Reviewed by: Brett Willis
This film (Best Picture 1990) is high in historical-cultural importance, but has a sad tone and is full of violence. It could have been a good family film if edited differently.
Kevin Costner directs and stars as Lt. John Dunbar, US Army. In the opening scene, he regains consciousness in a Civil War battlefield amputation tent, still possessing his wounded foot only because the surgeons have gone on a break. Dressing himself and taking a horse, he rides a suicide route in front of the Confederate picket line, yet somehow not only escapes death but becomes a hero because he served as a diversion for a Federal attack. Given his choice of assignments, he chooses to see the prairie “before it’s all gone” and is posted to the Dakotas. The fort commander and the mule wagon driver are strange characters; the commander commits suicide right after sending Dunbar to his post, so no one else knows that Dunbar is on a legitimate assignment. Finding the post deserted, he mans it alone, gradually making friends with a nearby Sioux village. In yet another suicide scene, a Sioux woman cuts her wrists in mourning for her husband, but Dunbar stops her. It turns out she’s actually a white woman raised by the tribe; she becomes Dunbar’s interpreter, and they eventually fall in love. (The tribal dialect is authentic Lakota Sioux and is subtitled.)
The whites, the Sioux and the Pawnee are all shown as having a stereotypical disdain and hatred of people different from themselves. There’s a great deal of violence: white on white (Civil War), white on Indian, Indian on white, and Indian on Indian (the Sioux are “humanized” by being shown in everyday life; therefore the viewers' sympathy resides with them in their wars with the Pawnee, who are shown only as warriors and raiders). There’s scattered profanity throughout the English part of the film. Dunbar and his girlfriend-interpreter are shown having sex (no frontal nudity) while she’s technically still in mourning for her former husband. The Sioux are shown in a spectacularly filmed buffalo hunt; but while stalking the herd, they discover that whites have slaughtered many buffalo for just their skins and tongues. (This could have been made more preachy than it was; the facts of history are that the Sioux wasted no part of the buffalo, even using insulated buffalo stomachs as cooking pots or as vessels to carry fire in, while some whites shot buffalo from trains just to see them fall. Wiping out the buffalo was an indirect way of wiping out the Sioux.) The Federal soldiers are also shown committing acts of cruelty to animals, and are characterized as just plain crude.
Watching this film will definitely arouse some “white guilt” (if you’re white) and will make you more sensitive about treating everyone as a human being worthy of respect. When this film was first shown on broadcast TV, some of the language was removed, but outfootage with extra violence was added in to make it a four-hour, two-night mini-series. Since I’ve seen it enough times to have it memorized, I use it in its regular PG-13 form as a family film by keeping the remote handy and removing all the battle scenes (I leave in the buffalo hunt), the sex scene, the fort and mule-wagon scenes and several other sequences. This effectively reduces it from three hours to about one and a half.