Worst Best Picture: Is Dances with Wolves Better or Worse Than Crash?

dances with wolves

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1990 winner Dances with Wolves. Is it better than Crash?

The director’s cut of Dances with Wolves is two minutes shorter than the longest version of Gone with the Wind, which would have made it the second longest Best Picture winner ever. The original version is significantly shorter — at the trim, tight running time of three hours long — so we’ll go off that, here.

No matter what version of the “modern classic” you watch, you’re in for a metric ton of Kevin Costner. Your enjoyment of Dances with Wolves will depend on two main things:

  1. How much you like Kevin Costner
  2. How much tolerance you have for a white guy saving a bunch of Native Americans

The plot is simple: Kevin Costner gets sent to the frontier and mans a military post. Through a series of freak accidents and occurrences, he ends up manning said post by himself. He meets some Native Americans. They take him in, because he is a Good White Person. He assimilates and meets the other Good White Person (Mary McDonnell) they have in their tribe. The Bad White People come back to find Kevin Costner, everyone fights, loyalties are questioned, etc.

It’s a simple plot and it results in a mostly insulting view of race. I capitalize my insulting terms in the preview paragraph because it feels so insulting in the film. Kevin Costner and Mary McDonnell are infinitely compassionate and patient, every other white character is an insane murderer. The reality of white/Native American interactions on the frontier is absolutely a terrible one, and the painting of there being only Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil with no in between is lazy. This is a tragic time in America’s history, and this portrayal is reductive.

There is a lot of controversy around the accuracy of the language in Dances with Wolves, but it fails at a much more basic level than specific authenticity. You don’t need to get into that sort of detail. Dances with Wolves is exactly the movie you think it is, and that’s not good. When Kevin Costner befriends a wolf, the lone wolf symbolism is like a battering ram. Every interaction will make your eyes roll. It’s just not very carefully done.

Like Driving Miss Daisy, you can tell that Dances with Wolves was a genuine attempt to make something that took on race relations in a historic context. It’s not fair to call either movie “racist,” at least with regard to intent. They won back-to-back in 1989 and 1990 and both have aged so terribly, so quickly, that it’s remarkable. The combo is bookended by Rain Man and Silence of the Lambsso it’s not like the world was crazy for a decade. Race is challenging, and a lot of people refer to movies like this as “Oscar bait” because they try to tackle the topic. They may be right, but winning the Oscar and being remembered fondly are different accomplishments. Dances with Wolves is just too hamfisted.

The Best Part: The setup to get Costner’s Lt. Dunbar out to the frontier is memorable for its strangeness. The first 15 minutes or so sticks with me more than the last three hours.

The Worst Part: The return of the troops to look for Costner, definitely. Everyone’s playing their roles like they’re the pirates in Hook. It’s so gruesome and over-the-top that it’s silly.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s not worse, but it’s only because it seems like a more earnest attempt. They’re both unnecessary films that at least partially deserve their “Oscar bait” descriptor. Dances with Wolves and Crash both fail because they are unnecessary looks at topics better served by more care. If you are going to make a movie about the harsh treatment of Native Americans during the American expansion period or race relations in modern Los Angeles, fine, both of those are challenging topics. You need to remember you’re not making Gladiator if you’re going to do that, though, and make something with more nuance.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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