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Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves a surprising delight

DANCES WITH WOLVES

Directed by and starring Kevin Costner.

Also starring Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, and Rodney A. Grant.

At the Charles, Harvard Square, Somerville, and Circle cinemas.

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By MICHELLE P. PERRY

DIRECTING IS OFTEN the desired next step in the career of a successful actor. Therefore, it is not surprising that Kevin Costner has taken advantage of his current popularity and attendant power to direct his first film, Dances With Wolves. What is surprising is that he is also the star and co-producer. The most pleasant shock of all is that Dances With Wolves is excellent, and will probably win Costner several Academy Award nominations.

Costner plays Lt. John J. Dunbar, a Union soldier in the Civil War, who performs a bizarre, near-suicidal act which earns him an award for heroism, a horse, and his choice of a new post. He selects a remote Western fort because he feels it is his last chance to see the frontier before it disappears. When he arrives, the fort is abandoned, but he decides to fulfill his soldierly duties until reinforcements arrive. He soon comes in contact with a local Sioux tribe and, through patience and effort on both sides, is befriended by and gradually integrated into the tribe.

Dunbar is a hero, but not the sort who wears a cape or packs an Uzi. He is not immune to fear, but is able to suppress it in order to stand up for himself and his beliefs. Dunbar is a perfect role for Costner, who in movies such as The Untouchables, Bull Durham, and Field of Dreams has developed into the Gary Cooper of the 1990s. The fact that an actor like Costner can still succeed in Hollywood is comforting, perhaps because he offers an antidote to Sylvester Stallone and his proteges.

Costner faced a difficult challenge in defying the typical portrayal of Native Americans by Hollywood. He managed to humanize Native Americans without resorting to a reversal of stereotypes. "White settlers are bad, Native Americans are good" would have been just another black and white presentation of a very complex situation.

Veteran stage actress Mary McDonnell plays Dunbar's love interest, Stands With a Fist, a white woman adopted as a young girl by the Sioux. Her strength and screen presence are more than a match for Costner, and they are quite a steamy pair during their romantic scenes. Other excellent performances are given by several Native American actors, including Graham Greene (Kicking Bird), Rodney Grant (Wind in His Hair), Tantoo Cardinal (Black Shawl), and Floyd Red Crow Westerman (Ten Bears).

The realism and authenticity of the film are reinforced by the extensive use of Lakota, the language of the Sioux. Unfortunately, the amount of subtitling and the length of the film (three hours) probably make the film inaccessible to younger children.

Costner's directorial debut is an impressive piece of work. He may be as good a businessman as he is an actor/director: The ending is a perfect set-up for a sequel. Let us hope that if another film is in the works, it retains the integrity and intelligence of its predecessor.