History Friday – Spoiled for the Movie

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concern – especially since the more hostile western tribes realized that the pickings were good with the Federal Army withdrawn from all but a few strategic posts.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.

11 thoughts on “History Friday – Spoiled for the Movie”

  1. THat movie is at the top of my list of unfavorites. My otherwise common sense imbued son loves it. To me it is the Kevin Costner/Matt Damon version of western history. The white man was bad, bad, bad. That’s all they know. I think Costner’s career took a hit from it too.

  2. My daughter and I gave up, halfway through – because of all the logical fails, so I guess it’s at the top of our unfavorite list as well. But the visual aspects, and the anthropological look at the Sioux as they lived – it’s a feast which eventually leaves a very bad taste in your mouth.

    I did a bit of a google-search on this, before writing – and I discovered that in the original book, it was the Comanches which were the tribe that Dunbar joined! 8-0! Even more unlikely, given that time! They changed it for the movie because – well, for credibility, since everyone viewed the Comanche as the original unsympathetic bad-asses, and that the scenery to be shot in their hunting grounds wasn’t nearly as aesthetic as that which the Sioux inhabited.

  3. I agree with both of you about the politics and history behind the script. Further, I found the cinematography to be so annoying that I christened the flick “Dances With Bad Lighting”.

    The entire movie, even the scenes that were shot outdoors in daylight, the objects of interest in every scene were in the lower half of the scenes tone range (i.e. for photo geeks, under neutral gray).

  4. Sgt., I agree with you re. historical accuracy. At least the characters in Dances With Wolves are (I believe) fictional though. Nothing ruins a movie for me more than playing fast and loose with the known history of particular instances and persons.

  5. You know, it could have been a very much better, but more nuanced story if it had been about an Army officer who eventually became so identified with the tribe … there were various Army officers, agents and civilians who got very attached to various tribes and divisions, especially pre-Civil War. There was a reminiscence I read by a young officer – I think he was attached to the Apache scouts and was fluent in the language and open-minded enough to spend a lot of time with them, socially – and he thought the world of them. Funny, fun-loving, ribald – he thought they were the best company in the world. He also thought it was no end amusing, how they played at being so solemn and taciturn with whites.
    I could see a story, something like what happened to the Pawnee – a large party of them had permission and leave from the agency to go out on a long buffalo hunt into the Plains as was their custom, and to the horror and grief of their agent, they were ambushed by the Sioux and massacred. The surviving Pawnee decided to remove to their reserve in Oklahoma after that …now, wouldn’t THAT have been a story to make a movie out of? A young officer who identifies with the Pawnee, has married a Pawnee woman on the side – and tries his level best to protect them from their enemies … the Sioux. Oh, yeah – that would be epic. I can hear academic heads exploding, all the way from here in Texas.

  6. What I remember most about it was how Costner won best film & director oscars over Scorsese and Goodfellas, a greivous & historical error.

  7. The movie got an Oscar because it portrayed whites and Indians the way Hollywood liked to portray them. Agreed about Goodfellas . And, as you mentioned, the cinematography was excellent. But, as we all know the Indians were innocent and pristine at one with nature until they met the marauding and disease-ridden whites.

    Costner in my mind got some historical redemption with his later western Open Range – I’d be interested in your opinion of that….

  8. I’m with Michael K. — pathetic bullshit cheap-shot movie. Whites fighting to end slavery–insane and evil. Indian tribes in genocidal warfare against each other–noble!

  9. The quote that got both eyebrows raised, was when Kevin Costner’s character told his very weird commanding officer he “wanted to see the frontier before it disappeared”.Really I bet no officer during the civil war said that about the frontier, in fact I’m willing to bet a good number of them serving on the frontier wished it would hurry up and disappear.
    Also the various shots of them traveling to this Podunk fort out in the middle of nowhere, without any roads, trail markers, signposts, maps or compasses, and the trader was the only one that knew the way to get there…no.
    Also if he got there in summer, wouldn’t the main fort have figured out that its satellite fort was empty….no mail, no supplies, no relief, and how did they leave the Podunk fort, looks like they had smashed up all the wagons, left supplies behind, including a uniform hanging up, up sticks and left in the middle of winter. Don’t get me started on the continuity errors.

  10. “There was a reminiscence I read by a young officer – I think he was attached to the Apache scouts and was fluent in the language and open-minded enough to spend a lot of time with them, socially ”

    This was basically the story of Hondo, Louis L’Mour’s first novel, after a career writing short stories. It is set in eastern Arizona and it is possible to follow the geography. A friend’s wife’s family own a large ranch in the area, although west of Fort Huachuca. They have a beautiful ranch house,and an older one with thick walls and small windows that was the previous defensible ranch house. Farther east are the ruins of the original ranch house that was burned by the Apaches. It is not far from L’Mour’s setting for Hondo.

    Parts of Red River and Tombstone, the movies, were shot on the ranch.

  11. I found the voice-over by Costner unconvincing. Sounded too modern. Great cinema; lousy movie. Looked far better than the dialog sounded, or the story held up (which we all agree, didn’t).

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