Picks and Pans Review: Dances with Wolves

updated 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell

There are some heartbreakingly beautiful moments in this movie about a cavalry officer who defects to the Sioux in the 1860s. Also some heartbreakingly touching moments, heartbreakingly self-indulgent moments and heartbreakingly foolish moments. It is never, however, what it is supposed to be: just plain heartbreaking.

In his first directing job, Costner lends an admirable perspective to his portrait of an American Indian community. It should go without saying that the pre-reservation Sioux, like every other people, laughed, cried, had sex, argued, were smart, were dumb, got confused—and were capable of scalping or shooting people in the back. That kind of thing has rarely been said in movies, though, and Costner, with screenwriter Michael Blake (adapting his own novel), says it eloquently.

There are memorable scenes, including a beautifully framed buffalo hunt.

Costner, who plays the cavalryman, and cinematographer Dean Semler also display the physical grandeur of their South Dakota locations in spectacular fashion, with vista after panorama after majestic landscape.

Like everything about this film, though—starting with its length: three hours—the traveloguing is overdone. Costner is given his Sioux name, Dances with Wolves, after he is seen playing with a pet wolf. But if the Sioux had seen this film, they would have called him Obsesses with People Silhouetted Against Horizons. Seeing figures marching against blazing sunsets is nice but gets old after the eighth or ninth time. In one odd scene, a glorious sunset/sunrise seems to be behind Costner as he watches some Sioux go off into another sunset/sunrise.

The film's inconsistencies muddy Costner's treatise on what he believes to be the tragic end of the old Sioux ways. When he first meets the Sioux, for instance, he is alone at an outpost; they are stealing his horse. One brave charges at him, yelling threats; Costner stands with pistol aimed but doesn't shoot even when the warrior prepares to throw his spear. (This makes Costner seem less noble than suicidal.)

Later, Costner joins the Sioux as they fight a band of Pawnees. The Sioux trap the Pawnee leader and form a circle around him about 20 yards across. Using this strategy, they have the Pawnee in a devastating cross fire. They also, however, have themselves in a devastating cross fire. Yet they blast away—using rifles for the first time—and don't end up shooting each other.

There are other distractions. Costner's outpost at times seems to be just around the corner from the Sioux camp. But when, after Costner moves in with the Sioux, a big contingent of cavalrymen move into his old place. Kevin doesn't see or hear them for days, as if the place were miles away.

As bad as this kind of sloppiness is the film's racism, which treats whites with the mindless caricaturing Indians endured in old Westerns. Though there are a few decent souls among the cavalrymen, they have no families, no context, no dimension. The impression is that when the Sioux look around at the Black Hills, they all see natural grandeur, frisky buffaloes and oxygenating greenery, while the white guys are just trying to think of how to invent the mall.

And through everything, John Barry's background music keeps rising to ecstatic peaks of intensity; he greets a nice little stretch of grass with the kind of overture usually reserved for tidal waves.

Canadian actor Graham Greene, an Oneida, is striking as the Sioux holy man who first befriends Costner. Nebraskan Rodney Grant, an Omaha, plays a hot-blooded young warrior to great effect. McDonnell, as the lifelong white captive who falls for Costner, is winsome.

Both Costner's ante-flower child demeanor, though, and Blake's script seem anachronistic. "I have become a sort of celebrity," Costner says at one point,

To say this movie is sporadically artful is to say that it is more interesting than most films around these days. But it is still a failure, if a glorious one. While there's no question that its heart is in the right place, its foot is too often in its mouth. (PG-13)

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