It’s Oscar Night, which barely registers on my radar anymore…but I still notice that every year around this time the “Worst Movies To Win Best Picture!” listicles start making the rounds again, so once again I present my thoughts on one of the “poster child” movies for the “rightful” Best Picture getting robbed by a lesser movie, Dances With Wolves, which is always cited as having won over the real Best Picture, Goodfellas. I’m never going to win this argument, but I will speak for Dances every year.
By the way, I thought I had written this relatively recently. It turns out that this post is nearly 20 years old. Where does that time go, I wonder?
I was looking on my shelves for a movie to watch the other night, and on the bottom shelf I found a movie I hadn’t watched in at least five years, this despite the fact that this same movie completely floored me when I saw it in its initial release. The movie was Dances With Wolves, and it’s been so long that my pan-and-scan VHS copy of it is now showing the telltale signs of decay — bad tracking in spots, sound that muffles in places, et cetera. After watching it almost anew, having forgotten a large number of the smaller plot details, the film has shot to very near the top of my “Get the DVD” list (along with that two-disc Casablanca set and The Adventures of Robin Hood).
When you get a discussion of the Oscars going with people who see a lot of movies, one of the most common examples of a year in which the wrong film was purportedly given Best Picture is 1991. That was the year that first-time director Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves took the big prize over Martin Scorcese’s GoodFellas, in an eerie repeat of ten years earlier when first-time director Robert Redford’s Ordinary People beat out Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull. (Now there is an example of the Academy getting it staggeringly wrong. Does anybody watch, or read, Ordinary People any more?) I can sort-of see the complaint: I remember GoodFellas being a very good film. Although I haven’t seen it in at least ten years, I remember it being pretty absorbing, and I’m one who has very little interest in stories about the Mafia or organized crime. I have yet to see any of the Godfather movies all the way through, for example.
UPDATE: I have, in fact, seen The Godfather since I wrote this piece.
I know that Dances With Wolves has fallen pretty seriously out of favor, much like Titanic and Forrest Gump have, but so help me, to this day I think it’s still a better movie than GoodFellas. (Keeping in mind, of course, my constant belief that there is no such thing, really, as “best”.) This does pose an interesting question: should I rank a film that engages me despite my complete lack of interest in its genre higher than a film that engages me much more, but in a genre to which I’m more sympathetic? I’ll leave that for another time — for now, suffice it to say that while I admired GoodFellas, I really don’t have much desire to ever see it again.
So, about Dances With Wolves. There is a lot to praise in the film on a technical basis, of course. The cinematography is amazing: I don’t recall any movie, except this one, ever making me think, “Damn, I gotta go see South Dakota one of these days!” (If you get off I-90, there are some very beautiful spots in South Dakota. It’s not all flatlands punctuated by billboards for Wall Drug.) John Barry’s score is just gorgeous. (An expanded edition of the CD is apparently in the works.) The build-up to the buffalo hunt is still a great sequence, accelerating the tempo until we’re in the midst of a full-fledged stampede.
The film is, to my way of thinking, a clinic on pacing: even in the four-hour director’s cut, I was never conscious of the passage of time. And while I wasn’t moved to tears quite so often this time as I was when I first saw the movie (when I started blubbering when Cisco, the horse, was shot and never really stopped), I did still weep at the end when, as Dances With Wolves and Stands With A Fist are leaving the camp, Wind In His Hair goes to a high clifftop and shouts his hard-won friendship with Dances With Wolves for all to hear.
What impressed me most about the film this time was the fact that none of the characters are wasted; the film is full of small moments of character development and many of the minor players who only appear in a handful of scenes have arcs of their own — a young Sioux named Smiles A Lot, for instance, comes of age over the course of the film, although it’s easy to miss: the first time we see him, he is too young to be taken with war parties, but at the film’s end he accompanies his first war party to rescue Dances With Wolves from the American soldiers. And even those soldiers’ commanding officer is shown to be somewhat honorable, and after he is killed in the fight at the river, Dances With Wolves stops Wind In His Hair from scalping him.
The film’s director’s cut plays down the “noble savage” aspects of the story (which I never found all that overt in the first place). People who have only seen the theatrical version will remember a shot in which the tribe comes upon a field littered with skinned buffalo carcasses, and wagon-wheel tracks leading away from the scene; but in the director’s cut, after that scene the tribe sends a band of warriors out to kill those white hunters, and Lt. Dunbar, appalled at the joy with which the tribe celebrates these deaths, refuses to sleep amongst them. And much later, Dances With Wolves — John Dunbar, no more — feels the same desire to kill some whites who have intruded upon the tribe’s sacred grounds. This change is depicted, but left unremarked.
I also found a certain subtext to the film of how much might have been different if one thing, along the way, had been different. What if the Union General hadn’t been there to see John Dunbar’s suicide attempt? What if the commanding officer of Fort Hayes had not been insane? Perhaps, then, he would not have allowed Fort Sedgwick to go unsupplied for so long, and thus perhaps Captain Cargill and his men would still have been there when Dunbar arrived. What if Stands With A Fist’s husband had not been killed? Would Dunbar have become so deeply entwined with the tribe had there not been the added factor of his falling in love with her? What if that honorable officer at the end — the one whose body Dances With Wolves insists be allowed to lay unmolested — had recognized Dances With Wolves as the Army officer who had passed him in the hall at Fort Hayes a year before? I admire the way a lot of the story developments in Dances With Wolves hinge upon circumstances of which the characters are often completely unaware, in the way that our lives are often affected or even shaped by the actions of people we never meet and whose existence we never know.
Is Dances With Wolves sentimental? Yes, probably, but I never found it too thick — in fact, it is understated, in many places — and in any case, I rather enjoy sentiment now and then. I like raw emotion in my stories.
The image above is from this more recent article about the film.