Commentary on Dances with Wolves
Dances with Wolves was produced and directed by Kevin Costner. It was adapted for the screen by Michael Blake who also wrote the novel upon which the film is based.
Dances with Wolves is the story of Lt. Dunbar, whose exploration of the Western frontier becomes mirrored in a search for his own identity. The film is shot as a narrative in continuous development, with Dunbar providing a voice-over narrative in the guise of journal entries. It begins dramatically with the badly wounded Dunbar who would rather choose death than allow the amputation of his foot. He charges the Confederate lines and so, unwittingly, becomes a hero.
Allowed to choose his posting, Dinbar opts for the frontier. His increasing loneliness drives him to seek solace with the neighbouring Indian tribe. Gradually he is accepted as a member of the tribe, which in the America of the Civil War (1861-64) is seen as desertion. In order to spare the tribe any more retribution from the army, he leaves with his wife, Stands with a Fist, for the wilderness.
Dances with Wolves is a film concerned with cultures in collision. To this is added the extra dimension of the inner search for Lt. Dunbar's self that is mirrored in his external search for the frontier, that mythic place of freedom, peace, escape from tyranny and harmony with the land.
Because of these collisions the film tends towards a greater questioning of its subject matter than a lot of run-of-the-mill westerns. Viewers are forced to call into question the traditional stories of the West and its notions of heroic white settlers bravely conquering the land of hostile Indians. Instead they must deal with a film representation in which the settler is the enemy both of the Indian and, to judge from Dunbar, of himself and of the land.
However, this rewriting of history is not without its problems. The film takes so much refuge in the little-boy purity of heart, glowing na&veté and generosity of spirit of Dunbar that it actually absolves the audience from applying to itself any responsibility for its historical relationship with the Indians. We tend to identify ourselves with Dunbar and not with the ravaging whites stripping the Indians of their land. We know who made the mistakes, but it wasn't us.
Nonetheless the film does well in establishing the humanity of the Indians, their depth of culture (it is interesting that we see and hear them speak their own language and not the usual ersatz English they are normally associated with), and their ability to live in harmony with the land. This theme of ecology and the environment is one with a great resonance for a twentieth century audience. The necessity to work more in harmony with our environment is a constant theme of our age, and it is interesting to see how a historical film can also accommodate modern concerns.
Dunbar's own search for his inner self is firmly situated in his growing awareness of the land, the frontier that will be his new home. The inescapable message of the film tends to an association of inner development and external respect for our environment. Whether this is overly simple is a question that the individual viewer must decide for himself.
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