Dances with Wolves

Dances With Wolves won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1990, and six others: Best Director (Kevin Costner), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Sound Mixing. That year’s Hugo winner, Edward Scissorhands, was nominated in one category, Best Make-up, where it lost to one of the two other contenders.

That year’s other Best Picture nominees were Awakenings, Ghost, The Godfather Part III and Goodfellasthink I’ve seen The Godfather Part III but don’t remember much about it. IMBD users rank Dances With Wolves top on one system but only 9th on the other, behind Goodfellas, Home Alone, Edward Scissorhands, Back to the Future Part III, The Godfather: Part III, Die Hard 2, Total Recall and Pretty Woman.

I’ve seen twelve films made in 1990, The Godfather: Part III and Dances with Wolves, also (in rough IMDB order) Edward Scissorhands, Pretty Woman, Total Recall, The Hunt for Red October, Wild at Heart, Presumed Innocent, Postcards from the Edge, Cyrano de Bergerac, Truly Madly Deeply and Nuns on the Run, which has a particular place in my heart because it was filmed around where my aunt lived in Chiswick. I also have a deep love for Red October and Total RecallDances With Wolves. Anyway, here’s a trailer.


None of the cast had been in previous Oscar, Hugo or Nebula-winning films, or in Doctor Who.

To cut straight to the point: this is, as Anne succinctly put it, worthy but dull. It maybe didn’t help that I ended up watching the 4-hour extended version (almost as long as Gone With the Wind) rather than the original 3-hour theatrical presentation. But all the white people except our hero are bad, all the Pawnee are bad, and all the Sioux are good and if they do happen to do bad things it’s for very understandable reasons. I mean, it should go without saying that the exploitation, displacement and mass murder of the original inhabitants of the Americas by European-descended settlers is a terrible thing. But I think it might be possible to tell a more interesting story about it, and Costner and Blake have not tried very hard.

It’s a better film than Cimarron, the only other Western (so far) to win the Best Picture Oscar, but that’s not saying a lot. One area where Cimarron does score better is that at least its women characters have some agency (even if most of the feminism of the original book has been surgically removed). Here Mary McDonnell in the lead female role just smoulders a bit. You can tell she is smouldering, because unlike all the other women, she doesn’t do much with her hair.

I should not be too unfair to her, but I will note that the role was surely intended for a younger actor; McDonnell is the same age as the actors playing her adoptive parents. But I guess the same is true of Costner’s own role, and he was hardly going to recast himself.

I am going to grumble about two more things, and then I will say a couple of nice things too. First, Costner’s voice-overs of Dunbar’s diary entries are crashingly monotonous and dull. It’s rather surprising, given how much the film was obviously a labour of love, that he slipped up on this rather crucial element. Maybe delivering those lines so boringly was intended to distract attention from the implausibility of the diary as a plot device, but if so it doesn’t work.

Second, I’m sorry, but as soon as the wolf appears, we know a) that it symbolises Dunbar’s coming into harmony with the pre-European environment and b) that it’s going to be killed by another white man at the end.

OK, to be positive. I often whine about the music for these films but this time it seemed a good fit with the spectacular scenery. (And the scenery really is spectacular.) So, good marks there.


The film is about a white guy getting to grips with a non-white culture, but it’s an honest effort to portray that culture as real and valuable, and perhaps better than what replaced it. And I think it’s really worth acknowledging the fact that a large part of the dialogue is in Lakota. I see a scurrilous story that Lakota is a gendered language and that only the female version was taught to the actors, with the result that grizzled warriors are engaging in girl-talk, to the amusement of real Lakota speakers. TBH that seems a bit too good to be true, and even if it is, I’m giving Costner full marks for trying: it’s important for native English speakers to be reminded that other languages are not necessarily foreign.

So, all in all, I’m putting it just ahead of the halfway mark in my list, above Out of Africa but below Lawrence of Arabia, films with which it shares some common themes.

The film is ostensibly based on a book, which I also read. Here’s the second and third paragraphs of the third chapter:

Had it not been for the lettering, crudely gouged in the beam over Captain Cargill’s late residence, Lieutenant Dunbar could not have believed this was the place. But it was spelled out clearly.
“Fort Sedgewick.”

The book was actually written with a view to making a film out of the story, which is why the film cleaves more closely to the original plot than almost any other adaptation. The biggest difference is that the Good Indians are Comanche in the book but Sioux in the film, apparently for production reasons. I found the prose pretty clunky, especially in the early chapters, but it is a mercifully quick read. You can get it here (in omnibus with its sequel).

OK, next up is The Silence of the Lambs, but before that, Edward Scissorhands.

Winners of the Oscar for Best Picture

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021) | Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

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