‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Three): ‘JFK’ and the Gospel According to Oliver Stone
So Let It Be Rewritten
Returning to the topic of history on film — and specifically to the three-hour+ director’s cut of JFK (1991), written and directed by filmmaker, author and lecturer Oliver Stone — let’s look at several scenes from the movie that highlight a particular point I have lately uncovered.
That point happens to be the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the subsequent investigation into his untimely death not only by the Warren Commission, which issued their findings in a detailed and largely discredited report (in the film that is, not in real life), but also by the sham conspiracy trial of a shifty New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw.
In the movie, this forlorn, effeminate soul (portrayed on screen by Tommy Lee Jones in a short curly-blond wig) is the central figure in an elaborately conceived, highly convoluted plot to kill the president for an untold and ever-expanding number of reasons. It juxtaposes the slippery personality of Shaw with the upright, upstanding district attorney Earling Carothers “Jim” Garrison (Kevin Costner), also of New Orleans — a classic Hollywood setup, the confrontation of “good” versus “evil”: the advocate for “truth, justice and the American way” against the perpetrator of sinister plots.
What struck me, while watching the film again after so many years removed from its original viewing date, was Stone’s allegorical representation of the dedicated D.A. Garrison as a firebrand, a modern-day St. Peter or St. Paul (he could go either way , really), working alongside his “crack” team of investigators embodying the eleven remaining Apostles.
The same could be said of the other participants in the drama, including the secretive “X” (Donald Sutherland), a character based, according to Stone, on several real-life military figures, specifically Col. L. Fletcher Prouty or a composite of the same. There’s New Orleans Assistant D.A. Bill Broussard (Michael Rooker) who slowly but surely loses faith in what Garrison is preaching. And Garrison’s long-suffering wife, Liz (Sissy Spacek), who basically whines about her husband’s neglect of her and their children throughout the entirety of the picture.
The real Jim Garrison — stoic, cold and tall of stature — makes for a ghostly cameo as Chief Justice Earl Warren when he interviews a sweaty, tension-filled Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle-Murray), in prison for the slaying of Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman). In the film, and in real life, Ruby died of complications shortly after being granted a retrial for the assassin’s murder.
In the extended scenes tacked on to the film, Stone allows for fearful interpretations by Jack Lemmon as gumshoe Jack Martin and a vicious Ed Asner as Guy Bannister, a key member of the team that conspiracy theorists claim included government officials at the highest conceivable level (all the way up to then-Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, if my reading of their theory is correct). This, along with numerous unexplained deaths of various and sundry participants, discredited witnesses, muddled motivations, etc., and so forth, form the backbone of what turns out to be a paranoid’s worst nightmare.
Indeed, there is a veritable narrative mess at Garrison’s summation. The conclusions he draws at trial have no basis in verifiable fact and are hinged purely on conjecture. The case against Shaw and the deceased David Ferrie (a super-hyper Joe Pesci), who died under “suspicious” circumstances, we are shown, is dismissed and a mistrial is declared. The real villains are set free, to be let loose on unsuspecting and freedom-loving citizens, their “crimes” against the public trust going unpunished.
The Christ Connection
As strange as it may seem, Stone took as his model not so much history as hagiography. His main sources for JFK remain Garrison’s book, On the Trail of the Assassins, as well as Crossfire: The Plot that Killed President Kennedy by Jim Marrs. But the source that has gone unmentioned in most movie reviews is the Holy Bible. Stone based his fictional account of the investigation into Kennedy’s death on the Acts of the Apostles, notably the follow-up to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and the subsequent fate of His Disciples as seen through Garrison’s eyes.
Indeed, all the characters have their corresponding associations with personages from the New Testament, i.e. the various gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. In addition to which, the movie asks audiences to take a giant leap of faith as the crusading lawyer and champion of righteous causes, Jim Garrison, confronts the villainous cretins in court.
One of the prosecutors, Broussard, is called “Judas” for his desertion to the other side. It’s every man for himself in the end, with Kennedy (the Christ-like figure par excellence) dying so that others might believe that he was pursuing the “good work” in preventing the military-industrial complex from taking over the U.S. government.
President Kennedy is treated as the elusive Messiah — and despite his reputation with the ladies, a basically good and decent man undone by his political adversaries whose agenda ran counter to his own. That agenda, in the screenplay according to Mr. Stone, involved Kennedy’s plan to scale back the American military’s commitment to wage war wherever and whenever it felt the need. In the movie, the commitment was to Vietnam.
In today’s world, what with all the turbulence the Trump Administration has been experiencing of late and with ever-escalating theories about collusion with the Russians and such, perhaps Stone’s crackpot viewpoint is not so farfetched after all.
Still, the very notions JFK interjected into the conversation and espoused when the film was originally released — and onto which historians have poured their most extensive research into debunking — practically beg to be reconsidered anew in light of current situations. The very thought of a mass conspiracy on an unprecedented scale was unthinkable then, and remains so to this day. Yet, the idea that LBJ, the FBI, the CIA, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were in cahoots in a plot to assassinate the president of the United States can only be the stuff of Shakespearean drama.
To reiterate, District Attorney Garrison, by default, was either Peter or Paul, depending on the filmmaker’s whim and as dictated by the needs of the screenplay. He is a defender of the faith as well as a detractor of the faithless (down to his own wife), an apologist and an instigator, but ultimately a true believer. However, Garrison and his team must operate behind closed doors, much as the Apostles did when they went into hiding after Christ’s demise. Their mission: to prove that Kennedy/Christ was killed for the wrong reasons; that his memory will be preserved in their work and in the work of others; and that the Kennedy/Christ legacy can live on in the “retelling” of the story — that is, in the newly formed Gospel of JFK, as told by Oliver Stone — for generations to come.
One thing the movie got right was its use of the complete 8mm Zapruder film, which was shown for the first time at Clay Shaw’s 1969 trial for conspiracy and murder (with LBJ and company cited as “accessories after the fact”). The film all-but embraces, with good reason, what critic David Thomson emphasized as “rampant paranoia.” It attempts to connect Dwight D. Eisenhower’s historic warning about the “military-industrial complex” with Kennedy’s death, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and the rising Communist threat in Southeast Asia, along with JFK’s arrival in Dallas (an allegorical allusion to Christ’s “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday).
Actual newsreel footage is shown of the young president in his prime with his alluring First Lady Jackie, who carries a bouquet of red roses (flowers associated with the Virgin Mary) on that fateful November 22nd day in 1963; this is juxtaposed with black-and-white recreations of alleged incidents in the JFK narrative, credited to director Stone and journalist and teacher Zachary Sklar. We then see a brief portion of the Zapruder film and hear broadcaster Walter Cronkite’s breathless reporting of the assassination.
Cut to Garrison in his office and Cronkite’s teary-eyed pronouncement of Kennedy’s passing. Flashes of Lee Harvey Oswald’s face attach him to the murder. Garrison and his staff are gathered in the office, surrounded by law books — i.e., the Apostles, none of whom were present at Christ’s crucifixion, at the first gathering after His death, among the books of the Old Testament which attest to their authority on the matter.
The law library stands as an equivalent monument to the rule of law, the symbol of our government, of the courageous men and women dedicated to the unvarnished truth and the ways of attaining that truth, no matter the cost to their reputation or personal integrity. They are “witnesses” after the fact of Kennedy’s death; they see Oswald’s execution by Jack Ruby, as Kennedy’s funeral procession flashes by before them (and us).
Next, there is the announcement of the Warren Commission. Three years later, in November 1966, we flash forward to where LBJ “seeks $9 billion in extra war funds,” as seen in the headlines of the Washington Post. Little tidbits of information are intercut into the narrative, raising suspicions about minor events, those so-called “unusual occurrences” that “don’t add up,” such as the clean-cut, clean-shaven vagrants arrested the day of the assassination.
The three lawyers, Garrison, Broussard and Lou Ivon (Jay O. Sanders), meet in Lafayette Square in New Orleans. They remark on the proximity to one another of several government office buildings: the Office of Naval Affairs (which is now the U.S.P.O.), the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service — all in one plaza and inviting comparisons to Biblical claims of propinquity with regard to Pontius Pilate’s palace, King Herod’s abode, the Council of the San Hedrin, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Calvary.
The Greatest Story Never Told
During the first third of Stone’s Passion Play, people come forward and state their case — they give testimony, to put it plainly, about what they saw and heard, adding to the available source material as hearsay evidence, or supposed “eyewitness testimony.” The sweaty, porcine physiognomy of shady lawyer Dean Andrews Jr. (comic John Candy in dark shades, naturally) discusses his refusal to act as Oswald’s defense counsel over dinner with a skeptical Garrison.
After further inquiries, Garrison and his group unite with two or three other colleagues over a noontime meal to talk among themselves about the hoboes that were arrested. Assistant D.A. Susie Cox (Laura Metcalf) joins the boys. She is the official record keeper of events, the Mary Magdalene model and transcriber of the spoken word. It is here that Oswald is talked about as the prime suspect by default due to the plethora of contradictory information swirling about him.
This extended restaurant sequence serves the purpose of questioning whether Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in carrying out his crime (the notorious “Lone Gunman” theory) or in conjunction with other co-conspirators.
In the next scene, we are privy to a recreation of eyewitness accounts of what several individuals claim to have seen at Dealy Plaza — i.e., Calgary, or Golgotha (“the place of the Skull”), where our Kennedy/Christ personage died. Smoke rises from the grassy knoll; a man with an umbrella is spotted; there are shadowy figures behind a fence; a pickup truck is mysteriously provided by the Secret Service; and the man behind the wheel of that truck is none other than low-level mobster Jack Ruby before he killed Oswald.
Four to six shots ring out from behind a picket fence. It is here, after these tragic events take place, that a grim-faced Chief Justice Warren (ironically, the real-life Jim Garrison) interrogates jailbird Jack Ruby behind bars, a soon-to-be-martyred victim to the “cause.”
All these pop culture references have been interspersed throughout the picture in order to plant myriad seeds of doubt in the viewer’s mind as to what actually transpired before, during and after Kennedy’s death. These and similar scenes will recur at preordained junctures.
We are then taken to the Texas Book Depository building that overlooks Dealy Plaza (the proverbial “scene of the crime”). Ivon and Garrison will attempt to recreate Oswald’s dastardly deed with the use of a replica of the infamous 6.5mm caliber Carcano Model 91/38 rifle. Their conclusion: it would be impossible, even for an experienced marksman, to accurately fire off three consecutive shots in the 5.3 seconds it took to kill Kennedy. And the manual loading Carcano had a defective scope at that! But the plain fact remains that Kennedy was killed. There is speculation as well as to the actual number of teams (three, to be exact) it would take to be able to execute the crime at strategic vantage points.
After another meeting of the faithful, this time in D.A. Garrison’s spacious living room, Susie Cox/Mary Magdalene reports the news of a bogus “Oswald” pretending to test drive an automobile, when his wife, the Russian-born Marina Nikolayevna, had previously testified to the Warren Commission that her husband did not have a driver’s license. During Susie’s account, another “Oswald” is caught practicing at a firing range, while a third “Oswald” happens to be spotted in Mexico. What are we to make of these sightings?
Next, the viewer is treated to the LIFE magazine cover which highlights the purportedly doctored photograph of Oswald holding aloft his Carcano rifle. The real (or “reel”) Oswald complains that the man in the photograph isn’t him at all, but an imposter. Deceit piles upon deceit. Garrison begins to believe that Guy Bannister (Ed Asner) created “Oswald” for the sole purpose of using him as a patsy to cover up their real intentions: the planned execution of JFK. This is the second meeting of the group (the Apostles) before the Via Dolorosa, leading up to the Via Crucis or the Way of the Cross.
To further the religious connotations, Garrison goes to interview the mysterious “Clay Bertrand,” in actuality local businessman Clay Shaw. The interview takes place in Garrison’s office on Easter Sunday — resurrection day in Christian theology, telegraphing the death and eventual resurrection of the Kennedy case. Clay denies any and all knowledge of the event and the “sordid cast of characters” Garrison associates him with, to include the oddball David Ferrie, the gay hustler Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon), the Cuban ex-military types, et al.
Garrison confronts Shaw and accuses him of having gotten away with Kennedy’s murder, a statement that profoundly offends the businessman. Garrison’s assistant Broussard gets between the combatants before either man comes to blows.
Bemused yet nonplussed, Shaw wishes everyone a Happy Easter and departs in a characteristically lighthearted mood. In response, Garrison quotes a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” The next move is Garrison’s.
(End of Part Three)
To be continued…
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
When the Legend Becomes Fact — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Two): Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ and the Lone Gunman Theory
“Let There Be Light” – And Let Us Be Illuminated By It
Continuing with my rumination on a course I once developed concerning Hollywood and the Historical Film, exactly how much history and how much fiction does one include in such an undertaking? On the flip side of the issue, is there anything we may wish to exclude?
Questions of this nature pose a perplexing problem for the instructor, in that the focus of the course is placed exclusively on the limitations and uses of available sources. And a lot is riding on those same sources!
For example, one can turn to the Bible, a primary source for many people’s moral and ethical guidance, and ask the obvious question: “Is the Bible history, and can it be used to teach history?” First and foremost, such a query must take into account matters of fact, faith and fiction, in addition to myths, legends and the all-important religious interpretation of events.
This is a delicate subject to broach with students because it goes to the very core of their belief system and upbringing. Inside an academic setting, it’s a perfectly valid form of inquiry and well within the reasonable. But outside academia’s hallowed halls, one must tread lightly so as not to offend those same beliefs. Therefore, let us proceed with caution.
To begin our analysis, what should one make of the frequent parables present throughout the Biblical narrative? For one thing, we can say that parables, as told by various individuals — Christ primarily — in both the Old and New Testament, serve the purpose of putting a potentially difficult topic or principle into simple, everyday terms. This was done so that the average layperson might understand and absorb their lessons.
Are there ways we can tell how much of what is being conveyed via parables is truth, exaggeration, verbal embellishment or other such extravagance? If by that question one is referring to “fact checking,” that would be a physical impossibility, considering that, for one, we still have the aforementioned distance problem to deal with, as well as the time factor involved in retracing the steps of who said what, where and when so many eons ago.
What about the problem of errors, mistakes or liberties taken with the known (or generally acknowledged) facts? Do the facts found in the Bible, such as they are, coincide with or run counter to the veracity of events as described elsewhere in the historical record? This is the crux of the problem. For if the historical record — those so-called “known facts” — are found not to coincide with the Biblical explanation of events, do we then discard the historical record, or do we drop the Biblical sources as unreliable?
Here’s another interesting case in point, drawn from the Gospels: we know from history that the Roman governor of Judea — the province where the historical Jesus both lived and died — ruled with an iron hand. The reason for this attitude was both practical and plain: to put down rebellion at the first sign of trouble.
How, then, do we explain Pontius Pilate’s reluctance to swiftly carry out that part of Roman justice demanded of his office, i.e., to execute a potential “rabble rouser” such as Jesus, swiftly and at the first sign of trouble? Wouldn’t we expect Pilate to act as any Roman governor would and take matters into his hands, or would his behavior depart from the norm simply because of his proximity to Christ?
Depending on who you ask, the Biblical narrative would “seem” to indicate the latter, which somewhat contradicts what scholars, historians and other learned individuals know of the historical Roman governor’s role in Christ’s Crucifixion, or for that matter any crucifixion.
This takes us to the next topic up for discussion: is history truth? Or, to put it another way, is there such thing as historical truth? If there is, how does it compare to, say, Biblical truth? You will notice the paraphrasing of Pilate’s own rhetorical query, “What is truth?”
We have seen that history can be subjective — that is, one’s view of a subject is always taken from the person viewing it (thus referring back to the old issue of history as being written by the victors), what tends to be called the “subjective vantage point.” Can this view encompass other vantage points — in other words, a more objective one, whereby a topic, matter or person is interpreted in a less opinionated fashion, thereby refraining from pontificating on its substance? Of course it can! But it’s not that easy, is it?
Again, we come to what I describe as the “invariable variable,” also known as the distance problem rearing its ugly head. By that I mean to ask: are we so far removed from the Biblical (or prehistorical) context of past events as to be irretrievably separated from them?
The answer to that is: it all depends. Different events in the past can have any number of differing, even multiple, interpretations or meanings, whether or not they are viewed from a subjective or objective angle.
The Kennedy Case
Let’s take one such event from the recent past and examine it from both the subjective and objective vantage points, certainly one of the most photographed and investigated murder cases of our time, i.e., the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald, as interpreted by filmmaker, producer and screenwriter Oliver Stone in the movie JFK (1991).
Stone’s film charts a familiar course set forth 15 years earlier by director Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, a movie about the Watergate break-in and subsequent investigation of the scandal that brought down President Richard M. Nixon (a subject Mr. Stone tackled separately).
In Pakula’s picture, there are two crusading reporters, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), who write for the Washington Post, headed by Chief Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards). In Stone’s reworking of Kennedy’s untimely death and the ensuing investigation of same, Kevin Costner plays crusading New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who, as portrayed by Costner, is as far from the real-life fanatical, self-righteous, wrong-headed prosecutor as New York is from Los Angeles.
JFK follows Garrison as he leads his team of investigators on a wild goose chase over unsupported terrain: there are charges and counter-charges, dirty dealings and underhanded activities, clandestine meetings, supposed conspiracy theories, angry Cubans, ex-military types, contrived or fabricated evidence, numerous blind alleys, red herrings, dead or disappearing witnesses, and whatever else the D. A.’s illogical mind conjures up.
Now let us juxtapose Stone’s operatically conceived opus with an actual piece of research material: the 1989 documentary Who Shot President Kennedy? Written, directed and produced by Robert Richter, and narrated by anchorman and reporter Walter Cronkite, the level of investigative journalism demonstrated in this 57-minute feature, which takes into account every known facet of the assassination — from footage of the Dallas physicians who tried to save Kennedy’s life and computerized 3-D images of Dealey Plaza, to a frame by frame analysis of the Abraham Zapruder footage and leading critics of the Warren Commission’s findings — puts to shame many of JFK’s most far-fetched conclusions.
To begin with, what did the city of New Orleans have to do with Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, Texas? Quite a lot, as the film would have us believe. In the first place, Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman, in an uncanny personification), the so-called Lone Gunman (a designation made years after the fact), was born there; and in the second, Garrison’s bogus criminal case was aimed squarely at a New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw (a fey Tommy Lee Jones) and his sometime partner, cross-dresser David Ferrie (a peculiarly manic and foul-mouthed Joe Pesci), scapegoats both.
The result is Rashomon run amok. In the end, one has no idea who to believe or how to separate the “good” guys from the “bad” guys (there are no black hats here, only varying shades of gray). In reality, Garrison tried his best to sway an incredulous court to convict Clay Shaw on flimsy if unsubstantiated evidence. If the film had stayed in the Big Easy, it might ultimately have made more sense. As it turned out, though, Stone had his fictional Garrison go in every direction at once, all the while trying his best to keep up appearances as the dedicated D.A. and devoted family man and husband.
What were those directions? Among the various corners turned, the director had his cast and crew look at the case against Oswald in much the same manner as the above-mentioned documentary, which included the single bullet theory (the timing problem, the angle of trajectory, the type of weapon fired, and other incongruous issues), the possibility of a Grassy Knoll assassin (or lack thereof), the photographic and acoustic evidence from Dealey Plaza, Oswald’s alleged ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union, likewise his FBI and CIA connections, the president’s body, the supposed botched autopsy (or “altered wounds” theory), and so on. Whew, that’s a whole lot of fat to chew on for three hours of movie time!
As we know from past experience, the longer a specific case is investigated, the more it will reveal about itself. In this instance, however, the more the JFK assassination is probed and poked at, the more speculative it gets and the more speculation surrounds it, which only leads to more unanswered questions and crackpot “theories” — some of which belong to the realm of fantasy and the bizarre, not to mention the harebrained.
Still, does the fact that the most investigated and photographed case in modern history make the resultant inquiry any less meaningful, or the findings any easier to accept? We know there were many problems with the Warren Commission’s Report, but after watching JFK one is forced to admit that Oliver Stone’s version of events is not without glitches of its own. Bravura film-making, which the director’s motion picture undeniably encompasses, does not a true picture make!
Additional problems are presented or addressed, along with newer and ever bolder hypotheses about who killed Kennedy, to include blatant, out-and-out inventions. One gets the feeling that Stone is constantly lurching for a definitive answer, which remains stubbornly out of his reach. The question at this point becomes: has Stone taken undue liberties with the facts? Can he beg our indulgence over their use by employing the oft-quoted “poetic license” excuse?
We may even put forth a few theories of our own, such as: doesn’t a film’s director have a responsibility — moral, ethical or otherwise — to present the facts as they are? The “truth,” if it indeed exists, is out there (at least, according to The X-Files’ Fox Mulder), so why can’t he see it?
Do directors, by their very nature, have their own agendas to pursue, arrived at before filming even begins? By their action, does it soil whatever believability has been attained, only to be buried under layer upon layer of unproven allegations?
Are they not attempting to fit pieces of gathered evidence, conveniently labeled “the facts,” into a previously developed, predetermined script? And isn’t this another form of manipulation of past events, a parable to end all parables, the cinematic Gospel according to Stone?
All of the above certainly merits our attention, which may warrant further inquiry at a later time.
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
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