The Complicated Legacy of Dances with Wolves

Hot-take merchants keen on demonstrating their edginess will throw a certain statement around a lot: “That movie couldn’t get made anymore.” It’s usually accompanied with a sneer, and some insults about “wokeness,” and the defended movies are usually the same: Blazing Saddles, Rosemary’s Baby, Apocalypse Now. People wouldn’t get the humor, or the violence was too violent, or some other vague generalizations about how snowflakes are taking over pop culture or whatever. Most of those takes are wrong—attempts at posturing and irreverence more than anything else. But at the core of the statement is concern regarding what cinema we used to value then versus what we value now, and whose stories we prioritized decades ago versus the ones we want to highlight in the present day. If you frame the question that way, it loses its “Come at me, bro” tone and takes on something different: a reflection of who we were versus who we are. With that in mind: Could a movie like Dances with Wolves get made anymore? And would we want it to? 

A slow-moving epic. Lots of subtitles translating the languages of the Sioux and Pawnee into English. Mostly shot on location, including in national parks. Tons of live animals involved in the production, including buffalo, horses, and wolves. And, most complicatedly: a protagonist who is self-effacing of his whiteness and who seems to hate most other white people, but who might be a white savior anyway, and a Sioux community with numerous layers—thoughtful, welcoming, protective, and ferocious—and who might be noble savages anyway. Was Dances with Wolves a subversive, revisionist Western that made clear how white people decimated the indigenous world? Or, with its depictions of valor and exceptionalism, did it live up to the same stereotypes that the historical cowboys-and-Indians genre crafted? “Do you salute him or shoot him?” a white soldier wonders when they see Costner’s character walk by in Sioux dress. That’s an extreme dichotomy, but it speaks to questions worth considering about films like Dances with Wolves, and about who gets to be a hero. 

Costner’s omnipresence in the 1980s and 1990s, up until the pause caused by the commercial and critical failure of Waterworld, can be tracked in a series of films that demonstrated his wide range: The Untouchables, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, JFK, The Bodyguard. Costner’s image was defined by a sort of rugged-yet-approachable, dependable-but-still-threatening appeal, and the characters he played mirrored that. The agent tasked with bringing down Al Capone. A veteran baseball player, and a time-traveling baseball fan. Folk hero Robin Hood; a district attorney investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; a bodyguard tasked with protecting the world’s biggest pop star. The spell Costner casts is one of reliability and sturdiness, but a little bit of roguish spontaneity, too, and his promise is that of white American masculinity done good. And there is no figure that better captures the myths that a certain slice of America likes to tell about itself than the respectable cowboy, tipping his hat to the genteel and grinding any opposition under his boot heel. 

Dances with Wolves, adopted by author Michael Blake from his own novel, is like an Albert Bierstadt or Olaf Wieghorst painting come to life: a gorgeous representation of the verdant and wild emptiness of America that no longer exists because we’ve mostly destroyed it. The film (which won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Costner) begins with such devastation in the form of the Civil War, with First Lt. John J. Dunbar (Costner) trying to kill himself after learning that his foot might need to be amputated. With his arms outstretched, offering himself up to a higher power, Dunbar rides past a line of enemy Confederate soldiers—distracting them so much that his Union Army comrades are able to attack and win the battle. Heralded as a “living hero” for that surprise victory, Dunbar is given whatever placement he wants, and ends up at the abandoned Fort Sedgwick, Colorado. “I’ve always wanted to see the frontier … before it’s gone,” Dunbar explains, and because of a lost message, he’s left alone at the fort, with no Army reinforcements on the way. 

But Dunbar isn’t really alone, of course, because this whole country once belonged to indigenous people who lived all over it, knew every inch of it, and had their own beliefs and rhythms and religion. Dunbar has been told his whole life that “Indians” are “nothing but thieves and beggars,” but when he meets his Sioux neighbors, they’re nothing of the sort. Medicine man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) is patient but persistent, wanting to know why Dunbar is there. Warrior Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) is proud and bombastic (“These people are said to flourish? I think they will all be dead soon,” he says after meeting Dunbar for the first time). Chief Ten Bears (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) is wise and considerate. They know so much more about this land than Dunbar does, but they know what a white man represents: more white men.

So, with a mixture of wariness on the Sioux side and excitement on Dunbar’s, the two get to know each other, and here is where Dances with Wolves—depending on your perspective—either so romanticizes native life that Costner’s approach veers into patronization, or is well-intentioned in how it shares a culture that isn’t common knowledge to many of us. Are we laughing at Wind In His Hair when he throws handfuls of sugar into his coffee, both new items that Dunbar has shared with him? Or is it Dunbar’s awkwardness during this first meeting that is the source of our amusement? When Dunbar joins the Sioux on a buffalo hunt, and feels like an outsider in their exaltation (“The gap between us was greater than I ever could have imagined”), are we to take his side, or marvel at the warriors’ precision and violence? Before an attack by the rival Pawnee tribe, when Dunbar outfits the Sioux with guns from the fort, is he demonstrating the white man’s superiority with these advanced weapons, and therefore undermining the tribe’s own methods of security? So many scenes in Dances with Wolves can be taken two ways. On its surface, the film is consistent in its numerous reiterations of Dunbar’s loyalty to and affection for the Sioux, a community he begins to see as his true family. He learns their language, he adopts their customs, he protects them from white and Pawnee attackers alike. But it’s undeniable that the film also builds up Dunbar as an impenetrable hero; to the Army, he becomes “an officer who’s worth something,” and to the Sioux, he becomes Dances with Wolves, their friend, ally, and brother. Dunbar isn’t like those other white men, who kill animals for fun, who litter on the prairie, who threaten and steal and rape and murder. He is so pure-hearted as to almost be a fantasy, but hasn’t the cowboy fantasy done enough harm already? 

Still, the visceral allure of Dances with Wolves is strong, and that’s because of everything else that isn’t Costner’s Dunbar. It’s in the bustling energy of the Sioux community: the games, meals, and stories that are shared; the kids who run around together; the intimacy of the relationships, whether friendly or romantic. It’s in the bristling authority of Wes Studi’s performance as the leader of the Pawnee, and in the playfulness of the wolf Two-Socks, and in the melancholy beauty of a star-filled night sky, and in the great plumes of dust and dirt kicked up by thousands of buffalo moving in unison across the prairie. It’s in the aching finality of Wind In His Hair, high up on a mountain, announcing his allegiance to Dances with Wolves for everyone to see and hear (“Do you see that I am your friend? Can you see that you will always be my friend?”), and in the concluding intertitle’s reminder that American manifest destiny was the murderer of many. 

“There can be no place like this on Earth,” Dunbar had marveled of the American West, and Dances with Wolves—with its broad scope and singular protagonist—is perhaps the closest that American cinema has come to anything like Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago. Those classics of David Lean’s filmography, with their expansive cinematography and politically themed narratives, also explored the efforts of one lonely man during a changing time and wondered if one person’s desire to get lost was worthy of our empathy and our understanding. It’s possible neither of those films would get made these days, either. And so Dances with Wolves remains one of the last films of its kind: noble and simplistic, majestic and problematic.

Roxana Hadadi writes about film, television, and culture with sides of judgment and thirst. She is a Tomatometer-approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes and a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and the Online Film Critics Society. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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