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MOVIES : COMMENTARY : Elegy for a Not-So-New Frontier : ‘Dances With Wolves,’ with its lyrical views of untamed land and explosive, unpredictable violence, does a dying genre proud

<i> Michael Wilmington writes about film for The Times. </i>

“Let’s face it, we’ve treated (the Indians) very badly; it’s a blot on our shield. We’ve cheated and robbed, killed, murdered, massacred and everything else . . . But they kill one white man and, God, out come the troops!

“There are two sides to every story, but I wanted to show their point of view for a change (in “Cheyenne Autumn”). I had wanted to make it for a long time (because, in my movies) I’ve killed more Indians than Custer, Beecher and Chivington put together.”

--John Ford

Early on in “Dances With Wolves"--a movie in which director-star Kevin Costner gives new life and vigor to the Western genre--we see a huge, ramshackle wagon silhouetted against an endless sky and a vast, rolling plain. In it, Costner’s John Dunbar and a foul-mannered guide are making their way to an abandoned fort.

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Dunbar is on a fool’s mission. He became a hero after an unsuccessful suicide attempt turned into a glorious Civil War charge. He received his orders from a lunatic, who killed himself immediately afterward. In this wild realm, absurdity, chance and sudden death seem to rule.

There shouldn’t be any glory in the ride. But there is. The wide-screen compositions, the hard but lyrical palette of colors, the effortless rolling motion of the wagon and horses, all create something thrilling: a sense of plunging into a mystery vast and dark, an adventure of endless exhilaration and ambivalent promise. It’s the frontier itself, which Costner, in an earlier close-up pregnant with portent, told us he wants to see . . . before it’s gone.

It’s a quintessential Western moment.

If you love Westerns, you’re often made to feel apologetic about it--as if a taste for “The Searchers” or “The Wild Bunch” were an automatic sign of questionable intelligence or dubious morals. And that’s been particularly true in the last decade, when the genre seemed to have expired. Since 1976, when John Wayne made his last movie, “The Shootist,” Westerns have seemed a moribund form, surviving mainly in TV revivals and insurance commercials.

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It’s often suggested that the 1980 debacle “Heaven’s Gate” killed them off completely. And I think many detractors of Westerns believe that they should die, that the entire genre is a dangerous perversion of historical fact and a huge, over-rowdy repository of unhealthy macho fantasies. Not so subtle hints of class or urban prejudice often surface in diatribes against Westerns. And, when new Westerns turn up--including such interesting entries as “Barbarosa,” “Pale Rider” and “Eagle’s Wing"--they tend to be judged, not by themselves, but as test cases for the entire genre.

That’s what’s so exciting about the widespread admiration for “Dances With Wolves.” A big commercial and critical hit, almost assuredly a multiple Oscar nominee, this three-hour epic about an idealistic cavalry man and his relations with a Sioux tribe is both fresh and iconoclastic, and a Western in the old, classic sense: a work of range and sweep, humor, lyricism and action. No genre is moribund if it still produces works that connect with audiences in this way--or even as “Young Guns 2" and the semi-Western “Back to the Future III” did earlier this year.

It has also been suggested that “Wolves’ ” impact lies in myth-debunking or in some new cinematic take on Western history. But that’s only partly true. The movie’s major departures are in its use of the Lakota language--subtitles appear during conversations between American Indian actors--and in its strenuous efforts to be true to Indian culture.

There’s nothing new about its pro-Indian viewpoint; major Westerns have taken the American Indian side since the 1926 silent film “The Vanishing American,” and I think it can be argued that, since 1950 and “Broken Arrow,” sympathy with Indian protagonists has been the rule rather than the exception (see story, facing page). The tendency peaked two decades ago in Arthur Penn’s “Little Big Man"--a movie almost identical in viewpoint, sympathy and historical overview to “Dances With Wolves.”

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But, true to its devotion to the Sioux culture, “Dances With Wolves” uses Indian actors in Indian roles. It doesn’t cast a Jeff Chandler (Cochise in “Broken Arrow”) or a Rock Hudson (in the title role of “Taza, Son of Cochise”) or even a Don Ameche (Allesandro, the tragic swain of “Ramona”) in the tribe. (Ironically, the Indian actor who plays tribal elder Kicking Bird has an Anglo name; he’s an Oneida named Graham Greene.)

The writer, Michael Blake, is the great-grandson of an Indian Fighter in the old Sixth Cavalry and he bends over backward here. Perhaps he feels he’s paying for a few family sins: the Sioux are unalloyedly wise and pure, the whites mostly hateful or ridiculous.

Beyond all this, “Dances With Wolves” has the same appeal as most classic Westerns, even the same sort of flaws. The buffalo stampede, the shoot-outs, the ribald portrayals of the secondary characters, the devotion to landscapes, the tender scenes with animals--when Costner’s horse and pet wolf are hurt, it’s an annihilating experience--all are almost paradigmatic Western scenes. So is the rather ritualized treatment of the love interest: a white female captive, rescued by the Sioux from a Pawnee massacre, conveniently turns up.

And so is the rescue of the hero by a last-minute charge--this time by the Sioux rather than the Cavalry; a similar turnabout climaxes the 1953 Budd Boetticher movie, “Seminole.” It may also be argued that because “Dances With Wolves” boasts a feisty heroine named “Stands With a Fist,” it contains a feminist subtext. But feisty heroines are common in Westerns, all the way back to Claire Trevor’s defiant prostitute Dallas in the 1939 “Stagecoach.” Those who say that “Wolves” is a radical departure, that it corrects or reverses all the bad archetypes of Westerns, probably haven’t seen very many Westerns.

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Even so, the altered angle of vision in “Dances With Wolves” accomplishes something important. It allows an audience that may be very wary of depictions of Indians to respond anew to the genre’s greatest strengths: the mixture of grand vision and low humor, lyrical views of untamed land, and explosive, unpredictable violence. These qualities, seen in most of the great Westerns of the past (see story, Page 39), have been absent, in large part, from American movie screens since 1976, the year some aficionadoes believe marked the Death of the Western.

In 1976, Ford was dead and Wayne was dying. Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone had all, unknown to us, directed their last Westerns. Clint Eastwood, then the world’s most consistently popular movie star, had just finished “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and was about to move more decisively into urban crime movies. For the rest of the decade and the one to come, Westerns went into a commercial eclipse.

Of course, there were historical and cultural reasons. Between 1950 and 1980, the period encompassing the Western’s postwar boom and slow decline, a communications explosion changed the way we viewed ourselves and the world. Television dissolved borders, creating a huge, homogenous cultural and visual web.

The idea of an isolated frontier, surrounded by vast, unreachable spaces and populated by settlers from a faraway place, began to seem even more foreign. New discoveries in American history brought into question the popular myths and heroes on which the Western was erected. New attitudes toward minorities and the meaning of the American Dream made the cultural background of the genre seem obsolete. The Western itself, which had hardened into a repetitive set of ritual plots and characters, seemed to lose its meaning.

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Yet, in some ways the Western didn’t die. It transmuted into other genres: science-fiction space operas (“Star Wars,”) urban buddy-cop thrillers (“48 Hours,” “Lethal Weapon”) war movies (“Rambo”) and, most obvious, the contemporary revenge movie (“Walking Tall”). In most cases, the movies borrowed the structure of a typical ‘50s or ‘60s Western and grafted it onto a supposedly modern setting--where an outsider or principled loner found himself face to face with outlaws or sadists who prodded him into a final showdown.

The old Western had historical background and archetypal meaning that “placed” the patterns of violence and revenge. These new versions were more gross, more absurd. They ignored modern society, pretending that someone in Los Angeles, New York or a small Southern town would act precisely as the hero of a Western set in 1800s Abilene or on the Texas-Mexico border, and suffer absolutely no consequences.

These movies drained idealism from the form--replacing it with law-and-order slogans or cliched depictions of social evils. They have become, in general, more vicious, more cynical, more divorced from reality. We accepted the old Western as either history or a dream; its modern hybrid is much more of a nightmare.

It’s a pity that the Western generated such knee-jerk critical scorn and suspicion during its two richest recent periods: 1948-1962 and 1967-1976--because, in many ways, it’s an ideal movie genre. The beauty of the landscapes, the development of drama through constant tension and eruptions of action, and the contradictions in American history during the Western’s time frame (1850 through the early 20th Century) offer filmmakers tremendous scope, a great canvas and numerous opportunities for bravura visual touches.

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I’ve loved Westerns since the age of 7, and I’ve never understood the hostility they arouse in some audiences and critics. Is it literary prejudice? An antipathy toward horses? Why would “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Seven Samurai"--which play almost like transplanted Westerns--gain immediate critical acceptance, but not “The Searchers” or “Once Upon a Time in the West”? And why don’t contemporary filmmakers seize upon the tools that might make a Western even more physically beautiful: new photographic equipment, new formats such as IMAX?

The view among some writers that Westerns are bad because they celebrate the spread of an empire and soft-pedal the persecution of Indians is a superficial one. Westerns are capable of many different social and political inflections, from the extreme right (Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Plainsman”) to the extreme left (Abraham Polonsky’s “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here”) and many points in between. And they commonly express many sentiments--the need for community spirit, fair play, courage, self-sacrifice, a sense of one’s historical position--that are among the most potent and stirring American ideals.

The highest achievement of “Dances With Wolves” is that it returns the context--dreamlike and vivid as ever, but as we see it now, rather than as we saw it in the Western’s heyday. Probably, we can never return to the purity and simplicity of John Ford’s vision of the West. But we diminish Ford by not recognizing his complexity, by forgetting that the rich sympathy toward other cultures we see in “Dances With Wolves” was always buried or overt in such movies as “Fort Apache” or “Wagonmaster.”

Ford, after all, became a Navajo himself--an honorary tribal member whose Indian name was Natani Nez, or the Tall Soldier. Like all great artists, he knew very well the tragedies his own people had caused, because the victims were his people as well.

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