'Dances With Wolves' runs against grain and succeeds


August 30, 1991|By Josh Mooney | Josh Mooney,Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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Heartthrob Kevin Costner's directorial debut was so ambitious as to court folly: a Western (the genre is perennially considered moribund), set in the 1860s, and with a running time of three hours -- an epic scope in an era when movies over 90 minutes are routinely criticized as being too long for what's in them. The film made zillions, picked up seven Oscars, and was, in addition, the feel-good movie of the year.

Regardless of your current feelings about Mr. Costner -- "Robin Hood" was a bore; Mr. Costner is just plain overexposed -- watching this film on video will remind you why it did so well. It's a really enjoyable cinematic experience -- full of great photography, good performances and relevant information about the American West and American Indian culture.

Mr. Costner's character -- a renegade American soldier who develops a strong relationship with the Lakota Sioux Indians -- has been called "the Original American Hippie." But only the truly cynical can hold this against Mr. Costner and his film, which turns out to be a well-crafted, ambitious, imperfect but 'u impressive work.

Mr. Costner's John Dunbar, a valiant war hero, given his choice of any military outpost in America, chooses Fort Sedewick, way out there in the wilderness. He wants to experience America in its primal state, convinced that it's not going to be for long. He finds the fort abandoned -- that ultimately suits him just fine. The local Indians debate about whether to kill him or not, but they fear the wrath of the White Man's army.

Slowly Dunbar gains their trust and is assimilated into the tribe. He falls for a settler girl who's been raised by the tribe (played by Mary McDonnell). But as the White Man's invasion of American Indian territory speeds up, Mr. Costner must make difficult decisions.

It's truly a visual story, one that no one in Hollywood wanted to take a chance on. But it turned out just fine. That should be reason enough to see it.

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