Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves" is a stunning combination of all-American boyishness and sweeping grandeur -- it's the movies' first regular-guy epic. It's also one of the movies' most impressive directorial debuts and one of the year's most satisfying and audaciously entertaining films.
From the picture's opening shots, it's clear that this new director has a thrilling command of his tools. This picture isn't just competently directed, it's masterfully directed. With a few notable exceptions -- Orson Welles and Charles Laughton among them -- actors have not made great filmmakers. But with "Dances With Wolves," Costner instantly steps up into that exalted front rank. He's got the moviemaker's fire in his gut.
What he also possesses is a born storyteller's instinct for engaging his audience. Costner makes the story accessible without cheapening it; he's accessible in the best and purest sense in that his intention is always to find the telling human detail that draws us inside his sprawling saga. His subject, in the most general terms, is the settling of the American West and, more specifically, the conflicts during the 1860s as white settlers began to move in larger numbers into Indian territory. At nearly three hours long, with nearly a third of its dialogue delivered in authentic Lakota Indian dialect, the film is as vast in its ambitions as it is in scope. And if Costner didn't have the talent to match his ambition, the project might have been a disastrous folly, an act of megastar self-indulgence. That he does have it qualifies as some kind of minor miracle.
Our window into this tale is John Dunbar (Costner), a Union Army lieutenant who, as a result of an inadvertent act of heroism during a Civil War battle in Tennessee, is awarded a command at the Army's westernmost outpost, on the Dakota plains. When Dunbar arrives, he finds the fort deserted but, determined to gain some experience of this new frontier, he decides to stay on alone.
This first section of the film, which reveals Dunbar's first impressions of this virgin paradise, makes daringly spare use of dialogue. The images, though, are splendorous, expressive and constantly surprising. Working with the Australian cinematographer Dean Semler, Costner makes us feel as if we're seeing these western landscapes with fresh eyes, as Dunbar is seeing them. Our reactions throughout the film, in fact, are keyed to Dunbar's. We discover his world as he discovers it, and feel along with him the pleasures of new revelations. Costner is keen to the millions of small facts -- such as the clanking of whiskey bottles in an officer's bottom drawer -- that reveal character or throw a vivid spotlight on a dramatic moment.
It is through this accumulation of brilliantly observed minutiae that Costner seduces us into Dunbar's psyche. For an epic, "Dances With Wolves" is remarkably nuanced and intimate. Costner's scenes between characters are vibrantly close-in and delicate. And he never generalizes when he can be specific. When Dunbar has his first encounters with the members of the Sioux tribe, Costner gives each one a distinct personality; these are anything but faceless heathens. The lieutenant's relationship with the tribe -- in particular with the medicine man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), the warrior Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant), and a young white woman, Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), who was taken in when her parents were killed by the Pawnee -- is carefully constructed; most of the movie, in fact, is devoted to developing it.
One of Costner's greatest achievements here is the balance he strikes between the film's larger strokes and its smaller ones, between the seriousness of its themes and the lightness of its approach. Costner's feel for the visceral pleasures of big-screen imagery brings Kurosawa to mind. (He also has the Japanese master's sentimentality and his appreciation for low, masculine humor.) There's virtuosity in his staging of scenes, like the one in which Dunbar first makes contact with a buffalo herd, which moves over the half-dark of the prairie like a battalion of ghosts. And his ability to make the landscape a character in the drama recalls both John Ford and David Lean.
It's ironic that Ford should be a presiding spirit here. "Dances With Wolves" presents itself as a corrective to the classic Hollywood western's version of American history, and in a sense, Costner uses Ford's own vocabulary to debunk him.
There's a residue of 1960s counter-consciousness in the telling of this 1860s saga. Costner approaches his Indian characters with a respect verging on awe; no filmmaker has ever portrayed the Native American way of life with such passionate dedication. His portrait is unabashedly romantic, perhaps even a little cornball. These are the most magnificent-looking Indians in movie history, the noblest and the most humane; when we first see them, a chill runs through us. But the director's empathy is so deep and so centered in Dunbar's reactions that the idealization seems justified.
Costner's combination of insouciance and wit -- as both an actor and a director -- goes a long way toward making his vision palpable. Few directors have used their stars as shrewdly as this one does. As Dunbar, Costner is simultaneously the film's anchor and its leavening agent. The actor never insists on his character's heroism. Instead, he plays Dunbar as a distant relative of his character in "Field of Dreams"; talking to his horse, dancing with his lupine companion, Two Socks, he's a kind of prairie eccentric, a charming 19th-century doofus. Costner's approach here makes a place for oddball idiosyncrasy. This applies to his Indian heroes as well. Greene's Kicking Bird is an enlightened, peaceful man; his desire to learn about the white visitor is what opens the door to the Indian world for Dunbar. But he's also something of a henpecked husband.
Not surprisingly, Costner is able to coax dazzling performances out of all his actors. Greene's Kicking Bird is the movie's still center, its soul, and the actor gives resonance to his character's anxiety over the coming of the whites. By contrast, Grant's Wind in His Hair is the picture's volatile, impulsive heart; when he rides into Dunbar's camp, brandishing his spear in a display of brazen fearlessness, you sense the puzzlement at the sight of this alien creature that mixes in with his courageousness.
The film is full of glorious character touches from actors in small roles, most notably Maury Chaykin as a bonkers Union officer and Robert Pastorelli as Dunbar's slovenly traveling companion. Of all the performances, though, McDonnell's Stands With a Fist is the most complex. Stands With a Fist carries a burden of sorrows, and in communicating her emotional conflicts, McDonnell has some of Jane Fonda's defiant tremulousness. This is forceful, stirring acting. In painting this portrait, the actress has wet her brush with tears.
No other movie this year matches the range and diversity of what Costner and screenwriter Michael Blake have provided here. And that a work of this caliber comes from such an unexpected source makes the experience all the more pleasurable. "Dances With Wolves" is a gigantic achievement, an endowment of riches.
Dances With Wolves, at area theaters, is rated PG-13.