I’ve written now and again of how I’ve been spoiled when it comes to watching movies set in the 19th century American west – also known as Westerns – by my own knowledge of the setting and time. Yes, if a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, a lot of it is like the Tunguska Explosion, with pretty much the same results – even if the movie in question is one of those high-cost, well-acted, beautifully filmed award-winning extravaganzas.
The latest movie which has been destroyed for me is Dances With Wolves– which we decided to watch the other night. Beautiful-looking movie, scenic panoramic sweeps of the Northern Plains, attractive and interesting actors – especially those portraying Sioux – and as for the look and conduct of the tribe as portrayed? I’ve always thought there was nothing better for getting an idea of what a Sioux village and its inhabitants looked like in the mid-19th century. No, really – it was marvelous, almost a living history exhibit; everyone was always doing something; working, recreating, celebrating. Alas – everything else about Dances just falls apart on closer examination.
What was the purpose of Fort Sedgwick, abandoned out in the middle of the plains? US Army forts were established along the overland trail to serve a purpose – protecting commercial and emigrant traffic, mostly. An army post just sitting out there with no mission, off and away off the beaten track? Logical fail number one. During the Civil War, protecting traffic and communications between the Far West and the North was of prime concern – especially since the more hostile western tribes realized that the pickings were good with the Federal Army withdrawn from all but a few strategic posts. I should note that the Pawnee, as farmers who did some buffalo hunting on the side, were also long-time foes of the Sioux. But they had been pretty well decimated by epidemics and warfare with the Sioux well before the Civil War even began. The Pawnee were still fighting the Sioux, though … being recruited from their Reservation to serve as US Army scouts, and they were not bopping around the Northern plains attacking Army teamsters, either. Logical fail number two.
Logical fail number three is that by the 1860s, it just isn’t historically credible for an Army officer to ‘go native’, as it were, and join an Indian tribe. Hostilities between the various tribes and the whites had gone too far by then; there was too much bad blood on the ground and ill-feeling in the air. I will concede that it certainly could have happened at an earlier stage, depending on the tribe and the eccentricity of the individual, and the battle lines not so firmly drawn. The early mountain men cheerfully and openly joined various friendly tribes, and certainly other men whose work or wanderlust led them into the trans-Mississippi west during the 1830s and 1840s would have been likely candidates for adoption as adults into a tribe.
Given my urge to try and tinker with a narrative like this in order to ‘fix’ these and other inconsistencies, I looked at Dances and thought about how I would have tweaked it and made the story historically consistent. It could have been done quite easily by making Lt. Dunbar a traumatized survivor of the Mexican-American War – which would move the story back in time almost twenty years, to when there were just a handful of American outposts in the Far West. Give him an assignment to survey a portion of land which the Americans had won from Mexico – and there were a number of surveying and exploring missions going on at that time. Get him separated from the rest of his group, and stranded in the wilderness … and play out the rest of it as written. This strategy might not have resulted in a better book or movie – but it certainly would have satisfied me.