Dances with Wolves

Reviewed by: Brett Willis

Moral Rating: Average
Moviemaking Quality:
Primary Audience: Teens Adults
Genre: Western Adventure Drama
Length: 3 hr. 1 min.
Year of Release: 1990
USA Release: November 21, 1990
Cover Graphic from Dances With Wolves
Featuring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant, Floyd Red Crow Westerman
Director Kevin Costner
Producer Kevin Costner
Jim Wilson
Tig Productions
Distributor: Orion Pictures. Trademark logo.
Orion Pictures
(Orion Releasing LLC), owned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. (MGM Holdings, Inc.), Owner: Amazon®

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.

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
When reviewing movies, many Christians focus on the areas of sex and violence. There is an equally important issue with historical films; and that is historical truth. We need to understand that “Dances With Wolves” is a highly successful attempt at re-writing history. (As “history” is written by victors, sometimes it needs to be re-written; and from a Godly perspective!) I suggest every Christian who has seen “Dances With Wolves” checks out these 11 pages of excellent and well researched material addressing a number of issues concerning early America, but the most poignant heading addressing the film is “Dances with Hollywood”—about 1 page long. The film is also mentioned in other places.
Bill Oliver, age 49
…I believe this piece was considered good because it was an average Costner pic that was somewhat politically correct. Many, many other films have tackled the subject better, and in a better light… You can’t blame it for its overhype, but it’s not anything more than average…
Dr. Neal Orange, age 34
Why send in comments on a movie that everyone has seen? Since “Dances With Wolves” is now a decade old, there are probably a lot of teens who’ve yet to view this best picture. The following comments are for you… it’s an awesome film: my recommendation—watch it!! And even if you did see it 10 years ago… well, perhaps watch it again! On second viewing, this movie had just as big an impact on me as it did the first time. Unless you’re obsessed with dark-comedy and disturbing material, the best picture stature of “Dances With Wolves” should be readily apparent to all viewers. Amazingly, the studios were reluctant to make this movie—a film completely crafted by Kevin Costner.

In the end, it cost less than half to make than the best known actors currently demand just to show up on screen—believe it or not. “Dances With Wolves” is a superb compilation of storytelling, fine acting, drama, character development, humour, romance, friendship and history. I found the violence to be ungratuitous—it’s a depiction of the way life was. No, don’t take everything in this movie literally.

Just enjoy the story, the setting, the powerful themes of friendship and the tragedy of plowing over God’s creation as an ends in itself. The three hours just flies by (so unlike “Waterworld” and “The Postman”). It has been said that Kevin Costner outdid himself in “Dances With Wolves,” and has never come close to repeating that effort. I agree. Other than in “Perfect World” in which Costner’s heartfelt flawed character provides thoughtprovoking drama, I’ve yet to see a Costner film that comes close to this production. How odd that the best came first, and at such low cost to make. Yet, so it is. My Ratings: [3/5]
Todd Adams, age 32
I was never a big fan of westerns, and this movie is slow going during the first 40 minutes or so. But if you stick with it, you’ll find that it’s a story that respects Native Americans, more than western movies have in the past. Yes, there is violence, but it is set during the Civil War and Holocaust of the Native American tribes, so you should expect that. It is wonderful to watch the unfolding of trust and friendship between Dunbar and the tribe, between a man whose acts as an outcast and people considered outcasts during that time, and how they come to understand each other. It deserved the Oscars it received. My Ratings: [3/4]
Hillari Hunter, age 37