DANCES WITH WOLVES
A couple of years after they came out in the early nineties I had occasion to see two films that deal with Native Americans: Dances With Wolves (1990) and Black Robe (1991). The former movie I knew about because like everybody else in America at the time I had read a lot about it in various reviews and magazines during the past year or so, and the latter movie I recognized from the identical title of the novel by Brian Moore on which it is based, and which I had happened to have read a few months previously.
May I engage you with my thoughts about these two films on the cinematic and ideological levels?
Both have somewhat similar agendas, and both share certain structural features, but each is quite different in the effect it produces and the way it addresses its theme. I will say at the outset that I thought Dances with Wolves [hereafter DWW] was a rather mixed effort, hardly worth the kudos that has been heaped on it by one and all (except for Pauline Kael, who in her New Yorker review suggested, rather wickedly, that it should have been called Man Plays With Camera), and Black Robe [hereafter BR] one of the most beautiful (if depressing) movies I have seen in a very, very long time.
The similarities between the two films are numerous and pointed. The core theme of each film is the conflict arising from the meeting of two profoundly alien cultures, those of the Native Americans and the white Europeans, and the wrenching and catastrophic turn of events that this contact brought about for one side. In both films a white protagonist goes deep into unknown Indian lands, in DWW crossing endless desert to debouch onto the high plains of the Sioux in the American Midwest of the 1860’s, in BR, traversing vast rivers to reach the forested enclaves of the Hurons in the northern Quebec of the 1630’s. In both a temporal grid is imposed on the action, leading from fall into deep winter, In BR the onset of winter is less adventitious than in DWW, for it is gradual and organically melded with the narrative, snow developing into a major symbol for demise – the death of the Indian leader and the dying of the sick Hurons and, ultimately, their race.
In one the hero almost loses a leg, in the other the hero does lose a finger. In one the guide is a foolish trapper, in the other, a white youth and the Indians themselves. The ostensible purpose of the journey is, in one, to find some soldiers and establish a Unites States army outpost, in the other, to learn the fate of a missing priest and establish a Jesuit mission. At the end of DWW the white hero leaves the Indian enclave with a white woman, in BR the hero’s guide, a white man, leaves with an Indian woman. Both heroes have learned to speak the native Indian languages, in DWW after living among them, in BR before meeting them. Both in a sense become lost, and both are “discovered” and saved by the Indians. Both heroes are liminal characters in that each attempts to bridge two cultures by making the white one familiar to the Indians and indeed imposing it upon them, in DWW through military technology, in BR through religious conversion. Both heroes are at least initially supremely confident in the superiority of white ways, but by the end of the film each has come to question these, the hero in DWW in overt and less subtle terms, Father LaForgue in BR on a metaphysical level. Both heroes get themselves into a fix where the loyalty of the Indians to their friends brings about their rescue, but at appalling cost to the Indians. In spite of the efforts of each hero to attempt the bridging of cultures, though unwanted by the Indians, and the demonstration that white ways will benefit the Indians, the upshot for the Indians in each case is virtual eradication as a people after contact with the white ways offered by the hero: in DWW, the Sioux are destroyed by the Europeans pushing ever westward, in BR, the Christianized Hurons are decimated by their enemies, the unconverted Iriquois.
The mythic quality of both films is quite striking, in particular in the case of BR, a film whose structure, incidentally, is strongly reminiscent of that found in Apocalypse Now: a hero goes on a mission in quest of a lost compatriot (a military leader in AN, a priest in BR) far up-country into a savage wilderness on rivers winding through a stunning but hostile topography that is a displaced map of Hell. For the controlling mytheme in both DWW and BR is that of the failed katabasis, or ‘descent’ into Hell perhaps most commandingly and authoritatively portrayed in its earliest literary appearance in the Western tradition — Book 5 of Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus journeys into the underworld. In the films the hero traverses a vast and malevolent landscape in search of a ‘friend’, relies on a guide to reach his objective, and ultimately fails in his immediate quest. We do not see the hero’s return to his own civilization with increased wisdom, a typological probability of the narrative pattern — I discuss this literary-cinematic theme in considerable detail in a 2001 paper ( “The Katabasis Theme in Modern Cinema,” in Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema [link valid as of 26 June 2011], Martin M. Winkler [editor], Oxford University Press, 2001 pp. 23-50) — and this frustration of motival expectations suggests, at the level of traditional structure, a failed quest by a failed hero, or anti-hero. This is apparently [see my further comments below] not the overt point of DWW at all, but it nonetheless emerges unmistakably from a careful consideration of traditional thematics and suggests that the film in effect got away from its director (and star, Kevin Kostner), imparting a message quite the opposite of that which seemed intended.
BR by contrast appears consistent from start to finish with its sense of brooding doubt. This film, unlike DWW, makes impressive use of the literary device known as synkrisis, or direct comparison of extended episodes, a kind of macro-metaphorical overlay that comments pungently on the action. One striking example among many is the cut from the scene in which the priest is walking in the wild forest looking up at the tall trees towering over him to the scene of the soaring structures supporting the great symbol of Christianity, the cathedral back in France. Constant reference is made to the similarity-difference between the Hurons’ religion and Christianity, not to mention the ethical components of both creeds as manifested in action towards other human beings.
An honest analysis of the two religious outlooks — which the hero-priest avoids with studied obtuseness — leads to the inevitable conclusion that Christianity has nothing moral or spiritual to offer the Indians that they themselves do not already possess on their own terms. As Daniel, the young man who falls in love with the Huron beauty (beautifully played by the very beautiful Sandrine Holt), notes at one point in response to the priest’s comment about “these poor people”, “But they are true Christians. They live for each other. They forgive things we would never forgive.” Unwaveringly, BR indicts the ruinous arrogance and ethnocentrism of Christianity vis-à-vis the “savages” and “barbarians” without ever resorting to the factitious and sentimentalized ennoblement of native cultures that lies at the heart of DWW. The hero of the latter film is certain to a fault right up to the end. The uncertainty of the hero of BR is neatly explored in the physical splitting of the heroic character into two parts: the young white man who is the priest’s guide is one half of the hero, a more human and humane aspect of his personality, a less cerebral but ultimately more pragmatic version of the priest. It is interesting to speculate about the fate of this younger man and the Indian woman who towards the end of the film simply go off by themselves, each away from his and her culture, presumably into the wilderness to live: is this a kind of Adam and Eve, a manifestation of opposites reconciled in the wilderness? And is it only now that, finally cut loose from the rationality of his alter ego, the priest can proceed to his fraudulent conversion of the plague-ridden Hurons that will encompass the destruction of their race?
Neither film presents a pretty picture of the civilizing effects on putative savages of an allegedly higher culture, and each underscores the point powerfully. BR executes its agenda crisply, relentlessly and uncompromisingly (as in the graphic depiction of a kind of socialization of cruelty among the Iroquois), DWW vacillates and muddles its point in a series of confusing twists and turns that bespeak a directorial lack of understanding of the mythic underpinning.
In DWW the childlike wonderment and glee with which Kevin Kostner embodies the nineteenth-century doctrine of manifest destiny as potential savior of the Indians before they are abandoned, an American mode not alien to our own times, are somehow the perfect emblems of blundering arrogance on part both of the acted character of the hero and the acting character himself. Suggestive here is the fire that the hero starts in order to burn a carcass, the smoke from which is spied by Indians and leads them directly to the gruesome killing of the hero’s guide as he returns east: our naïf hasn’t the foggiest idea of the horrifying death he has been directly responsible for inflicting. In the inset of this sub-narrative his actions anticipate his unwitting calling down of the army’s destructive wrath on his Sioux friends at the end of the film. Further, the notion that the Sioux, who had been living successfully on the western plains for uncounted generation, needed an Eastern interloper to tell them where to find buffalo is just silly. And that the crowning military success of their long history was due to the modern weapons the hero provides them in a battle against the Pawnee a few years before their abandonment by him and, subsequently, virtual extinction, is an embarrassing parallel to American geo-political and military strategies of the last quarter century or so, popularized — but certainly not invented — by the distinguished nineteenth-century tactical mind of Henry Kissinger. The hero sets the Sioux up for certain retribution by the US Army, and on the flimsy pretext of drawing the army away from the Sioux, he simply abandons them to their fate as the army closes in.
The defiant lack of irony in DWW makes it highly unlikely that this unsubtle John-Wayne-like film was meant to be seen as covert political commentary against American foreign policy of the last few generations. What is truly ironic, however, is that the overt, more trendy and voguish message of white evil (the soldiers are comic-book caricatures of monsters) oppressing [to slide into the current cant] savage nobility (despite a scalping incident) gets all muddled up in a clumsy American kind of meddling and self-aggrandizement that masquerades as an altruism convinced all other cultures are nascent Americas in utero and simply waiting for the maieutic moment. At times one feels that this film is more about Kevin Kostner as politically correct hero than about anything else, and yet Kevin Kostner comes, probably unwittingly, to symbolize a peculiarly American combination of naïveté and arrogance towards alien cultures, and to represent our superficial and inconsistent reaching out to them as long as it suits our personal short-term goals.
And before I am tarred with the obligatory accusation of a hatred for America I make haste to note that I am myself a willing citizen immigrant to these shores who would not live under any other system, no matter how imperfect the American one in many ways is — but the point is that nobody imposed that decision on me or crammed it down my gagging throat.
Well, there you have my thoughts about two movies that treat the same fundamental theme but do it in quite different ways that make the one, in my mind, an artistic failure, and the other, an artistic success.
But this critical exposition is, after all, only one person’s opinion about two movies that, for best effect, really should be seen in tandem by you yourself.