John Dunbar: I've always wanted to see the frontier.
Major Fambrough: You want to see the frontier?
John Dunbar: Yes, sir. Before it's gone.
- Dances With Wolves, 1990
At the end of the 20th century, it seemed the western was dying.
An incredible box office failure in 1980 saw Hollywood’s would-be western blockbuster Heaven's Gate recoup just 8 per cent of its budget at the box office (despite Willem Dafoe’s first role).
Decades of so-called “Cowboys and Indians” movies gave way to the varied works of Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron and John Hughes (and a dearth of female directors).
Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider was a standalone hit western in 1985. (Streaming now at SBS On Demand.) That same year, Kevins Kline and Costner starred with Scott Glenn, Rosanna Arquette and even John Cleese in Silverado, but it only just bettered its budget.
Three Amigos in 1986 turned the western genre to comedy. And in 1988, Young Guns tried to modernise it – a success at the box office, but not with critics.
As the eighties came to a close, the beautiful TV mini-series Lonesome Dove seemed like a farewell to the western as we knew it. Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones played two retired Texas Rangers on a last adventure.
And then, in the first year of the next decade, Dances With Wolves began the genre again. Costner’s directorial debut, which won seven Oscars from 12 nominations (including Best Director and Best Picture), was set in 1863, towards the end of the American Civil War.
At that time, all of the following names were yet to enter history: Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Geronimo, Cochise, Buffalo Bill, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Wyatt Earp, Deadwood, Custer's Last Stand, Billy the Kid and the OK Corral. Costner’s movie essentially kicked off another telling of the Wild West.
Two years later, Clint Eastwood also won Best Director and Best Picture for Unforgiven, and the western was back.
I first saw Dances With Wolves when I was 20. I sat next to my grandmother, who was 82. When we left the cinema, she said “I think that might be the best film I have seen” and I agreed.
This week, I re-watched it. The movie tells the story of a lone white man, Lieutenant John Dunbar, encountering a Native American tribe (Lakota, also known as Sioux), ahead of the impending wave of white migration. It was not the “Cowboys and Indians” I had played in the schoolyard. This movie portrayed the Lakota Sioux culture with sensitivity and showed a white man becoming their ally.
Many of the cast were Lakota: the credits feature names like Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse and Floyd Red Crow Westerman. Costner’s constant adviser during filming was Lakota elder Doris Leader Charge, a language and culture instructor. Much of the film’s dialogue is in Lakota.
It all felt like progress: Native American people properly portrayed, employed to make the movie, to great success.
"People are now making a big deal about using Lakota," Costner told The New York Times. "But it just seemed obvious."
Seeing Dances With Wolves shaped my life in Australia. I went in search of Indigenous cultures, first as a volunteer labourer on a Luritja outstation in Central Australia, then by travelling from Alice Springs to Darwin and out to Kakadu National Park, reading the words of Gagadju elder Bill Neidjie: “Never stay in one place”.
Unlike Costner’s Dunbar, I encountered the aftermath of invasion; the survivors now on their own frontier, reclaiming what was theirs. The only places left on Earth still free of newcomers were the deep oceans. If I wanted to be like Dunbar, either I was born into the wrong time, or I was going to need a submarine.
Then communism fell in Eastern Europe. Countries that had been impossible to visit for decades opened up. Carrying a tent, I rode a bicycle across those countries, encountering unknown cultures and dangers and new friends. I saw that frontier, before it was gone. In my luggage were a Walkman and music cassettes, among them John Barry’s Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves soundtrack.
Kevin Costner, meanwhile, was busy destroying it all. With his brother Dan, he tried to open a $100 million casino and resort on Lakota land, to be named - rather awfully - The Dunbar. The brothers parted with $20 million before the project collapsed.
Commissioned for the resort, a $300,000 sculpture of bison (the buffalo of the movie), took artist Peggy Detmers seven years to complete. Now called Lakota Bison Jump, it ended up in a field next to a Costner-owned information centre called Tatanka: Story of the Bison – and the parties fought over it in court.
Adopted by members of the Lakota Nation in the movie’s wake, Costner found himself denounced as “just another white guy coming here to take what he can get”. To date he has only directed one other western, the worthy Open Range, and appeared in a box office flop as Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp.
But rewatching Dances With Wolves, I still find it genuine, earnest and inspiring. I stand by my love of this film. Mary McDonnell, who lost Best Supporting Actress to Whoopi Goldberg’s role in Ghost, still seems particularly brilliant as Lakota adoptee Stands With A Fist. The Oscar-winning cinematography from Australia's Dean Semler is as outstanding as ever.
Robert Redford’s The West, currently airing on SBS and at SBS On Demand, traces the events that followed the times portrayed in Dances With Wolves. Although we don’t have Costner’s film itself, some of the best westerns ever made are also screening at SBS On Demand, including John Ford’s The Searchers.
Sometimes I still ride a bicycle into the unknown. In case I am one day found unconscious at the side of the road, around my neck I wear a dog tag with medical information and emergency contacts. At the bottom are four small words: “Riding to the frontier”.
Robert Redford's The West airs Sundays at 8:30pm on SBS. Watch the latest episode at SBS On Demand: