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Dances with Wolves (1990)

Updated on March 9, 2012
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Made-in-America movies to be proud of

No one really needs to be told what to watch. But if there were an agreed-upon list, it would certainly have to include Dances with Wolves. With seven academy awards and a gross of half a billion, it is not exactly a sleeper. The Academy Award ceremony that just blew by once again is a timely reminder of films that were both popular and well-made. Dances with Wolves was both quality and quantity (insofar as it sold tickets). This is one of the neat things about the entertainment industry, that it has a unique ability to combine product and prestige, though an achievement of such caliber is rare. The story begins in a Civil War Hospital. Students of semiotics can clean up on these eye-gouging plastic compositions/signifiers. The screen is filled with non-verbal but linguistic blood and guts, if, as has been averred, consciousness is language. And there is a larger, more permeable sickness involved. It is war, of course, about to jump like wildfire from the cauldron of that between the states to that against the Indians. Is there a lesson to be learned from the inability to stop making war, taking up fake causes just to keep it going? Hopefully, yes. Will the lesson go unheeded? Undoubtedly.

Regretfully, the United States of America is one the main perpetrators of the greatest ongoing, unstoppable crime in the New World. It began in 1492 and is yet extant. The American White disrespects, hates, despises, and abhors the people whom his ancestors decimated long ago for reasons having to do with ego, self-love, and unbridled aggression. The feeble attempt by American Whites to deflect guilt onto other countries that have also engaged in mass-murder only serves to further complicate the matter. To be sure, it is messy. At present, White civilization seems to have reached its peak. Few Whites are taken seriously on any subject involving abstract thought. Whites love material wealth, position, influence, and gestures denoting gratitude. That is about it. Regardless of their achievements and accomplishments, however, Whites cannot manage true equality. They can, at best, go through the motions and, little by little, refine their fraudulence. If the New One World Order coming into existence is not White-dominated, think Whites, there will be no world at all.

Dances with Wolves is about as truthful and genuine as any movie can possibly be dealing with such a delicate, unglamorous subject. In fact, it is a consummate piece of artistry. The actual savagery exercised by the United States of America upon the bodies and souls of Indians will never be known. This gives an indication of how horrible it must have been: more than can be imagined. Dances with Wolves is not just courageous; it is also godly. As to the contents of the Divine Mind, guesses will have to suffice. But it seems legitimate to think that if America, which now loves war as much as Europe did before Hitler's Nazis ruined its sanguineous appetite, is determined to fight almost any country on the face of the earth, it would want God on its side. What, one must ask, kind of God is this?

Throughout the film, one can see with the mind's eye moral choices being struggled with and finally decided upon. The main character, Lt. John Dunbar, elects to reside in a makeshift Thoreau-like wilderness, the middle of nowhere, the Dakota badlands. Except, this is not no-man's land. It is Indian land, in dispute between the Sioux and the Pawnee. It is obvious that, in a more perfect world, Whites would have been out of place. But the rightful owners know that Whites are busily encroaching upon their land and lives at lightning speed. In several scenes it becomes apparent that uniformed Whites have no respect whatsoever for people of color. Dunbar's personal redemption appears in the shape and form of a wolf, with whom he develops an unusual relationship. He dances in the animal's presence, and in doing so, in effect, goes native. He alone among Whites discovers a common ground that has remained pure, insulated, timeless, and accommodative.

How Americans love to weep over the brutalization and eradication of Indians. It makes them feel better about themselves. They watch on screens and shake their heads and the floodgates open and salty tears flow. Bertolt Brecht warned years ago just how useless these feelings are. An audience that leaves the theater with dewy eyes buried in damp handkerchiefs is not going to insure a more humane milieu the day after. This film cries out for something to be done. Naturally, there is no going back. But to this very minute official apologies are not forthcoming and especially large-sum payments for the heartless commission of such heinous crimes, one after the other, enduring for centuries. To think that yesterday, today, and tomorrow marriages and other celebrations have, do, and will occur on the dead bones and evaporated blood of Indian victims is insane. What kind of America is this? And how long can Americans, heads held high, persist with tainted, downwardly mobile souls jeopardized by state-sponsored insensitivity?

Buffalo, tatonka, play a large part in this film. All year long Indians await their magical return. When it finally happens, joyous and appropriately restless traditional manifestations appear. There are costumes, painted faces, dances, revelry, fires, drums, and, of course, strategy and weaponry. But Indians do not just kill. They are too overwhelmed with thankfulness toward the Creator for food and warmth and innumerable, auxiliary provisions. By contrast, though not shown in the movie, Whites, once started, cannot seem to stop killing without likeminded and oppositional force. Thus, it seems imperative that Whites share their global power structures or succumb to the inevitable ascension of the suffering, poor, and meek, for whom color is not an issue. When that happens, tribal survivors will be among the up-and-comers. All agree that these are the end days, so the time must surely be at hand.

A sad scene comes about during which Dunbar must tell Kicking Bear in grim terms that Whites are imminent. They will arrive in great number. Nothing can dissuade them. Both White and non-White lament the occasion. It is still worth lamenting. Many years later after Whites have taken over, their dominance ever awaits justification. Their presence remains predicated, as things are, on the premature disappearance of their predecessors. White hypocrisies continue to proliferate. It is so incredibly difficult for Whites to treat their non-White brothers and sisters fairly. Treaties were a case in point. The devil's temptations are so easy to accept and the challenges of God so hard. In this fashion do the larger questions fizzle into interminable Jeremiads. Why? How much longer? When?

Wind-in-his-Hair performs a coup on Dunbar. In full battle regalia, he gallops speedily right at the Lieutenant, close enough to end the man's life in a split second. Dunbar is frozen to the spot. But bloodshed is not the nature of this ritual. It is to show fearlessness and the ability to take life, if required. Can a White possibly understand this? It is not simply showmanship but an action loaded with meaningfulness. In fact, Dances with Wolves can also be characterized the same way. It is all-significant, an excellent film, and an artistic artifact that today's American experience cannot do without.

One of the characters in the movie is a woman who is, technically, held captive. She is White but lives among the Sioux. Dunbar is drawn to her, while, at the same time, by degrees won over by Sioux existence. Similarly, Stands-With-a-Fist, the woman, has all but forgotten English. She, too, has converted. Later, soldiers descend upon Dunbar's shabby outpost and demand answers to an assortment of unanswerable questions while peppering him with threats. There is nothing to go back to. The chasm has been crossed. For the hero and heroine, as it were, White life is finished. But since they are not Indians, not completely, they go off, pioneers cast by fate into a brave, unknown world. Wind-in-his-Hair loudly and proudly congratulates them. They ride off toward the Garden America was meant to be.


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    • alipuckett profile image

      alipuckett 5 years ago

      I really can't believe I've never seen this. Adding it to my Netflix queue NOW! :)

    • profile image

      knowyouwillbefine 5 years ago

      Dances with Wolves is a movie i really like from the 90's. Shawshank redemption is another. There are just so many epic movies from the 90's... shame they don't make them like they used to anymore!