I have not seen this film since its theaterical release sixteen years ago. Vagues memories of the film suggested that I enjoyed it. But that was years ago; prior to my journey through academic literature that informed me that the fetishization of the Other is wrought intellecual and social liabilities. Admittedly, I am no fan of characters, let alone real people, who practice cultural self-hatred by myopically romanticizing the differences of foreign peoples (spend anytime backpacking in Europe, you are bound to find "educated", self-hating American college students who relentlessly attempt to adopt the social practices of the French, because they are so much better; but in the end, they are the most "American" people in Europe). Digression aside, I found Dances with Wolves to be more balanced and less fetishistic that expected.
The narrative centers on the journey of Lt. John Dunbar (Costner) as he takes up residence in a frontier outpost. Lonely but content, Dunbar finds solitude in experiencing the frontier before it disapprears at the hands of white colonization. While waiting for the Army to relieve him of his post, Dunbar slowly develops a relationship with the neighboring Lakota Sioux Native Americans (and the local wolf, Two Socks). The good hearted Dundar holds no disrespect, or really any type of prejudice, against the Native Americans. His efforts to make contact are initially rebuffed by the jaded and distrusting tribe (can't say I blame them). However, one elder, Kicking Bird (Graham Greene, not the author) recognizes the good in Dunbar, and reaches out through a series of clumbsy conversations and gift exchanges. Unlike lesser films that show bridging communication gaps through a montage or a series of trite exchanges, Dances recognizes the frustration and trust that accompanies cross-culture communication. Conversations become smoother when the local white woman adopted by the Native Americans recalls her English and translates for Dunbar and Kicking Bird; possibly a lazy narrative device, but she figures prominently in the story as the love interest (he falls in love with the white woman, hmmmm...).
Costner is very clear about the underlying message of the film (and it is a message I endorse). Dances, I believe, does an passable job of circumventing my fetish harague by demonstrating both Dunbar and the Lakota Sioux as virtuous but flawed. Both parties are equally interested in the other, including any faults the other may possess. Yes, Costner does teeter on the naive romanticization of the Native Americans by having Dunbar fully integrate into the tribe within a year (believability is not longer sitting shot-gun), but I am willing to accept that in favor of the broader critique.
The Oscars were very kind to Costner. For the second straight time, Martin Scorsese lost to an actor-turned-first-time-director (Redford and Oridinary People (1980) beat Raging Bull; Dances beat out Goddfellas). Clearly, Dances was one of the two best films of the year (Awakenings, Ghost and Godfather III were the other three nominated films), but was it the best? It was definitely the most beautiful.
If you have four hours, it is a film worth revisiting.