Shifting Perceptions in Dances With Wolves
In Kevin Costner's motion picture Dances With Wolves, a white veteran of the Civil War, John Dunbar, ventures to the American frontier, where he encounters a tribe of Sioux Indians. At first, both parties are quite wary and almost hostile to each other, but after some time, Dunbar realizes that they have both grown to love and value each other as friends. As the movie critic Robert Ebert comments, "Dunbar possesses the one quality he needs to cut through the entrenched racism of his time: He is able to look another man in the eye, and see the man, rather than his attitudes about the man. As Dunbar discovers the culture of the Sioux, so do we. " As the viewpoint of the hero gradually shifts throughout the film, it is also paralleled by the similarly shifting perception of the audience- from one of initial, stereotypical fear to a much more positive one, of respect and sympathy. This overall effect on the viewer is accomplished through the skillful use of several techniques in the film, as well as through the use of some memorable scenes, as portrayed through Dunbar's eyes.
In the first several scenes of the movie, the audience is introduced to the hero, John Dunbar, and is instantly able to sympathize with him. Firstly, he is a war hero, and thus, brave and respected. Then, when he chooses to move to the frontier, he reveals his adventurous spirit, and when he toils tirelessly each day to build the post, he also shows his hardworking and disciplined personality. Furthermore, Dunbar is a well-educated man, for he eloquently records his experiences in his journal each day, and his thoughts and insights reveal a man of noble and upright character. Thus, these qualities constitute the foundation of a hero with whom the audience can better sympathize, and through whose view the audience can more readily perceive others throughout the remainder of the film.
When the Native Americans are, therefore, initially portrayed in the film in stark contrast with Dunbar, the audience is, not at all surprisingly, immediately biased against them. While Dunbar is noble and upright, the Indians are wild and brutal; for example, they murder Dunbar's wagon driver Timmons in a most violent and cruel way, by hacking him with knives and tomahawks. Their actions confirm traditional views of Indians as bloodthirsty savages who kill for no better reason than the fact that Timmons was ignorantly tending an open fire on their territory. Another case in point is when Dunbar finds Stands With a Fist by the river, cutting herself with a knife. He immediately tries to help her and gently returns her to the Sioux Indians. The Sioux, however, respond in a quite different manner; instead of being grateful towards Dunbar, Wind in His Hair screams at him and fiercely snatches the woman away from him by her hair. As a result, the audience feels indignation and anger at the Indians, especially for treating its esteemed hero in such...