Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Kevin Costner (director)
   Costner’s alternative Western ushered in a new era of Westerns after the antimyth Westerns of the 1960s through the 1980s had played out their course and made their point in counteracting the classic Western tradition. Dances with Wolves did not merely attempt to overturn classic Western cliches and dominant plot formulas. Based upon premises of the new Western history that came to dominate Western historical studies in the late decades of the 20th century, Costner’s film portrays more directly than previous Westerns the evils of Manifest Destiny and the depredations, not of the red man, but of the white man. It departed from previous Westerns—silent, classic, and antimyth—by “making a group of Native Americans the sympathetic protagonists and by showing the United States Cavalry as an aggressive and brutal invader the film, reversed the Western’s mythical polarity between savage Indians and civilizing pioneers” (Cawelti 1999, 105).
   The plot revolves around a Union soldier, Lieutenant Dunbar (Costner), ordered by choice to a remote frontier outpost on the Great Plains during the Civil War. His encounter with Sioux tribal members reenacts the first encounters with Native peoples in the New World centuries before. They are not familiar with each other’s culture, and Dunbar must learn the Sioux language. He discovers a white woman in the tribe, Stands-with-a-Fist (McDonnell), who was captured as a child and is now fully adopted into the tribe, recently widowed yet content. She only vaguely recalls her native English language, and the film shows her progress of recovering the language along with long-suppressed memories. Dunbar becomes a willing captive and he is adopted by the tribe, taking on the name Danceswith-Wolves. Thus, the film reverses the traditional captivity narrativeplot. Stands-with-a-Fist had been captured long ago and had suffered the most dreaded “fate worse than death” of classic Westerns. In The Searchers(1956), Ethan Edwards tries to kill Debbie when he finds her despoiled by the evil chief, Scar, because he thinks she would be better dead than an Indian. But in this film, the white captive is accepted by her adopted people and she has made a good life for herself. Dunbar seeks a similar life change. Eventually, however, Dunbar must face the invasion of whites coming into the territory, including the U.S. Cavalry. Told from inside the tribe, this Western portrays the invasion and destruction of a way of life from the Native American perspective. This film is not about winning the West but about losing it.
   Dances with Wolves was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won 7, including best picture, best director, and best music (by John Barry). McDonnell was nominated for best supporting actress and Costner for best actor.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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