Nowadays there have been several movies with the theme that Native Americans are peace-loving, friends of nature, and live in harmony together while the whites are bigoted, mean people who only desire to conquer, even with the extraterrestrial version of Avatar. Nevertheless, to be fair, the depiction of Indians as villainous savages had decades of movies, TV, and novels to overcome. Around the time the film was made, Kevin Costner was a huge box office star in the likes of Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. He wanted to make a movie from the 1988 novel Dances with Wolves by Michael Blake. After failing to find a director to make the project, he decided to direct the film himself.
Despite its three hours length, the story begins in the middle, showing an injured Northern John Dunbar at a Civil War hospital tent… with the doctors ready to remove his leg. The despondent John escapes when the doctors are distracted and charges unarmed with a horse into in the middle of stalemated battlefield. The confused Southern side shoots but fails to hit John, and that distracts Southern army enough for the Northern Side to attack drive the Southern army back. John Dunbar uses his victory to request the most remote station possible.
When John arrives at the station, he finds it deserted. However there was evidence of people staying there who might have been attacked. Eventually, the Sioux Native Americans start observing John at the base. At first their interactions are hostile, but then John saves a bleeding white woman (Mary McDonnell, who now best known as President Roslin from Battlestar Galactica) dressed in Native American garb. He takes her back to the Sioux village and the Indians slowly realize he means no harm. They visit his camp and he visits theirs, struggling to communicate, but both come from a place of wanting to understand versus viewing the other as a villain. The white woman initially resists being a translator, but after some convincing by her adoptive father, she agrees. It is around this time that it slowly dawns on John Dunbar how wrong he was about the Indians, and his change feels genuine. He truly is changed by the people of the Sioux. The bulk of the rest of the movie is John slowly leaving his old life to a life with the Natives, eventually becoming Dances with Wolves.
John struggles to connect with the white woman, Stands with a Fist, but slowly he comes to understand that her Native American husband had died recently and was mourning her loss. Meanwhile, Stands with a Fist comes out of her shell thanks to John’s kindness and falls in love with him. The two eventually marry.
The final act features John/Dances with Wolves going back to his old base to retrieve his journal, only to a new base camp with dozens of soldiers. John is quickly captured and tortured and questioned for his actions over the past several months. The soldiers are almost all depicted as uncaring, violent individuals with no care for living things (for example, they kill a dog – that John had befriended earlier in the movie – just for sport). The Sioux Indians rescue their friend, killing the soldiers. Dances with Wolves realizes that because of his now outlaw status, he is a danger to his friends. He leaves with his new wife after the winter breaks.
The movie Dances with Wolves works because of the attention to detail and the transformation of the main character. Kevin Costner had real Sioux dialogue featured throughout the movie, lending to its accuracy. Kevin Costner’s character doesn’t just change his mind; he is transformed by his experience with the Sioux Native Americans. The noted difference between John and Dances with Wolves at the beginning of the movie and the end when he is with the soldiers at the base camp shows how much he has left his old life behind. The movie is not without its flaws, as the soldiers at the end are too harsh in their caricatures, and a depiction of a rival Indian tribe only depicts them as savages. But Dances with Wolves is still one of the first and the best of the positive portrayals of Native Americans in movies.