“Dances With Wolves”: Theme and its Genre Analysis

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Dances With Wolves, a film from 1990, relates the story of a white American soldier of the Civil War era who interacts with a tribe of plains Indians. He comes to know them intimately, eventually going ‘native’ to the detriment of his military career. The film won several academy awards, including best picture and best cinematography. It is sweeping in its scope and vaguely reminiscent of a John Ford film in scenery. Kevin Costner stars as the soldier, with a supporting cast including Mary McDonnell as a white woman being held captive by the tribe and Graham Greene as the venerable medicine man.

The theme of this movie is that people are much the same inside, irrespective of how different they appear to be on the outside. There is a motif that runs through this film that the whites consider the Indians to be savage, brutal and less than human. The soldiers are taught that this is the case in order to make it easier for soldiers to obey the unwritten policy of genocide that the U. S. Army carries out against the natives. This relates to our classroom discussions by depicting the white American has holding that the Indian, while perhaps of a ‘noble’ race, is still inferior to the white man in all aspects. Another motif of the film has Lt. Dunbar (Costner) quickly coming to the conclusion that the Indians are as civilized in their way as is white America. By way of contrast the film depicts brutality that the U.S. soldiers show to Dunbar when they see that he has become Indian.

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These motifs are parallel to the main theme of equality of man and are demonstrated in the character of Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell) who has lived with the Indians since she was taken captive as a small child. She married an Indian man, and though a widow as the film begins, it is related that she is reasonably satisfied with her life, content to live among the Indians.

The story is of Dunbar’s fascination with the Indian way of life and how he realizes the Indian has more appeal to him than does the supposedly civilized ways in which he was reared. He fits in with the Indians so well that he is accepted among them, though it is obvious from the theme that no Indian would ever be welcome or fit in white society of that era.  When his friends, the white soldiers, find out that he as been living with the Indians he is branded a renegade and marked for death. He is captured by the military but his Indian friends free him. He marries Stands With A Fist, but realizes that so long as he stays with the Comanche he calls danger down on them, for the Army will try to hunt him down.

When Dunbar first arrives at his deserted western post he befriends a solitary wolf. This lone wolf is a symbol of what he is and how he lives outside of his pack, eventually taking up with those who normally would be considered his enemies. He literally dances with the wolf at play and the Indians see him do this. They tag him as the white man who ‘dances with wolves’.  The buffalo, a source of food and shelter to the Indian is a symbol of the way of the life that is passing. Dunbar, though white, finds the buffalo for them, bringing them hope that they will be able to prevail for at least another season.

This film is obviously of the western genre but is more than the usual ‘shoot-em-up’ cowboy and Indian movie. The Indians speak their native tongue; subtitles are used. It presents Indians in a sympathetic light by portraying them as humans with normal feelings and desires, neither demonized nor deified.


  1. Dances With Wolves  Dir.: Kevin Costner  Cast: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene  MGM, 1990

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