In the final act of Dances with Wolves, Chief Ten Bears of the Sioux people asks Kevin Costner’s John Dunbar to stay and share a pipe “for a while”. Dunbar narrates: “With Ten Bears, it was always more than a while. There was purpose in everything he did.” Clocking in at about 3 hours (for the theatrical version I watched; I can’t speak for the 4 hour “extended version”), I would say this line summed up Dances with Wolves perfectly. The movie methodically and expertly depicts how a relationship forms between people originally weary of each other, taking the necessary time to show each ponderous glance as assumptions dissolve and new perspective is formed. In this way, Dances with Wolves is a brilliant film.
The story is a simple one. John Dunbar, a decorated Civil War Lieutenant is stationed in the furthest reaches of the frontier, at his request. There, in a chance encounter depicting his humanity, he meets the local Sioux tribe and finds himself in a tenuous truce with them—from him, they hope to learn about the advance of other “white men” and from them, he looks for something of a gateway to the frontier, symbolized through his desire to see buffalo (or “tatanka” in the Sioux language, the first word shared with him and the people). The film makes great effort to depict his growing relationship with the Sioux people and his eventual relationship with Stands With A Fist, a white woman abducted/adopted by the natives as a child. These ties continue growth through love, war, and friendship, until they place him at odds with his original purpose in the frontier: the U.S. Army. Man, even as I type this, it sounds cliché and eye rollingly smug, but the great character work keeps this film from ever feeling as shallow as Avatar.
I know if you go looking for it, there's a lot of things people cite in their concerns with the film. My personal gripe was how wooden Costner’s narration was, like a bored voice-over in Ken Burn’s The Civil War. But for others, its length seems to be prohibitively long. Also, the film seems to have a challenging reputation from people on both sides of the “woke movie” divide. For some, the film is criticized for being a “white man savior” film, like Laurence of Arabia, where for others it is viewed as another cliché “white man is cartoonishly evil” film, like the aforementioned Avatar. And its historical accuracy is pretty shaky in big ways.
But for me, the film excels, not for its reliance on historical reality but in its very real depiction of what an unlikely bond forming looks like. The film has tremendously rich characters of all sentiments and spends a great deal of time showing the audience how each feels about their present situation. And the film’s great length allowed the audience to see how complex true perspective change is and requires. Throw in your typical stunning Western visuals, some brilliant and charming animals (doubling as vivid narrative symbols), an absolutely fantastic score by John Barry (composer of Out of Africa and the James-freakin-Bond theme), and you end up with a film that just landed with me in an unexpected way.