Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Term Paper on Dances With Wolves

Essay on Dances With Wolves

Dances With Wolves is the story of the “transformation” of Lieutenant John Dunbar, a Union Army Officer, to Dances With Wolves, a Lakota warrior. The film is seen from the viewpoint of Dunbar, who runs away from a field hospital as his foot is about to be amputated and literally invites death by riding his horse by in a suicidal charge at the Confederate lines. He does this to provide a diversion so that a group of Union soldiers can overrun an entrenched Rebel position. Miraculously, he survives and is decorated and given his choice of any posting. John Dunbar chooses the frontier.

Dunbar begins a new life in a remote, isolated outpost, Fort Sedgewick, in the wilderness of the Dakota territory where he is the only white man around for miles. A month into his stay, with only a wolf, Two Socks and his mount, Cisco, for company, Dunbar encounters the local Sioux tribe. There is mutual distrust at first but slowly and with Stands With A Fist (a white woman, who as a girl came to live with the Sioux after her family was killed by enemy Indians) acting as an interpreter, he and the Sioux begin to interact and communicate and a bond is formed.


In the set of charming, sensitive, revealing, and even at times, amusing experiences that follow, Dunbar begins to discover the culture of the Sioux, all of which he documents in his journal. He gradually earns the respect of these native people who rename him Dances With Wolves and he sheds his white ways in acceptance of their way of life. However, the frontier becomes the frontier no more as it becomes invaded by the army and as the army advances on the plains, John Dunbar makes the tough decision to leave the people he has learned to call his own so that they will not be exploited. The film ends on a tentative note, showing the fireplaces in the camp of the Sioux being swept away by the army.

Dances With Wolves was the most celebrated American film of 1990s. The winner of seven Academy awards, it was the first Western to pick up more than four Oscars. But this movie is not just another movie, as many interpreters say. Dances With Wolves is a work of imagination that is so startlingly close to reality. It raises questions about identity and culture, both of which are conveyed by dialogue and enacted by character and plot. It depicts cross-cultural encounters and explores the fundamental questions on humanity. It is no small wonder that the film aroused much interest in both the public and critics in general. However, despite the general consensus that the major aim of the movie was to depict culture as authentically and accurately as possible, much disagreement has arisen over whether or not this goal was achieved. This study features two prominent reviews of the movie; Argumentation and self: the enactment of identity in Dances With Wolves by Lake Randall and Review: Dances with Wolves by Larry R. Bowden.

These writers analyze the movie and presents details as they feel they should be interpreted. This study aims to compare and contrast the two interpretations, evaluate the common ground between them, as well as areas of conflicts. Both writers attempt to collate reviews of the movie and present a number of positive and negative interpretations done by supporters and critics likewise.

One area of discussion was the theme and message of the movie. According to Larry Bowden, Dances With Wolves is not just another movie but is a story that has the ability to open up the emotional depth of the West. In depicting the Indian culture as profoundly as it did, he believes that the movie has helped to put Indians in a better light. The movie has played a big part in increasing appreciation of other cultures (in the case of this movie, the Indian experiences) by non-indigenes. Bowden stresses that the message of Dances With Wolves was not to persuade people from other cultures to give up their own culture and turn to the Lakota ways or as some critics said, “to turn Injun.” The fact that we see Dunbar interacting with the Sioux, gaining a new Sioux name, learning their language, participating in their customs and later eventually intermarrying, does not mean that he has forsaken his culture, as many have interpreted. It simply shows acceptance, respect, tolerance and appreciation for another way of life other than his. Lake Randall agrees with this description, adding that the film attempted to narrate identity and self-discovery among competing cultures but as result of certain, fatal flaws (which are mentioned in the following paragraphs), the film might not have succeeded in doing so.

Another issue raised was the authenticity of the movie. According to Larry Bowden, its depiction of native life, according to him is as natural and realistic as possible. He says that the Native Americans we are introduced to in this movie are way different from the savages we have come to expect The Lakota (Sioux) we meet are real human beings. They are normal people who think and feel, a people eager to laugh, devoted to family and deeply troubled with the disappearance of the buffalo, their principal source of food and material culture. With John Dunbar, we encounter a complex culture, remarkably adapted to the natural rhythms of the land and season, its people loath to fight for the sake of territory, wealth or abstract political interests. Lake Randall agrees with Bowden that the film indeed took pains to portray native life sympathetically by including idyllic views of the tribal encampment, with “horses placidly waddling in the river, and orderly teepees arrayed on the bank.” The extensive casting of Native Americans and the use of the Lakota dialogue in about one-third of the movie all contributed to “give the film an authentic look”, thus, makes its message easier to believe. He adds that the film “dispelled stereotypes of Native Americans.” . He says, however, that even as the film aims to depict the Sioux in best harmonic light possible, the failure to include even one “bad Sioux” made it seem highly implausible.

The film’s attention to historical detail was yet another issue brought under discussion. Larry Bowden says that the film paid appropriate attention to this, so much so that the director, Kevin Costner was awarded a bronze buffalo by the director of The Natural Museum of the American Indian for helping to preserve the their history. Lake Randall, however, says that there has been more criticism than praise for this particular issue because of the inaccuracy of some details. For example, the film neglected to include certain details that were very much a part of the Sioux’s way of life, such as the self-torture of the sun dance ritual and the common intertribal feuds, for fear it would tamper with the starry-eyed Indian people it had depicted so far. These critics also noted that the Pawnee could not have been the Sioux’ enemies at the time the film was set because at that time, they were nearly extinct! Also, the aftermath of the white buffalo hunting, portrayed in the movie, was inaccurate as the film was set seven years before the buffalo hide trade began; therefore any earlier hunting had to have been done by the Indians themselves. The extreme cleanliness of the Sioux camp and the wrong use and tone of language, along with these, contributed to destroying the credibility of the film.

Bowden explains that a culture to be taken seriously, it must be allowed to speak in its own voice, its own language in culturally appropriate ways. He claims that the strict attention paid to language in the film makes easier for the Lakota people to speak in their own voice. There are more critics however, according to Lake Randall, who discredit this point. To them, the film failed to deliver on its claims to speak in an authentic native voice. It failed to deliver new information on what the Red Indians were really like.

In setting the West frontier, the story has always been that the whites civilized the frontier and its savage inhabitants and thus, brought light out of order and light out of darkness, in other words, the whites have always been the heroes. Larry Bowden believes that the reason why critics feel threatened is because the new positive perception of the Indians (that the movie presents) is a threat to their own superiority as whites. Thus, all they tend to do is “to look for even more demeaning negatives to affect the newly discovered positives.” Lake Randall concedes too that the critics are too preoccupied with insignificant details, such as historical details, to appreciate the film’s larger significance for boosting the native people’s sense of identity.

Despite all of their seeming support for the film, both Larry Bowden and Lake Randall did admit that the film had some major flaws. Out of these, two featured prominently. Firstly, they both concur that despite all of the film’s good intentions, it still spoke in a white voice. The story is less about the Indians, but is a white man’s story; it is more about the noble Dunbar recognizing the nobility of the Sioux, rather than the nobility of the Sioux themselves. According to Lake Randall, the film still ends up exploiting the natives by revising history in ways that ultimately, despite appearances, serve white interests. It is still a white man’s story, in which the Native Americans are just a stage, upon which the “real” actors play.

Both are in agreement too that the film’s ending is its one big, costly mistake. Dances With Wolves ends with a trailer that suggests that fifteen years later, the Sioux are almost all but extinct. Bowden expresses dismay that the film follows the norms and wipes out the Indians in the end when in actuality; the Lakota tribe is still very much alive, struggling to be recognized. With that fatal ending, the film dashes all hopes (of the natives) and sympathies (of the non-indigenes) that it might have evoked so far. Lake Randall scoffs, “for all of Costner and Wilson’s vision and sight, they cannot see.” The film ends up being at odds with its message.

It is interesting to know that much of the support for the film, as discussed by Bowden, came from the Native Americans themselves while most of the criticism, as raised by Randall, arose from the whites.

Even more interesting is the fact that both camps, however, united in their harsh judgment of the film’s ending and its ulterior motive.

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