How The West Was Lost

The romantic tradition is alive and well in Hollywood, embodied in the ambitious presence of Kevin Costner. Like Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart, he cannily converts self-effacement into a larger-than-life moral statement. The modest ingrown decency of the heroes he played in "Bull Durham," "The Untouchables" and "Field of Dreams" allowed him to reach for the grand gesture without embarrassment. Encased neither in cynicism (like Bruce Willis or Eddie Murphy), superheroic musculature (Schwarzenegger, Stallone) nor dewy youth (Cruise), he's set about reinventing the tradition of diffident nobility.

So it is no shock to see him, in Union soldier uniform, atop a horse on the great plains of the American West. The wide-open spaces have always been a congenial home to Hollywood's reticent romantic figures: the wilderness demands down-to earth heroes, even as it leaves lots of space for big dreamers. Dances With Wolves, which Costner directed, coproduced and stars in, is a sweeping, three-hour epic that mixes Old Hollywood grandiosity with New Hollywood sensitivity. As a filmmaker, Costner reinforces the persona he's developed as a star. Like the idealistic hero of "Field of Dreams," who fused countercultural sentiments with Bush-era conservatism, Costner gives us an ambitious revisionist reading of the frontier within an esthetically conservative form. Redressing a century of Hollywood historical bias, he presents the Wild West from the Native American point of view. This time the Sioux Indians are the good guys, and almost every white man in sight (our hero excepted) is a lout. In a sense, he's merely turned the old cliches inside out: Costner's frontier remains a moral landscape where only white hats and black hats are worn. Only the heads have changed.

"Dances With Wolves" is vulnerable both to charges of sentimentality and anachronism--the hero exhibits a sensibility at times dubiously contemporary. But if one's mind sometimes balks, one's heart embraces the movie's fine, wide-open spirit, its genuine respect for a culture we destroyed without a second thought.

Costner plays Lt. John J. Dunbar, who becomes an improbable Civil War hero when he miraculously survives a suicidal ride in front of enemy troops. As a reward, he's reassigned to duty at remote Fort Sedgewick in the Dakotas, where he hopes to observe the frontier before it's destroyed by civilization. It turns out to be a solitary post: the fort is deserted when he arrives. He settles in alone, Thoreau-like, recording his impressions in a diary, observed only by a solitary wolf until he experiences his first tense encounter with the Sioux.

Michael Blake's sturdy screenplay, based on his own novel, is a story of cultural assimilation: it's about how the inquisitive Dunbar, sickened by the martial madness of the white world, finds himself increasingly drawn to the harmonious tribal life of the Sioux. Dunbar goes Indian--and falls in love with a white woman raised from childhood by the Sioux (Mary McDonnell)--and in the process of abandoning his culture finds his true identity. It's a classic 19th-century romantic trope--the worship of natural, "primitive" man--informed by an elegiac 20th-century political consciousness. The idyll can't last: at the back of Dunbar's mind, and just over the horizon, lurks the implacably advancing white civilization.

It's an engrossing tale, and Costner directs with the confidence of a Hollywood veteran well aware that entertainment comes before earnestness. He has a showman's instinct for mixing violence, humor and romance, a painterly eye for epic landscapes and an almost anthropological appreciation of the Sioux people. The large Native American cast--Graham Greene as the wise Kicking Bird, Dunbar's first ally; Rodney A. Grant as the more skeptical warrior Wind in His Hair, and Floyd Red Crow Westerman as the old chief (all of whom speak in the Lakota language)--create noble but believably human characters. Costner is no less shrewd serving himself up: like Robert Redford, he understands that understatement and a touch of self-mockery enhance his appeal. Dunbar may be too good to be true to the period, but in these cynical times it's nice to cheer for a soulful hero, a man who realizes there's more to life than looking out for No. 1. "Dances With Wolves" has a true epic reach and a romantic generosity of spirit that one is happy to succumb to.