Dances with Wolves (1990)
Set in the American Great Plains during the Civil War, Dances with Wolves (dir. by Kevin Costner) tells the story of Lt. John Dunbar (Costner), a Union Army soldier who comes into close contact with a Sioux tribe and is adopted into their numbers. He gradually sheds the outward signs of his white military heritage, wearing Sioux clothing and learning their language, even marrying a white woman the tribe had adopted when she was a girl. This story of a white man's intimate contact with native Americans served as the basis of comparison for virtually every critic who reviewed Black Robe, though most critics favored the later piece by Bruce Beresford. Dances with Wolves was praised, however, for supplying subtitles to native speech (a move Black Robe followed), so that the Sioux would be shown to be fluent in their own language, not struggling with the white man's tongue, as had been typical in Hollywood cinema. Though both films attempt to show a white man trying to understand and work with a native American culture, the protagonist of Dances with Wolves appears to be more sympathetic to the natives' culture, not trying to make them become "white" or Christian, instead bending to their cultural norms. However, the ending presents Costner's character and Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell), the white woman he marries, leaving the tribe so that the Union soldiers (many of whom he has killed or helped to kill) will not destroy them to get at him. Though his gesture is noble, the fact of the two "converted" whites leaving the tribe suggests the ultimate impossibility of whites and native Americans living together under the ever encroaching white federal government.
The Mission (1986)
Set amidst the rain forests of South America in the 18th century, The Mission (dir. by Roland Joffe) concerns a successful (and profitable) mission threatened by the Spanish and Portuguese governments, which are competing over the ownership of the land. This non-subtitled pre-Dances with Wolves film does not allow us to understand the natives' words without their being filtered through Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), the Jesuit priest who runs the mission. However, the film is culturally conscious enough not to give us Indians speaking in stilted clichés as they might have a few decades earlier. Though both this film and Black Robe address the problems of European power forcing its way into the Americas, The Mission does not problematize "spiritual colonization" (as one critic has referred to the missionary work of Jesuits) to the degree that Black Robe does. Joffe's film shows us a community of natives happily learning from the Jesuits and working together with them. It is only when the church hierarchy and the Spanish and Portuguese governments demand that the natives abandon the mission, that they express doubt concerning the good will of the church. But even the rebellion against the church hierarchy (in conjunction with the capitalist interests of the Portuguese) is performed under Christian terms. Mendoza (Robert DeNiro) wears Fr. Gabriel's cross as he and the natives battle the invading forces; when Gabriel is shot dead, a native child takes up the monstrance (a golden vessel shaped like a cross, containing the host--Jesus Christ in the Eucharist--in the center) and continues to march toward the enemy gunfire. The Mission is easily as beautiful to look at as Black Robe, but it does not question the rightness or value of missions as much as its filmic descendant.
Clearcut (1992), Cabeza de Vaca (1991), Mission of Fear (1965), The White Dawn (1975)
Copyright (c) 2000 by Robert F. Kilker, Graduate Student at Lehigh University.
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