Return to the grand, sweeping Western --only this time the Indians are the good guys

REVISITING HISTORY A

November 21, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Dances With

Wolves'

Stars Kevin Costner.

Directed by Kevin Costner.

Released by Orion.

Rated PG-13.

*** 1/2 "Dances With Wolves" is a bebop with revisionist history, an epic of smug hindsight. Exasperatingly, it's also wonderful.

How much easier if the movie were crummy and could be dismissed. But, damn its smarmy soul, it's beautifully watchable, a return to the visual vernacular of the western epic and all its old-fashioned scenic values, sweeping, romantic, adventurous and enthralling.

It's almost a fable-pure account of a journey to a heart of lightness, the story of a man who discovers redemption exactly where it shouldn't be, among the people his own kind has declared savages.

Kevin Costner, who also directed in a pitch of high story-book lyricism, plays a young Union cavalry officer, wounded and decorated late in the Civil War, who requests a trip west to see the frontier before, as he says, it vanishes.

That's anachronism No. 1. In 1864, the year of the story, the frontier had been the central fact of American life since 1620 (when the frontier was Massachusetts!). In 1864, the idea of its "vanishing" was literally inconceivable, as vast tracts of land were still unsettled and unpenetrated and largely unknown. Costner gives his character an extremely convenient eco-visionary's sensibility about a century before such a mindset existed on the planet.

That, in fact, is the method of the film: to judge the past by the standards of the present and find it wanting. It's a marvelous platform from which to tell a story, and Costner struggles to keep it from becoming a pulpit. Yet, at the same time, it's somewhat disorienting and it diminishes the movie's deeper meanings with cheap pop sanctimony, '90s-style. It's particularly easy to be "against" Manifest Destiny in 1990, having benefited from its results for 90 years.

In any event, traveling westward to the Dakotas, Costner's Lt. John Dunbar encounters a rogue's gallery of insane or repulsive whites, including a suicidal post commander and a flatulent, repulsive, filthy wagoner. Then, by mysterious occurrence unexplained by the movie, he finds himself not only in command of an outpost but its sole inhabitant. He's become the 7th Cavalry's resident Thoreau, his Walden a slatternly lean-to on the ocean of the prairie, his only companion an inquisitive wolf -- anachronism No. 2 in the pragmatic hunting culture of the frontier -- to whom he bonds rather than shoots.

The main thrust of the film, however, chronicles his adventures with his nearest neighbors, a tribe of Lakota Sioux. Much has rightfully been made of Costner's vision of Sioux culture and much is about to be made again. By far the best and most pleasing aspects of "Dances With Wolves' " three-hour running time covers the young officer's gradual absorption into the lives of the Indians. It has the purity of a boy's adventure fantasy to it.

Costner's Sioux may be romanticized, but they're not quite mythified. The distinction is that as noble and photogenic as he lets them be, he never quite paints them as saints. He makes it clear, in the film's most thunderous passage, that they live by killing -- and his account of a mounted buffalo hunt captures not only the explicitness of the ultimate stroke, but also the exultation of the hunt, and the sheer pleasure to it.

And he doesn't obscure or rosily tint their savagery: They are an iron age people, living in a world where prisoners are rarely taken XTC but scalps always are.

Reverentially, the script allows the actual Lakota to be spoken on screen, and the translations (the film is nearly two-thirds subtitled) reveal a language of subtlety, irony, wit and almost poetic precision. No cowabunga spoken here, Buffalo Bob. But more to the point, the Indian performers are brilliant. A romantic subplot involving a captured white woman, played by Mary McConnell, sounds like it fell out of a time capsule from the '50s, but it works out well.

The other surprise is how funny "Dances With Wolves" is. In this regard, director Costner knows that his best resource is actor Costner. As Dunbar, Costner is the quintessential boy-man, a dreamer, achinglyvulnerable, so desperate to be liked he seems more a Holden Caulfield than a John Wayne. He gets a great deal of comic mileage over the dignified reserve of the Sioux and their own sense of ethnocentricity as they attempt to comprehend the loony doings of this earnest bumbler (even his Civil War heroism is presented as a kind of lucky bumble rather than an explicit act of military heroism).

Unfortunately, the blather takes over in the last reel. When the thoroughly assimilated Dunbar once again encounters white soldiers, he's shocked to discover what horrid, crude apes they are -- a ludicrous stroke, since he's been in a combat Army for several years.

Of course these men soon reveal themselves to be the inevitable homicidal maniacs, and quickly cuff the officer -- who, after all, has only deserted his post and given guns to the enemy -- and haul him off for interrogation and trial.

Of course the moral equation only works if it's pitched in hyperbolic absolute: If Indians are all noble and sweet and innocent, and whites are all despicable and violent (except for our hero) then there can be no doubts about the rightness of Costner's actions; but neither can there be any complexity, ambiguity or irony. Thus, leaving the imaginative zone for the political zone, it ceases to be a work of art and becomes a work of ideology. A shame, but not enough of a shame to ruin an otherwise wonderful experience.

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