I saw Dances with Wolves during its theatrical release. I was mesmerized, but I was predisposed to be so. I have been a fan of westerns since I was weaned on recordings of The Lone Ranger, and was a Civil War buff of longstanding. I was also a fan of the anti-western, or rather, the alternative to the standard, white hatted version of western history where the story was not just the one that made it into dime novels or technicolor. When I was in 2nd grade, I started receiving volumes from Time Life books Old West series, and I knew that there was more to the frontier than cowboys and Indians. I also knew that Indians generally got short shrift in westerns.
The movie, as with any creative work, is a reflection of its own time. It feels dated now, with its sympathetic retelling from the perspective of the native people (the Lakota, anyway) and depiction of ecological devastation and culture genocide associated with European dominance of the prairie. It is not a movie that would have been made in 1970, or 2011. It is a love story, really, a yearning for something lost, or maybe to be lost ourselves in that wide open solitude of the young land before the plow.
The use of the Lakota language and the many domestic scenes in the camp of the Sioux, make the film feel more like ethnography than Hollywood. Its native American actors are far more authentic than their predecessors on the silver screen. The cinematography is gorgeous, seductive, even, for one who loves the wild, and fell in love with the idea of Native Americans back in the days when I played "pioneers and Indians" as one of them.
It is an ugly movie, also, when it shows the degradation of the despoilers of the West and the savagery of the Pawnee (humanizing the Sioux at their expense). It is unsubtle, and yet easily dismissed in our cynical age. It embarresses us, today, sticky with the political correctness of its day and its seven Academy awards. We prefer to think that Clint Eastwood reinvented and ressurected the Western genre with Unforgiven in 1992, forgetting that Wolves won Best Picture as well and two years before. Both films are about moral ambiguity, but Dances with Wolves is about choosing sides across an irreconcilable gulf between two worlds, while Unforgiven has only antiheroes and is a much bleaker vision of humanity. All that is missing is the profanity of Deadwood to bring it up to date.
Dances with Wolves is a romance on an epic scale. It is a throwback because it is a romance that wears its loyalties on its buckskinned sleeve, but a decent one, by and large. It reminds me of my years living in Africa, among those of other cultures where everything was new, for us all. I relate to that part of the movie in ways I cannot relate to the characters in Unforgiven. It is not a true picture of the West, any more than any western movie can be, but it is moving and it was groundbreaking twenty odd years ago, and an important piece of film history even if it belongs to another time.