Wolf Dancers and the Toughest Pawnee

Teton Prairie

First of a series of articles where I don’t have to make money doing the reviews, get to back-seat drive the criticisms, monday-morning criticize the criticizers.

Cause I’m talking about my favorite movies.

We don’t do much broadcast TV nowadays for a couple of reasons. What we seem to get whether it’s a few major broadcast channels or 150+ cable channels is not much more than a tasking of sifting through 97 % of them as different flavors of the same koolaid.

No sense spending cable money when our Roku lets us catch up of the same things at a rate of $0 after the less-than-$100 outlay for equipment and a mere $7.98 monthly for Hulu. Throw in our already cheap live stream account at Netflix (and-a-one-DV-at-a-time option for stuff not found live-streamed online) and the annual prime membership at Amazon and our flat screen serves quite well as mini-theater in our living room.

Among other specific interests we like historical-based stuff from documentaries, historical docu-dramas and movies based on actual historical events we are easily lured.

Which brings me to today’s pensitivity: What do we learn and how are our perceptions impacted by dramatic (with massive doses of dramatic license) fictional portrayals of history intended to sell tickets more than educate a society addicted to entertainment?

Dances With Wolves

When I go to the movies I expect to be entertained. Dances was entertainment – my kind of entertainment; what I like to watch; how I like to be carried away so I can enter into the mystery of the tale … and that’s what fiction, video or otherwise, is.

It ain’t no dang classroom. So Dances was worth the price of the ticket. Now what did the reviewers say and how do I respond?

The Austin Chronicle:

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 6, 1991
Despite its incongruity in today’s entertainment marketplace, Dances With Wolves is an audacious gamble that succeeds; it’s an old-fashioned movie with a smart, contemporary perspective. The film’s politically correct repudiation of the familiar black-and-white characterizations of the white and red man is ultimately undermined, however, when the pendulum swings too far in the other direction. As director, actor, and producer, Costner has risked his secured bankability and come out a winner.

Reading that is like watching a football game while sitting with and listening to the constant prattle of the guy who built the megatron. He ain’t interested in the game, more the performance of the scoreboard.

New York Times:

The exact place is never stated. This is the mythic American West. Because the film was shot largely on magnificent locations in South Dakota, it can be assumed to be the Dakota Territory, where, just a few years later, in 1876, Gen. George Armstrong Custer was to have his fatal encounter with the Sioux in the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

“Dances With Wolves” is by way of being a rationale for the ferocity of the fate that awaited Custer and his men.

Yeah so? I guess that’s what reviewers do, describe the action like football announcers who feel they have to add anecdotes and background bio stories in order for that last long pass to make sense.

But then there weren’t no Custer or no 7th Cavalry. From a story telling standpoint the movie didn’t need to allude to June 1876 and the Little Big Horn. It wasn’t about that.

Mr. Blake’s screenplay and Mr. Costner’s direction of it are, with the exception of three memorable sequences, commonplace. The film is painstakingly composed of small details of frontier and tribal life that should be riveting. Most of the time they aren’t.

Well hell … how can I enter into the story and be able to imagine I’m walking, riding and fighting with the characters without non-riveting details of frontier and tribal life? What does it mean to be riveting?

Perhaps within the genre (I can’t believe I used that milquetoast word) riveting means Dunbar has to have a handlebar mustache, chew tobacco, and sleep with his horse. The Lakota have to tie prisoners to wagon wheels or on ant piles and talk in sloppy American pidgin (another milquetoast word) rather than clearly and intelligently in the real thing.

What the hell does riveting have to do with feeling of being in on the action?

Though the details are specific (about, among other things, the Sioux rules for mourning the dead), they are presented in the perfunctory way of generalized statements in guidebooks.

I didn’t see, hear or understand them in any perfunctory way. But who am I? Maybe this reviewer is telling me I should have gone to the library BEFORE seeing the movie rather than being excited to search out the most non-riveting details that still captured my attention.

The Civil War battle sequence that opens the film is a beauty. There is another fine, almost Ambrose Bierce-like vignette involving a shell-shocked Union officer Dunbar meets as he is traveling west.

There ya go… if only I had seen or heard the words, “Ambrose Bierce-like vignette” in a trailer, maybe I’d gone to see the movie more excitedly and earlier than when I eventually got around to it.

The film’s buffalo stampede is stunning.

Awe shucks, every buffalo stampede I saw in all the westerns I’ve watched have been stunning in one way or another since at an early age I knew there weren’t enough buffalo to create even half a stampede.

Once Dunbar has taken up with the Sioux and starts strutting around with a feather stuck in his hair, the movie teeters on the edge of Boy’s Life literature, that is, on the brink of earnest silliness.

This Sioux camp not only looks as neat as a hausfrau’s pin, but also unlived-in. It’s a theme-park evocation, without rude odors to offend the sensitive nostril.

They say that those who can’t write become critics. This NY Times reviewer doesn’t appear to be able to write riveting stuff that doesn’t sound snobbish, posturingly intellectual and milquetoast as hell.

Rather, I can close my eyes and see one of my favorite all time fictional characters, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, strutting into the Times building, teetering on the edge of the Godwulf Manuscript (look it up) and throwing the reviewer out the window on said reviewer’s sensitive nostril.

Now Roger Ebert, on the other hand, knows how to write about fiction from an emotional space.

They meet at first in the middle of the prairie, holding themselves formally and a little awkwardly, the cavalry officer and Sioux Indians.

There should be instant mistrust between them, but they take each other’s measure and keep an open mind. A civilized man is a person whose curiosity outweighs his prejudices, and these are curious men.

They know no words of each other’s languages. Dunbar, the white man, tries to pantomime a buffalo. Wind in His Hair, a fierce warrior, looks at the charade and says, “His mind is gone.” But Kicking Bird, the holy man, thinks he understands what the stranger is trying to say, and at last they exchange the word for “buffalo” in each other’s languages.

That’s the best wordage ever to describe my reactions from the get-go when Dunbar gets to his post while the Civil War continues receding in both actual distance and mental awareness. This is a story … and I’ve always liked stories even when I couldn’t tell why classics were classics. For example, I had to read Silas Marner in high school and that was like eating sand one spoonful at a time. Guess I’m more of an action-adventure kind of guy.

But then, Dances had to set the stage before the action (except for that ride across the battlefield in the opener and “Don’t take my foot!”

As Dunbar discovers the culture of the Sioux, so do we. The Indians know the white man is coming, and they want to learn more about his plans. They have seen other invaders in these parts: the Spanish, the Mexicans, but they always left. Now the Indians fear the white man is here to stay. They want Dunbar to share his knowledge, but at first he holds back. He does not wish to discourage them. And when he finally tells how many whites will be coming (“As many as the stars in the sky”), the words fall like a death knell.

So do we … constantly throughout the film … so do we … I don’t care how precise the authenticity was. I care that the characters, their context and nature all fit within the fictional paradigm of the story.

There are some of the plot points we would expect in a story like this.
The buffalo hunt (thrillingly photographed).
A bloody fight with a hostile tribe. (I noticed that among the cast of actors and characters, Wes Studi was only identified as “The Toughest Pawnee.”)
The inevitable love story between Dunbar and Stands With a Fist.

But all is done with an eye to detail, with a respect for tradition, and with a certain sweetness of disposition. The love story is especially delicate; this isn’t one of those exercises in romantic cliche, but a courtship conducted mostly through the eyes, through these two people looking at one another.

There is a delicate, humorous sequence showing how the tribe observes and approves of the romance, when Kicking Bird’s wife, Black Shawl tells her husband it is time for Stands With a Fist to stop mourning her dead husband and accept this new man into her arms.

Meanwhile, we get to know many members of the Sioux tribe, most especially Kicking Bird, Wind in His Hair and the old wise chief, Ten Bears .

The effort made by Costner and crew to create multiple-dimensional characters was notable. The more you felt that each character had more to tell you, the more immersed in the story you became.

Ebert then describes the creative in crafting believable fictional characters and circumstances.

Each has a strong personality; these are men who know exactly who they are, and at one point, after Dunbar has killed in battle beside them, he realizes he never knew who “John Dunbar” was but he knows who Dances With Wolves is.

The futility he felt on his suicidal day as a Union officer has been replaced by utter clarity: He knows why he was fighting, and he knows why he was willing to risk losing his life.

Dances was one of the earliest rebuttals of what perhaps entertained me but also mislead me as a child as I wide-eyed my way through Roy Rogers and Randolph Scott while munching Red Hots, Big Hunks and Junior Mints at the small theater in my Idaho home town.

Ebert again:

Now he (Costner) has realized his dream again by making one of the best Westerns I’ve seen. The movie makes amends, of a sort, for hundreds of racist and small-minded Westerns that went before it. By allowing the Sioux to speak in their own tongue, by entering their villages and observing their ways, it sees them as people, not as whooping savages in the sights of an Army rifle.

I miss westerns … not Randolph and Roy, but more thoughtful pieces. I suppose I miss the stereotypes too, in many respects. One stereotype, however, for me has a good riddance sense to it: Hollywood Indians.

Thirty years ago I picked up a copy of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and realized I was reading American History as it should have always been presented and wasn’t. As I’ve said before, the kind of history I can relate to is best found in Howard Zinn’s histories.

History was taught in our country as a serious of guidebook reports on war, dates and judicial decisions rather than portrayals into which you could imaginatively enter the life experiences of heroes like Lewis and Clark.

Brown’s book wasn’t war, dates and judges. Not too far into it as I went back to the library and chased some of the references (this was prior to the laziness of internet searching) I was able to say in both anger and shame, one of my early western heroes, George A. Custer, was not that … as was said before me, he had it coming.

Other aspects of Hollywood westerns have redefined many of its most common cliches.This is more than glorifying anti-hero types made common by Clint Eastwood. It has to do with making more believable and conflicted cowboys, gunfighters and outlaws. Eastwood in Unforgiven as compared to Josey Wales works for me. Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn is more believable (can’t believe I used that word) than John Wayne’s.

Along with films like Dances and Into the West, those are the westerns I miss.

Next: Into The West (TNT and Steven Spielberg)

Author: Arthur Ruger

Married and in a wonderful relationship. Retired Social Worker, Veteran, writer, author, blogger, musician,. Lives in Coeur D' Alene, Idaho

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