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Dances With Wolves: A Best Picture, 25 Years Later

Kevin Costner’s magnum opus was a prestige studio film that revealed more about the 1990s than the 1860s.

Bear with me here, but I’m going to take a moment. Before I talk about how Dances With Wolves holds up 25 years after it won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, I’m going to talk about Grease.

Grease is a movie that is supposed to be about the ’50s. It’s a period piece, really, meant to evoke a specific time in our pop culture history. The problem with Grease is that it is so cheesy, so hokey, so much of the era in which it was actually made (as opposed to the era it is attempting to evoke), that, watching it now, it is not evocative of the 50s. It is evocative of the 70s. It is about the 50s the way that Transformers is about advanced robotics.

Watching Dances With Wolves recently invoked similar impressions. The movie, of course, takes place during the Civil War, but every frame of the film screams early 90s. This is as much a relic of its time as Milli Vanilli, “2 Legit 2 Quit,” and Operation Desert Storm. The movie means to be a capsule of a specific time in American history, but it ends up being about a specific time in Hollywood—a time that seems just as far away.

There are 90s touchstones everywhere, starting with the opening credits, which show us Orion Pictures, the acclaimed studio that soon thereafter went bankrupt. There are mullets everywhere, even on Union soldiers who more likely would have been a little less Party In The Back. The movie casts Robert Pastorelli, a “breakout” sitcom star from Murphy Brown, in a “wacky” comedic role. (No offense to the late Pastorelli, who died of a morphine overdose in 2004, but there may be no more ’90s actor than him, with the possible exception of his Murphy Brown co-star Grant Shaud.) And it has the most 90s artifact of all, Kevin Costner, back when he was the most assured, stable movie star in the world, the next coming of Jimmy Stewart, a guy who could headline both Oliver Stone paranoid nihilist thrillers and two-hankie Whitney Houston romances and not even break a sweat. The movie even lets him try an accent out a couple of times, which is as much a 90s staple as a Dan Quayle gaffe.

But more than anything, Dances With Wolves feels like a 90s movie because that was the last time a big Hollywood studio would ever bankroll a movie like this. This was a big huge expansive ambitious insane project, with Kevin Costner and no one else anybody knew starring in a three-hour (three hours!) tale of a soldier’s personal journey. It was also directed by the star, who is particularly fond of giving himself lingering close-ups. (Costner loves close-ups of his own face the way Ben Affleck loves shots of himself shirtless and working out before cutting to a shot of a helicopter flying over downtown Boston.) 

The idea of a prestige movie this immense being released by a major studio now is absurd. The success of this film led to a few more hyper-long ambitious passion projects (namely, Oliver Stone’s JFK and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X), but you never saw that sort of thing again. This was the last time a movie star had so much clout that he could do something so patently crazy and expensive, and get a major studio to finance it—and thus the last time it could pay off. (During production, the movie was known as “Kevin’s Gate,” a reference to the famous flop Heaven’s Gate, which bankrupted United Artists.) Afterward, Mel Gibson could make his Passion of the Christ, and Angelina Jolie could make By the Sea, but only through independent studios or, increasingly these days, Netflix or Amazon. The very fact that Dances With Wolves exists makes it a relic of its time.

It is also a relic in other, less fortunate ways, in that its success set off a series of movies in which difficult, shameful moments in American history were framed in such a way that they are resolved by the resolute goodness of a white man. (As Godfrey Cheshire wrote about the terrible Ghosts of Mississippi, “When future generations turn to this era’s movies for an account of the struggles for racial justice in America, they’ll learn the surprising lesson that such battles were fought and won by square-jawed white guys.”) The movie is so made for white audiences that all the Native American characters are there to serve Costner’s John Dunbar, “humanized” only so that he can discover, lo and behold, hey, Native Americans are just like us! That this is such a thunderbolt of a revelation speaks to the films of that era, not just this one; Costner, with his blank, inexpressive whiteness, merely accentuated the issue. That is not the same thing as saying Costner is or was a bad actor: He isn’t, and wasn’t. There’s something sturdy and reliable about Costner that fit the nation’s vision of itself at the time. But it has not aged well.

Twenty-five years later, the movie lands as a bit of a dud. It’s oppressively, almost sadistically slow, and the film lets Costner’s stardom do a ton of heavy lifting, which doesn’t work as well when he’s a lot less of a star two decades-plus later. It doesn’t even look as fantastic, in an epic Western way, as you want it to; you imagine what Roger Deakins or Emmanuel Lubezki or Robert Richardson could have done with it. It is mostly just long and plodding and a big love letter to Kevin Costner. And its politics, seen as “progressive” at the time, now look thuddingly, almost offensively, obvious.

It feels like, well, 1990, a time before culture got interesting, before Nirvana, before Quentin Tarantino, before The Sopranos, before rap took over, before, well … before the internet. It is a movie that looks backward right before everyone was about to start sprinting forward. And it’s a movie that’s very proud of itself right before everyone started pointing out that it wasn’t wearing any clothes. They’re all wearing Civil War garb in Dances With Wolves. But those look like Hammer Pants to me. 

For more on the Academy Awards, we recommend this episode of the Grierson & Leitch podcast:

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film, Grierson & Leitch. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site