Dances With Wolves Kindly Asks You (Again) to Give Peace a Chance” width=”560″/>
Sometimes, a movie’s just a movie. But in some cases, a movie’s message endures long after awards season has come and gone. With America working hard to make nice with the countries we’ve been busy bombing in recent years and certain Asian dictators flexing their nuclear muscle, there’s no better time to check back in with Dances With Wolves for a glimpse of “what could be” if everyone would just put down their rockets and gather ’round the campfire for steaming buffalo meat.
Of course, the United States has never been a country content to confine itself to boundaries. After bursting free from Europe’s seams, America continued to spread like a disease, rolling out from the swamps and sea grass of the east coast to the sun-scorched plains of the West and beyond, much to the chagrin of the native inhabitants who didn’t know from “manifest destiny.” And then Americans created a movie genre to tell that story: The Western. Kevin Costner’s winning 1990 epic Dances With Wolves, alights on the American frontier and tells the story an insightful man who actually wants to get to know those natives, instead of battling them. Shocking stuff! It’s a movie that, given our perpetual presence beyond our borders, will never lose relevance. Where is today’s frontier? In our imaginations, pretty much…
Back in 1863, Costner’s character, whose white-man name is Lieutenant John Dunbar, “has always wanted to see the frontier before it’s gone.” Union hero, he’s won the right to the post of his choosing, so he sets up shop in an old military fort in South Dakota. It’s not long before the Sioux Indians living nearby come to understand his genuine outreach and take him in as their own. (Leading them to an elusive herd of buffalo helps Dunbar’s standing.) The Sioux give Dunbar the name “Dances With Wolves” because of the rapport they observe between
him and a wild canine who hangs at his side.
Dunbar’s openness, generosity, and live-and-let-live vibe is in stark contrast with the lewd, violent behavior of all other white folks in the movie. In the film’s only war scene, his fellow soldiers lazily avoid confrontation with the confederates, and Major Fambrough (Maury Chaykin), who greets Dunbar when he’s reporting for duty, is a mean alcoholic who says, “I’ve just pissed in my pants, and no one can do anything about it,” before gamely shooting himself in the head. The white men
spend their time indiscriminately blanketing the landscape with a tidal wave of bullets. Even in Dunbar’s era, diplomacy was for sissies.
Impressive, soaring shots of the beautiful American countryside accompany the inspiring love story between John Dunbar and his lady love Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), underscoring that Dunbar is the white man we’re meant to relate to, and his openhearted journey depicts the real America. The United States doesn’t bring bullets to the frontier. We bring food and tolerance and peace. Don’t we?
Of course, in the twenty years since Costner’s movie swept the Oscars the United
States has met our new frontiers, most recently in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, with both weapons and outreach. Perhaps revisiting John Dunbar’s story can serve as an inspiration — both of how powerful a friendly approach can be, and also of its limits.