Starring: Kevin Costner, Graham Greene, Mary McDonnell, Rodney A. Grant, Floyd Westerman
Director: Kevin Costner
Summary: A Union soldier stationed in North Dakota leaves his post to join a nearby Sioux tribe
Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Costner), Supporting Actor (Greene), Supporting Actress (McDonnell), Adapted Screenplay*, Film Editing*, Original Score*, Sound*, Art Direction, Cinematography*, Costume Design
*I am watching the original 3-hour cut of this film (vs. the 4-hour extended version that came out later), because it is the one Academy voters would have seen)*
First the good: the movie looks fantastic with excellent cinematography and beautiful locations on the American plains, and sounds just as good with an outstanding score from John Barry. There was clearly a lot of craftsmanship and sincere passion that went into making it-that they decided to have the actors speak in Sioux language (or at least an admirable attempt at it) with subtitles is worthy of praise. I will also say the big “epic” scenes are impressive in scale and execution, especially the buffalo hunt scene.
The rest of the movie is a mixed bag and there are some relevant comparisons for me. First, unlike The Mission or Mississippi Burning, it at least gives some people from the affected minority population established, individualized characters, some of which are very likable and well-acted (even if they ultimately tend to fit into stereotypes). What drags this film down on a relative scale for me though is the story and our main character. In many ways, this film bears a striking similarity to Lawrence of Arabia in numerous aspects: our protagonist is a white Army officer who is sent during wartime to a territory predominately populated by non-white persons where he ends up sympathizing with the native population and ends up defending them against his own army. So why was Lawrence a far superior movie? One, Peter O’Toole give a far superior performance than Kevin Costner does here, who I thought was generally mediocre. Second, T.E. Lawrence is a far more interesting and layered character than John Dunbar-he has impulses towards violence and self-aggrandizement and is flawed vs. Dunbar who is close to a Gary Stu. This generally applies to the whole movie, with the supporting cast being nigh unbeatable and the characters they portrayed less stock (although I will say Greene is very good). Finally, although the film never bored more, Lawrence is 42 minutes longer yet has much quicker pacing and it feels much more dynamic. Dances With Wolves is a good movie, but it feels a little bland and uninspired compared to better, similar movies.
Random note: in this movie, the Pawnee Indians are flat-out villains; I guess the Wamapoke tribe got what was coming to them in Parks and Rec.