A review requested by Christopher Pufall, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Slightly more than a quarter of a century since it premiered (and slightly less than a quarter of a century since the first and only time I've seen it prior to now), I'm honestly shocked by how well Dances with Wolves holds up. It is not a film that's generally rated very highly, nowadays, nothing at all like when it was a left-field smash hit in 1990, at least not in any of the corners of the cinephile internet that I frequent. Part of that is the exaggerating effect that strikes all but the most utterly pure Best Picture Oscar winners: many a film that might be remembered with some fondness has been tarnished with the blackest stain for having the temerity to win a shiny naked guy when some other film was more deserving of that naked guy. And in the case of Dances with Wolves, that sin is exaggerated by the film it beat: Goodfellas is a stone cold masterpiece, an exceptionally and even uncharacteristically worthy Oscar honoree, and that in the midst of an especially flimsy set of nominees (the other three were Awakenings, Ghost, and The Godfather, Part III - and boy, doesn't it speak volumes that you could have a set of five movies where Ghost isn't automatically the weakest? Hell, I might even rank it third). But this is not the personal fault of Dances with Wolves any more than it would later be of Shakespeare in Love.

The other major concern that the film has a bad case of the White Savior and the Noble Savages, which is... yes, but in a more complicated way than I remember. We'll get back to that.

First, we really should tackle the question of which Dances with Wolves we're talking about. The movie exists in two versions, and they are basically the same. One of them is insanely long, so long that no studio in America wanted to spend the money on a surefire flop like a three-hour Western (a genre that hadn't been reliably profitable for a generation) that wanted its audience to feel incredibly awful about the treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas at the hands of European settlers, and which was tarred by the snarky media press "Kevin's Gate" on the assumption that the film would destroy producer-director-star Kevin Costner as thoroughly as the similarly epic-scale Western Heaven's Gate had ruined director Michael Cimino, production company United Artists, and the ethos of the New Hollywood Cinema a decade prior. Nowadays, we call this the "short version". A year after the film's triumphant run, Costner and producing partner Jim Wilson added 52 minutes for what was then called an "extended edition", and is now generally marketed as a "director's cut", though Costner has since claimed that he was not present for the assembly of this version (which would seem to contradict statements he made in 1991).

It's this nearly four-hour version that's almost exclusively available today in the United States - both cuts are relatively easy to find on home video in Europe - and I frankly don't know that I'm on board with that. There is a feeling one does not ever, ever get with the theatrical cut of Dances with Wolves, which is that it's leaving important material out. To be blunt about it, I find the 181-minute film to already be something of a test of patience, although not one that's inherently unjustified. Reduced to the most abstract rendering of its plot, Dances with Wolves is about a man learning of the refreshing pleasures of life lived in a much less keyed-up way than he was used to, respecting the power of a slowed-down way of life. The film somewhat reflects that: it's not that Dances with Wolves is very long because it is full of stuff, it is very long because it allows the stuff within it to unwind slowly. It could be argued that the movie itself forces the viewer into the role of its main character, John Dunbar (Costner), requiring that we attend to moments rather than race through the plot with the most efficiency possible. The fact that it's already working in that mode long before Dunbar ever encounters the Lakota village where he discovers this new way of being in the world counts against that argument, but it still kind of fits. And the extended cut is basically just more of that - having watched both cuts in a span of less than 30 hours, I truly don't know that I can authoritatively point to anything that was added. It's a lot of individual scenes fleshed and lengthened, and a few very small plot points reinstated, but mostly it's just about reducing the pace and letting the movie breathe. I can see where people who already loved the movie love the longer cut even more, as seems to be generally the case; for me, three hours was already probably more than enough, and four was honestly kind of maddening.

Anyway, let us turn away from that tedious business, and on to the things which Dances with Wolves has in all its incarnations. There's shockingly little plot: Dunbar, a lieutenant in the Union army during the U.S. Civil War opens the film in a fit of despair about his wounded leg, and prepares to commit suicide by charging madly at the enemy line. This act of attempted self-sacrifice backfires when it allows the Union to win a victory against the Confederacy, and Dunbar's "heroism" is rewarded by his superiors offering him any posting he wants. Still feeling empty and disaffected, he asks the one thing asked for by so many Western heroes, trying to escape the ennui of American civilisation: he wants to be sent to the frontier. That gets us hardly any way into the movie at all, and there's not really a clear dramatic line afterwards: Dunbar finds himself overawed by the vastness of the Kansas prairie, and after some long time, he begins to make some attempt at contact with the local Lakota population, concluding that they'd be good allies to have while he lives alone. Eventually, he learns enough of their language and culture to find that he much prefers it to his own, and starts to insinuate himself into their community, falling in love with the white woman Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell), adopted as a child by the wise man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), and earning the respect of the initially hostile warrior Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant). And eventually, he gets found out by the Union army, which looks unkindly on his desertion.

So, about the White Savior thing: nobody gets saved, actually. Actually, I take that back - Dunbar himself (renamed, by this point, Dances with Wolves) gets saved by his adopted community, and all he does is endanger them. Really, Dunbar is more of our White Tour Guide, and that's plenty iffy in its own way, but it seems much less overly obnoxious. There's absolutely no way to miss how enormously sincere Costner and screenwriter Michael Blake (adapting his own novel, which was based on an earlier version of the screenplay) are about everything they're doing: there's a pervasive, overwhelming sense that this film wants to really get in and observe everything it possibly can about a culture that was mostly very good (the filmmakers put some measurable effort into introducing ambivalence and dark shadings into its depiction of the Lakota, but this is still very much in the tradition of "be in awe of the Noble Children of the Earth, the Native Americans" soppiness whose other most prominent avatar in that period was the 1995 Disney film Pocahontas), and was at any rate much better than the culture which effectively wiped it off the face of the earth. My understanding is that the film's accuracy in depicting that culture errs on the side of not being all that scrupulous, but of course I really don't know. It does seem a bit rote and pandering, at any rate.

Any, the film's focus isn't really on the Lakota, but on Dunbar's response to them. What we have, in effect, is a version of Lawrence of Arabia with the war movie elements shoveled all the way into the background: a man who cannot articulate the nature of his unhappiness finds that another culture has more answers than the one he was raised in, and finds later on that despite his best efforts, he can't really be of that culture, though he is at least less sad at the end than he was at the beginning. It's a durable stock narrative for a reason, and it's particularly well suited to Dances with Wolves's setting in the mythical American West, which has been conceived of as the boundless frontier where the adventurous could discover their true selves away from the madness of towns and cities for as long as there has been a Western edge of the country (by no means does the film seriously interrogate the philosophical conventions of the Western, it only re-arranges the heroes and villains). The film is thoroughly, emphatically Romantic, with not the slightest trace of apology for it; it conceives of grand landscapes and the sound of wind in the grass as the sublimest triggers for rich self-reflection and meditation. And I am not sorry to say that I'm susceptible to that particular brand of Romanticism.

What the film lacks, and I think it's the most damaging flaw on display, is a protagonist who can keep up with that - or rather, it lacks an actor to play that protagonist. The slam on Costner in '90, before the film came out and blitzed through the Oscars and raised piles of money, was that he was a fine movie star but how dare he try to direct, and this is exactly backwards. In fact, Costner's instincts as a director are largely very good, though in the first quarter of the movie he tries to stage some moments of Dunbar's isolation like scenes from a thriller, which is kind of a dreadful choice. But I like a lot of his choices behind the camera. It's as a leading man that Costner fails the movie, perhaps forgetting to put any effort into character building due to the strain of also learning how to direct (of the actor's three self-directed performances, this is easily my least-favorite; and the second of those three, I'll point out was in The Postman). Given how hellbent the film is in every other way on recreating 1863 in the Great Plains with as much fidelity as it can muster up, Costner's work on Dunbar is almost hypnotically bad: he carries himself awkwardly, like he never figured out how to play "guy with a bum leg" and kept changing his mind in the middle of the shoot, and he makes a lot of weird facial expressions that don't say, "I am lost in thought and troubled by the world but also moved by the beauty of nature" nearly as loudly as they say, "Is that a fart? Who farted? Mary, did you fart?" But mostly, it's the voice. The shrill, flat, born-in-California voice, humming all of his vowels through his nose and reciting lines rather than delivering them. Swear to God, he thought more about modulating his vocal timbre on Field of Dreams than he did here. Sometimes, when he is standing still against the landscape, you can easily fall into a reverie and think "aye yes, this is truly a Man of the West". It's not ever even once possible to do that when he's opening his mouth.

For all that, Dances with Wolves is a pretty actor-proof movie, and Costner stinking things up doesn't do much more to hinder the film than Grant's superlative work as the frustrated, cautious Wind in His Hair does to prop it up. The actors are meat puppets as much as anything, and if there's one thing that Costner gets right, it's knowing how to place humans in the sets and locations of the film for maximum impact. Or maybe he was just incredibly lucky to have Dean Semler on-hand as cinematographer (once you idly put 2+2 together and realise that Dances with Wolves was shot by the man who'd previously shot Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior, you cannot ever unsee the links between the two movies). This is a movie made by people who've studied their Westerns. Something the filmmakers do often, without ever diluting its impact, is to show fragments of characters - most of a leg, an arm and shoulder, or the back of head - as an interruption to our field of vision, always drawing attention away from the wideness of the frame and attaching it to the relationship between people and space. Out there is the whole of the West, and right here are the characters, and underlining that there is a difference between those layers adds quite a lot of mythic grandeur but also of mild sorrow. The undertone of all of this, after all, is that the West, as both a mythic construct for white Romantics to pursue and as a functioning ecosystem for indigenous tribes to live in, is dying and is past the point that is death can be stopped or even delayed. There really is a separation between landscape and people, doomed to grow even wider, and good on the film for quietly insisting on that even through all the picture-postcard vistas and soaring tones of John Barry's very beautiful but slightly trite score.

At any rate, Costner's sense of how to use the American landscape is an unmitigated strength, one he'd return to for his third, last, and best film as a director, 2003's Open Range, though even that film doesn't have the same epic poetry overtones as Dances with Wolves. He really doesn't hold anything back here, our Kevin. Sometimes, that's awful: staging Dunbar's suicidal charge so that his arms spread out all cruciform-like is a very ill-advised moment. Sometimes, it works pretty well: the good upshot the film's boundlessly sincere and naïve fascination with Lakota culture is that Costner lingers on the details of their tribe, from basic day-to-day behavior to the complex ways that political decisions are made in claustrophobic tents, to such obsessive lengths that it lends the film an almost neorealist sense of physical place. And most of the time, it's enthusiastically clumsy, like the rousing buffalo hunt that goes on for objectively too long, but is such robust big-screen spectacle that it's easy to go along with. And that, I think, is my takeaway from Dances with Wolves - is it great? Not really. It has greatness in it. It also has some distinct, even major flaws. But it's rather easy to get swept up in it.