one. Clearly the movie is not eight hours in duration, even with commercial breaks, so perhaps my memory is faulty. Actually, I enjoy ragging on it because I saw it once as a little kid and thought it was boring. That is saying something because anything having to do with history I soaked up like a sponge from a young age. For example, I may have been the only elementary school kid with a subscription to the Civil War Times magazine. Yes, there used to be a monthly periodical about an event that ended over a century and a half ago. As I have aged, I find that my tastes have changed. This time around, I got a lot more out of my viewing.
Speaking of the Civil War, it is in the middle of that event when Dances with Wolves begins. Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) comes to on an operating table while a battle is waged outside. As an aside, that is one place you did not want to be. Lieutenant Dunbar realizes this, too, and orders the doctor not to amputate his leg. Instead, thinking he will die anyway from infection, he painfully puts his boots back on and stumbles back to the battlefield. Once there, he finds a horse, mounts, and rides out toward the Confederate lines. Galloping back and forth a couple of times, his intention is to be killed in combat. This plan is thwarted when miraculously none of the bullets hit him. Rebel cheers spur him to another pass, but it has created a diversion for Federal troops to come up and push the Confederates back. For his heroics, the general finds him laying exhausted near his horse, requests his personal physician to look after Lieutenant Dunbar, and awards him a medal for bravery. His maneuver also grants him a wish, and it is fulfilled by being transferred to the West. His main goal is to see the buffalo herds, but it is complicated when he reports to Fort Hays in Kansas and has to deal with its mad commanding officer, Major Fambrough (Maury Chaykin). Before taking his own life by blowing his brains out, Major Fambrough assigns Lieutenant Dunbar to a desolate post in the Dakotas called Fort Sedgwick. When Lieutenant Dunbar arrives, he finds it abandoned. At first, he assumes that the troops are out for a long patrol, and decides to maintain his post. It soon becomes evident that no one is returning. Still, being the soldier that he is, he decides to continue his duties as if there is a large garrison is present. Being along suits him, too, though he soon finds that he is not quite by himself. His first visitor is a friendly wolf he names Two Socks. The other are the nearby Sioux people. Lieutenant Dunbar’s first introduction to them is an ignominious one, being in the nude and chasing off Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) from trying to steal his horse. Still, relations soon normalize and the Sioux begin to make peaceable social calls. Lieutenant Dunbar cannot speak their language, but he is able to get them to understand that he would like to see the buffalo. Since much of Sioux life is centered on finding and following the buffalo, the parties find that they have a common objective. Before long, Lieutenant Dunbar is being invited to visit the Sioux encampment. On the way to one of these visits, he finds a mourning Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell). She is not a Sioux, but rather a white woman whose family had been killed by Pawnee when she was a child. She had been found by the Sioux, and they accepted her into the tribe. The reason for her sadness is the death of her husband, but Lieutenant Dunbar is excited because he now has somebody who speaks English and Sioux, meaning he can have fuller conversations with Kicking Bird. Not all the Sioux are so keen on him. One of the doubters is Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant), who does not trust Lieutenant Dunbar. If only there could be a way for him to prove himself. . . . Oh wait, there is, and it comes after he finds the buffalo herd and alerts the Sioux to its presence. In turn, they invite him to take part in the hunt, and he performs admirably, including saving the life of a young boy. Another opportunity comes when the Sioux send out a raiding party against the marauding Pawnee, but Lieutenant Dunbar stays behind to watch over their camp. While many of the men are out, the Pawnee attack and he helps drive them away. For all that he does for the Sioux, Lieutenant Dunbar is dubbed the title name, and is free to marry Stands with a Fist. Everything would be going swimmingly if it were not for the arrival of the United States cavalry. Dances with Wolves finds them after visiting Fort Sedgwick one last time. The troops mistake him for a Sioux and capture him, and are incredulous as to his identity when he claims that he, too, is a soldier. They label him a traitor and intend to hang him, but as he is being transferred the Sioux come to his rescue. While Dances with Wolves is thankful, he believes that the army will be after him and does not want to endanger his new friends. Hence, we close with Dances with Wolves and Stands with a Fist bidding a somber goodbye, heading back to white civilization in the hopes of proving his innocence.
Perhaps it is because so many films these days, even historical dramas, are so full of computer-generated images (CGI) that I appreciated more Dances with Wolves. Viewing a film is supposed to be an experience where you are transported to another place and/or time. To do so, so many movies about the past resort to CGI that usually does not look real. That is why we must treasure pieces like this one, which was actually filmed on location in the areas where the Sioux lived. There is also 1970’s Waterloo that had over 80,000 extras to recreate one of most important battles in Western History. There are other things to treasure in Dances with Wolves. In talking about how the Sioux live, Lieutenant Dunbar comments that each day ends with a miracle. I love this thought as a practicing Catholic. To be sure, native people had their own religion that saw a spirit in each separate part of creation. Aside from being polytheistic, the main difference between that and what Christianity professes is that we believe one Spirit inhabits all, and it is God. No matter how you view it, though, every part of Creation is a miracle because it was made by God. You can be in awe of the sum of its parts, the way that it everything seems to work in harmony. You can thank God for individual things, too. The way a dolphin breaches the surface to take a breath, or how the wind moves through the trees, is all part of a Divine Design that is breathtaking in its scope. You might see a sort of hippie way of looking at the world in what I am saying, but that, too, shows how great and wide is the Catholic experience. At any rate, every day ends with a miracle because we get to experience all these things that God has made. That is incredible when you truly stop to think about it.
Regardless of the transcendental nature of my descriptions, Dances with Wolves is a three-hour film. That is quite the commitment, and not for everyone. If you are tired, it could definitely help you fall asleep as it did for me all those years ago. That is not the most ringing endorsement, but it is something. At the same time, if you are interested in being transported to a different place and time, I think you could do a lot worse.
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