DANCES WITH Wolves'' runs a fraction more than three hours but justifies its running time. There are moments, though. There is one when a commanding officer commits suicide, and you're not sure why. There is another, at the beginning of the film, when the lead character's behavior seems curious more than desperate.
At another point, the new film plays like ''Blazing Saddles,'' but these are the exceptions. For the most part, ''Dances With Wolves'' is tight and interesting throughout.
Kevin Costner stars. He also directed. No one will ever say the man can't direct. His film has scope, pace and excitement. It also has grandeur. It is, you might say, an epic western.
Costner plays Lieutenant Dunbar, an Army man who requests that he be sent to a frontier outpost. He wants to see the frontier before it disappears, he says.
In the book, he is an obvious loner, a humorless man. In the movie, he is still a loner, but he has a sense of humor.
In anyone else's hands, this might be difficult to accept, but Costner makes it all work. The humor is physical more than verbal, the sort that grows out of the situation.
Dunbar, left to himself, meets a white woman who has been raised by Indians. She is hurt, and when he carries her back to her tribe, he is accepted by the tribesman as a man of peace. The same Indians are not that nice to the lieutenant's companion, who is murdered by the tribesmen for no good reason other than blood lust.
That's one of the more interesting things about this film. It has been cited by Indian leaders as ''the first film to depict the Indians as normal people.''
That's true. ''Dances With Wolves'' treats the Indians as well as it does the whites, which means both are presented as human. Both are capable of the worst kind of savagery. At the same time, both groups are capable of compassion and understanding. The film plays no favorites. It is very fair.
Mary McDonnell is the white woman whose family had been murdered by the Indians. Her mother and father had approached the Indians in peaceful manner, but the Indians responded with savagery, just as the white man does, time and time again in the film.
When the Indians speak, we read what they are saying through subtitles. This isn't exactly new, but it is one more sincere gesture on the part of the director, who wanted to give the Indians a fair shake.
''Dances With Wolves'' has a spectacular sequence in which the Indians, joined by the frontiersman, stalk a herd of buffalo. It is difficult to remember a more thrilling, though savage, sequence on the screen.
There are other sequences that are equally impressive. The film cost $18 million but looks far more expensive.
In the end, Dunbar, who has been narrating the film, says that he has at last discovered who he is, what he is. This sounds like '60s talk and doesn't really belong in a movie like this, but here again, the film survives.
''Dances With Wolves'' opens here today. Robert Pastorelli (''Murphy Brown'') is the driver killed by the Indians, and Graham Greene and Rodney Grant are two of the leaders of the Sioux tribe.
''Dances With Wolves''
*** An army lieutenant, assigned to a remote outpost, becomes friendly with the local Indians.
CAST: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Robert Pastorelli, Graham Greene, Rodney Grant.
DIRECTOR: Kevin Costner
RATING: PG-13 (violence, nudity, sex)
RUNNING TIME: Three hours