What is it that we humans want out of life? Is it a nice job with a big, fat raise? A new car, a new home? Gold? Jewelry? Home theater? Do we only want material things, or is there a hint of the spiritual in what we’re seeking, something to quench our never-ending thirst for knowledge? Don’t we all want to be happy in the long run, to lead healthy, productive lives? To have everything our hearts desire?
Of course we do. It’s only natural and human to want those things. But have we ever stopped long enough to think about what’s really important in our lives, and then — acting on those thoughts — stopped whatever we were doing and gone full-steam ahead in pursuit of exactly the things we most wanted?
To be honest, not many of us could — or would — stop long enough to do what we dream of doing, not even for a moment. We’re all too busy with our own lives to give these matters much thought. Unless, of course, we find ourselves lying on a hospital bed, or incapacitated by ill-health or an impending operation.
One man, however, did pause long enough to think about his life. Lieutenant John J. Dunbar thought his existence was meaningless. Born and raised in the Northeast, at a time when the United States were anything but united, life for him had lost its purpose. He was a Union soldier, fighting an incomprehensible war against his peers. His commanding officers were incompetent fools who couldn’t make a reliable decision if their lives depended on it.
Alone and frustrated around these men, he felt powerless to change them or his own life. Until, finding himself in a field hospital among the dead and dying, Dunbar decided, by sheer force of will (if not desperation), to save what little remained of his self-esteem, his military career – and his wounded leg – and take a chance at life. He risked it all in what he knew was a suicide attempt to rally his troops into battle with Southern Confederates.
That he succeeded and lived is remarkable enough. What is even more remarkable was how successful Dunbar became at finding exactly that which he had been looking for all his life: a reason and a purpose to his meaningless existence.
Directed by, and starring, Kevin Costner as Lieutenant Dunbar, and based on the novel by Michael Blake, who also wrote the screenplay, Dances With Wolves (1990) takes the viewer on a trip to self-discovery we can only dream of doing, but rarely have the courage to make. Like most such adventurers, Dunbar is brave, independent, self-sufficient, and not afraid to be alone. There are many scenes in this unforgettable film that highlight these key attributes, but the most fascinating involve his quest for meaning in his life. This pursuit takes him, at his own request and as a reward for his having helped his troops to victory, to the outermost part of South Dakota, to an abandoned post named Fort Sedgewick, deep within Indian territory and far enough away from any white man.
White men are the villains here. For years, filmmakers have portrayed Native Americans as bad guys in countless sagebrush sagas. Dances With Wolves is one of the few modern Westerns that attempts to show Native Americans from their vantage point. And the character of Dunbar appears to be one of the few white men in movies with the heart, the foresight, and the courage to face down decades of prejudice and hate, by approaching the Indians on their own terms – more out of amity than enmity.
A few years later, the Disney studios copied the same formula in Pocahontas (1995), another attempt to humanize the early Native American. In that animated opus one of the lead characters, John Smith, also approaches the Indians out of friendship, but his motives had more to do with his getting to know the lovely young princess Pocahontas than out of pure altruism on his part.
In order to get to know and understand the Indians better in Dances With Wolves, Dunbar arms himself not with weapons of war but with an enormous amount of curiosity and empathy: curiosity about his nearest neighbors, the Lakota Sioux, and their cooperative way of life; curiosity about his empty outpost and the mystery surrounding its abandonment; empathy towards his unfamiliar terrain, the majestic Northern plains of the Dakotas; and empathy towards his animal companions, i.e., his faithful horse Cisco and a scrawny wolf he names Two Socks.
Empathy is what saves, and ultimately destroys, Dunbar and the Indians. At one point in the story, after the Sioux have taunted him by attempting to steal his horse, Dunbar rides off to confront them in true military fashion: with buttons shined, boots polished, and flag held high. On the way to their village, he stops to give aid to an Indian woman who sits under a tree, bleeding from a self-inflicted wound. In helping this woman, Dunbar brings himself into closer contact with his Indian neighbors. In reality, he is paving the way for their eventual extinction.
The woman turns out to be an orphaned white girl, played by Mary McDonnell (Independence Day), who as a child lost her entire family after some renegade Pawnee raided her home. Brought up by the holy man, Kicking Bird (poker-faced Graham Greene), the woman is now more Lakota Sioux than white. Later on, she serves as a reluctant interpreter to both Dunbar and Kicking Bird, who struggle to have their first in-depth conversation: “No, not Dumb Bear. Dunbar,” Costner insists, as Kicking Bird continues to mangle his surname.
The white woman, who calls herself Stands With A Fist, is filled with an overpowering emotion as she tries to find the correct English words that will help bring these two curious men closer together — and, in the process, reassert her identity, which had long been dormant inside her. It’s an extraordinarily moving moment, helped in large measure by the superbly restrained music of composer John Barry (Somewhere in Time, Out of Africa) and the subtle acting lessons given by the three leads.
In most classic Westerns where white settlers encountered Native Americans, curiosity was not uppermost on their minds – witness such staples of the genre as Drums Along the Mohawk, They Died With Their Boots On, Fort Apache, and especially The Searchers. Although treating the Indians with a modicum of respect, these films rarely went beyond portraying them as ungovernable, unruly, wild, and warlike. Dances With Wolves reverses those notions: it is the white man who is ungovernable, unruly, wild, and warlike. The Indians of the Great Plains are depicted as a wise and wonderful, easygoing and playful people, warlike only when provoked, and in general displaying a harmony with each other quite unlike anything ever seen on the screen.
Some revisionist Westerns have even gone out of their way to explain the Indian philosophy (Little Big Man, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Last of the Mohicans, Geronimo: An American Legend), but only succeeded in alienating part of the audience with their excessively romantic ideas of Indian life. Like the fictional Tarzan, the Native American has been depicted as an idealized noble savage, unaffected and uncorrupted by so-called “progress.” Progress can be read here as the taming of the land and those who lived on it. Historically, this progress led to the systematic destruction of the buffalo, the subjugation of the Plains Indians and their horse culture, the bringing of civilization to these remote areas, and the settling of the frontier territories. All too soon, these were to become the dominant themes of the next wave of pioneers after the end of the Civil War.
As the story takes place at around this time, it is Dunbar’s wish to see the frontier before it disappears. His unconscious desire is to be in control of his life and environment. But even more than that, he wants to meet fellow human beings who can be as decent to him as he believes he can be to them. He only wants to be part of a family, but not just any family. Dunbar wants to be an active community member, a full participant in the daily activities of this community and its life-and-death struggles for survival.
In one of the film’s most revealing episodes, Dunbar helps his Sioux neighbors repel an attack by the vicious Pawnee. As he says in the voiceover afterwards, “This was not a battle with a dark political agenda nor was it a battle over territory; it was a battle to save the winter food supplies and the lives of women, children and old people.”
When he was a soldier, Dunbar’s only purpose was to obey his commanding officers’ orders, even if those orders made little sense. But now, he was obeying Kicking Bird’s orders to stay in the village and defend it against approaching invaders. The Pawnee do invade and kill, but lose the one-sided battle only because Dunbar has supplied his Indian allies with firearms to fight with. Civilization in the form of advanced weaponry can be used for good purposes it seems, if indeed those purposes were to defend one’s home and food supply from marauding raiders.
From this moment on, he realizes he is no longer John Dunbar but Dances With Wolves, the name the Sioux gave him when he was found one day playing with Two Socks. He is, as one of the Sioux elders explains, a special white man, someone they had never known before.
Dances With Wolves had finally found his purpose in life and the community he had so long wanted to participate in. He eventually “marries” Stands With A Fist and completes the cycle. He now has a family of his own to feed and care for. But does he find true peace and contentment at the end of his journey?
In a way, he does. But in an ironic twist of fate he must abandon his Sioux friends to return to the white man’s world and face charges of desertion and murder in the brutal slaying of Union soldiers. He must stand trial in the white man’s court for his crimes. If he does not, he will show disrespect for the very institutions he once believed in and abandoned, in favor of living with the Sioux. His choices are limited, however, and he is once again powerless to control his life. If he does not return, he will be hunted down and killed along with any Sioux who try to protect him; if he does return, he will most likely be confronted with hardened hearts over his arguable actions.
A dejected Dances With Wolves must now leave the Indians he has grown to love and respect. He reluctantly goes back with his bride to civilization. In a poignant sendoff, a message scrolls across the screen indicating that within 30 years the Sioux way of life would all but fade from the Great Plains. It’s a sad epitaph to the tale, but Dances With Wolves’ vision was correct from the start: he only wanted to see the frontier before it vanished. He not only saw it, he actually lived the life of a respected Lakota Sioux as a member in full standing, with all the rights and privileges of membership thereunto, in a harmonious and well-run society. In returning to the “civilized” world, he reaffirms his rights and privileges as a member of civilized white society, with the hope, in turn, that those rights and privileges would continue to be respected and affirmed.
What will happen now to Dances With Wolves’ quest for meaning in his life? Perhaps he has already found it. Late in the film, Kicking Bird remarks to him that of all the trails in this life the one that matters most is the trail of a true human being — and that Dances With Wolves was on it. It is often the most difficult road to take, but Dances With Wolves took it and found himself in the process.
The search for his true self had ended — and we are all the more enriched by it. ¤
Dances With Wolves (1990)
Produced by Jim Wilson; directed by Kevin Costner; screenplay by Michael Blake, from his book Dances With Wolves; cinematography by Dean Semler; production design by Jeffrey Beecroft; art direction by William Ladd Skinner; edited by William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Stephen Potter, and Neil Travis; music by John Barry; starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant, Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman, Tantoo Cardinal, Robert Pastorelli, Jimmy Herman, Doris Leader Charge, and Wes Studi. Color, 236 min. (Director’s cut) Tig Productions, distributed by Orion Pictures.
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes