In Kevin Costner's movie 'Dances With Wolves', a white veteran of the Civil War, John Dunbar, missions 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 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. The general effect on the audience is perfectly illustrated through the employment of several techniques in production, as well as memorable scenes that have been well portrayed through, for example, Dunbar's eyes. The film's main purpose is to shift the audience' sympathy towards the Sioux, a Native American race unjustly judged based on pre-conceived American ideas.
Costner et al., (2003) initially depicted the Native Indians in the film in stark contrast with Dunbar, which made it almost impossible not to be biased against them. While Dunbar is noble and upright, the Indians are wild and brutal. For instance, they murder Dunbar's wagon driver Timmons in the most inhumane of ways, 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 rather 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 the movie progresses, however, the perception of Dunbar towards the Sioux, begins to change. Several episodes reveal how Dunbar and the Indians gradually begin to grow closer to each other. Firstly, each party ventures to visit the other and, thus, tentatively begins to build a better understanding of its neighbor. Then, when they are more comfortable together, the two sides begin to extend the hand of friendship; the Indians give Dunbar a buffalo blanket, while, in return, Dunbar gives the Indians some of his food supply and their first taste of coffee. Through the symbolism of the wolf, the film teaches the audience that appearances or stereotypes should not be the sole basis for judgment. For outwardly, although the wolf appears to be very ferocious and bloodthirsty, in reality, it is actually very gentle and kind-hearted, just as the Sioux Indians.
The final stage of the shifting perception of the Indians by Dunbar and the audience occurs when Dunbar actually reaches a deeper level of friendship with the Sioux Indians, beyond mere understanding and respect of differences, to real emotional attachment. The shift is majorly demonstrated in the scene where the wolf, who has always been friendly yet cautious around Dunbar, moves closer to him in order to make physical contact for the first time, and he even eats out of Dunbar's hand (Costner et al., 2003). Therefore in addition to mere tolerance, the two are able to experience trust in each other. Dunbar finds himself with a certain kind of new found loyalty to the Sioux tribe. He becomes more emotionally involved with the community, no longer seeing them as just a society, but as people who are quite similar to himself. This stirs up the dilemma of whether he will rejoin his people when the American troops arrive or stick with his new found society, the Sioux.
Nevertheless, it would seem that perhaps the intent of the film is not so much to vilify the whites in favor of the Sioux, as it is to simply point out that judgment and stereotypes should not be based upon exterior appearances alone. In fact, not all the white characters in the movie are bad; Dunbar, of course, is the obvious example of one who desires to help the Sioux, rather than annihilate them. Likewise, not all the Indians are as friendly as the Sioux Nation, for example, the Pawnees are clear antagonists in the film, both to the whites and their neighboring Indian tribe. Therefore, rather than draw general claims that all the Americans are bad or all Indians are good only depicted as savages, the film seeks to cover a much bigger scope that includes all humans. The common emotions, desires and traits that are exhibited by all humans should serve as the core elements in comparisons or distinguishing factors instead of race, gender, ethnicity or any other sub-category for that matter.
The constructivism theory has been skillfully employed throughout the movie in its various schemas such as stereotypes. The film begins with a savage portrayal of the Sioux community but through Dunbar's interaction with them, the audience are forced to change their perception of the once said 'savages' as they are seen to also have the ability to care for an outsider.
Costner, K., Wilson, J., Blake, M., McDonnell, M., Greene, G., Grant, R. A., MGM Home Entertainment Inc,... Westerman, F. R. C. (2003). Dances with wolves. Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment.
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