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MOVIES : COMMENTARY : Elegy for a Not-So-New Frontier : 'Dances With Wolves,' with its lyrical views of untamed land and explosive, unpredictable violence, does a dying genre proud

December 16, 1990|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | Michael Wilmington writes about film for The Times.

"Let's face it, we've treated (the Indians) very badly; it's a blot on our shield. We've cheated and robbed, killed, murdered, massacred and everything else . . . But they kill one white man and, God, out come the troops!

"There are two sides to every story, but I wanted to show their point of view for a change (in "Cheyenne Autumn"). I had wanted to make it for a long time (because, in my movies) I've killed more Indians than Custer, Beecher and Chivington put together."

--John Ford

Early on in "Dances With Wolves"--a movie in which director-star Kevin Costner gives new life and vigor to the Western genre--we see a huge, ramshackle wagon silhouetted against an endless sky and a vast, rolling plain. In it, Costner's John Dunbar and a foul-mannered guide are making their way to an abandoned fort.

Dunbar is on a fool's mission. He became a hero after an unsuccessful suicide attempt turned into a glorious Civil War charge. He received his orders from a lunatic, who killed himself immediately afterward. In this wild realm, absurdity, chance and sudden death seem to rule.

There shouldn't be any glory in the ride. But there is. The wide-screen compositions, the hard but lyrical palette of colors, the effortless rolling motion of the wagon and horses, all create something thrilling: a sense of plunging into a mystery vast and dark, an adventure of endless exhilaration and ambivalent promise. It's the frontier itself, which Costner, in an earlier close-up pregnant with portent, told us he wants to see . . . before it's gone.

It's a quintessential Western moment.

If you love Westerns, you're often made to feel apologetic about it--as if a taste for "The Searchers" or "The Wild Bunch" were an automatic sign of questionable intelligence or dubious morals. And that's been particularly true in the last decade, when the genre seemed to have expired. Since 1976, when John Wayne made his last movie, "The Shootist," Westerns have seemed a moribund form, surviving mainly in TV revivals and insurance commercials.

It's often suggested that the 1980 debacle "Heaven's Gate" killed them off completely. And I think many detractors of Westerns believe that they should die, that the entire genre is a dangerous perversion of historical fact and a huge, over-rowdy repository of unhealthy macho fantasies. Not so subtle hints of class or urban prejudice often surface in diatribes against Westerns. And, when new Westerns turn up--including such interesting entries as "Barbarosa," "Pale Rider" and "Eagle's Wing"--they tend to be judged, not by themselves, but as test cases for the entire genre.

That's what's so exciting about the widespread admiration for "Dances With Wolves." A big commercial and critical hit, almost assuredly a multiple Oscar nominee, this three-hour epic about an idealistic cavalry man and his relations with a Sioux tribe is both fresh and iconoclastic, and a Western in the old, classic sense: a work of range and sweep, humor, lyricism and action. No genre is moribund if it still produces works that connect with audiences in this way--or even as "Young Guns 2" and the semi-Western "Back to the Future III" did earlier this year.

It has also been suggested that "Wolves' " impact lies in myth-debunking or in some new cinematic take on Western history. But that's only partly true. The movie's major departures are in its use of the Lakota language--subtitles appear during conversations between American Indian actors--and in its strenuous efforts to be true to Indian culture.

There's nothing new about its pro-Indian viewpoint; major Westerns have taken the American Indian side since the 1926 silent film "The Vanishing American," and I think it can be argued that, since 1950 and "Broken Arrow," sympathy with Indian protagonists has been the rule rather than the exception (see story, facing page). The tendency peaked two decades ago in Arthur Penn's "Little Big Man"--a movie almost identical in viewpoint, sympathy and historical overview to "Dances With Wolves."

But, true to its devotion to the Sioux culture, "Dances With Wolves" uses Indian actors in Indian roles. It doesn't cast a Jeff Chandler (Cochise in "Broken Arrow") or a Rock Hudson (in the title role of "Taza, Son of Cochise") or even a Don Ameche (Allesandro, the tragic swain of "Ramona") in the tribe. (Ironically, the Indian actor who plays tribal elder Kicking Bird has an Anglo name; he's an Oneida named Graham Greene.)

The writer, Michael Blake, is the great-grandson of an Indian Fighter in the old Sixth Cavalry and he bends over backward here. Perhaps he feels he's paying for a few family sins: the Sioux are unalloyedly wise and pure, the whites mostly hateful or ridiculous.

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