Costner saved westerns

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The moment an outlaw bandit in the 1907 film, “The Great Train Robbery,” aimed his pistol at the camera and fired, movie goers were enamored by the Western. Movies set in the American West helped to create stars like Tim Holt, Montgomery Clift, Roy Rogers, and many more.

The cowboy hero came from 19th Century dime novels and folklore based on true stories. Unfortunately, once embellished for entertainment value, most were wildly inaccurate. Once adapted to the silver screen, these stories generated a lasting romanticism about gunslinging outlaws, the lawmen who chased them down, and the horses that carried them across the plains.

I’ve been a fan of Westerns since childhood. Our small, black-and-white TV was frequently tuned into movies like “Red River,” “High Noon,” and, my personal favorite, “Eldorado.” My dad and brother were John Wayne fans, but also liked Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, and Gary Cooper (whom my father was named after).

Western films were box office gold from the 1930s through the mid-1980s. Released in 1985, Clint Eastwood’s “Pale Rider” earned over $41 million, making it highest grossing Western of the decade. To trim budgets, some studios moved production from Tinseltown to rural areas of Spain and Italy.

Dubbed “Spaghetti Westerns,” these foreign-produced films featured American lead actors spouting English dialogue while surrounded by supporting characters who spoke in their home language. That dialogue was dubbed over with whatever languages were needed for international release.

But the sun was beginning to set on the uniquely American genre. Movies like John Travolta’s “Urban Cowboy,” took the West out of the Western and replaced gunfights and horses with line dancing and disco fights. As my dad might have said, the characters in these movies were all hat and no cowboy. Fortunately, the tumbleweed was about to blow back into town.

A few years later, 35-year-old actor Kevin Costner rode a horse through a massive exchange of bullets in the opening sequences of “Dances with Wolves.” Costner played Union Army soldier, John Dunbar, who found himself manning a forgotten outpost in the middle of Lakota Sioux territory. Dunbar bonded with his Indigenous neighbors, learned their language, culture, and eventually married into the tribe.

Despite Costner’s droning voiceover and, at times, a painfully slow plot, “Dances” is credited with reviving the Western genre. The film earned seven Oscars and established Costner as a blockbuster-worthy producer,

director, and actor. His recent success with the TV series, “Yellowstone,” is a direct result of those accomplishments.

“Dances” wasn’t my father’s Western taste, but it captivated me the first time I saw it. I was hooked from the first scenes and went back several times to see it in the theater. Years later, I had the chance to go to South Dakota and visit filming locations and some of the sets. I even had the good fortune to meet Costner’s equine co-star in the movie, a very nice horse named “Bruce.”

I once stood on the edge of the prairie where Dunbar first met the Sioux and played with the wolf, Two Socks. I could almost hear composer John Barry’s deeply moving score that was nearly as important a character as Dunbar himself. His music set a tone that was simultaneously heartwarming and sad.

The sprawling natural backdrops of endless plains and rich blue sky were a direct homage to the John Ford movies of the 1920s and 30s. Some scenes offered the audience a real sense of the isolation and loneliness of Dunbar’s situation.

Native American groups have mixed reactions about the film’s depiction of colonialism and cultural exchange. Some say the movie’s portrayal of Lakota Sioux culture was problematic. Others suggest it offered a cutting-edge representation of Native American family life and elevated Indigenous representation in Hollywood.

As with anything else, people will always find some reason to be negative about something. Whatever your opinion, “Dances with Wolves” was unarguably groundbreaking.

I wouldn’t want to live anywhere but here in Ohio. But I’ve walked on that land, beheld that sky, and felt that wind in my face. You can practically feel the historical reverence. I completely understand Costner’s inspiration. “He had fallen in love with this wild, beautiful country and everything it contained.”

Gery Deer is a Greene County resident and columnist. He can be reached at www.gldcommunications.com.

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