Slapstick with Wolves

As I promised about a month ago, from time to time I will write about historical fiction movies I like. This is one of those times.

However, it’s a known fact among my friends that I have not seen any movies. I like movies—I just don’t think about going to see them very often. Especially if they’re Big and Important and I-Suspect-They-Might-Be-Boring or Make-Me-Feel-Sad-About-the-World. It’s true: my entertainment tastes are quite shallow.

Conversations often go like this:

Someone (usually a student): “Reference to important movie everyone has seen in which student has some vested interest.”

Me: “Mmmhmm. I haven’t seen that one. I mean to see it soon.”

Colleague (to Someone): “Don’t take it personally. Courtney hasn’t seen any movies.”

It’s sad, really.

I especially haven’t seen movies that came out when I was a kid and were deemed too old for me, which is how I wound up watching Dances with Wolves for the first time a couple of months ago.

As I realize I am perhaps the only person who has been deprived of Dances with Wolves, I will not summarize it here.

Suffice it to say that I expected a whole lot more dancing with wolves—the movie is called Dances with Wolves!—and a whole lot less slapstick.

For a serious drama about serious things (the Civil War! PTSD! Manifest Destiny!) I expected a little less slapstick. Don’t get me wrong—I am all about the slapstick. People falling off wagons and getting hit on the head with their own hats brings some much needed levity to a story that could have easily jumped on the History-with-a-Capital-H train.

It’s just unexpected. For example, in the scene where Lt. Dunbar first encounters his love interest, she has just slashed her wrists out of grief for her dead husband. Lt. Dunbar sits on his horse staring at her, and then the American flag he’s holding hits him in the face and he gets all tangled in it for a minute before he can go bind her wrists with that same American flag.

(I bet there’s some kind of symbolism there. Ignoring it. Also ignoring the whole disturbing Noble Savage element that always shows up in these movies in order to focus on the slapstick and why there’s not more dancing with wolves. They don’t let you do this in grad school, which is reason #984 why writing this blog is better than grad school.)

It turns out the movie is called Dances with Wolves because a wolf sometimes hangs out around Lt. Dunbar. Buyer beware: there is no actual dancing with wolves. I was immensely disappointed. I had a Newfoundland/Lab growing up, and we used to dance all the time. She would put her front paws on my shoulders. I thought it was going to be like that.

On the whole, though, I really enjoyed this movie. Until the end—spoiler alert. All the way through, Lt. Dunbar has been interacting with the Sioux. Then he marries a white woman who was captured as a child and grew up as a Sioux—and then he gets captured by the U. S. Army, and they think he’s a traitor/deserter, and it’s this whole big thing, and they all nearly get killed.

But Lt. Dunbar finally gets back to his wife and her family, and they manage to escape from the U. S. Army patrol that’s chasing them…this time. Then the movie just ends! And there’s one of those epilogue things with writing on the screen about what happens next.

Except…it doesn’t tell me what happens to these fictional characters I’ve come to care about. It’s just some very general paragraph about the closing of the frontier line and reservations and the U. S. government being jerks. I already knew all that! If I didn’t, I could have looked it up.

So what I get out of this movie re: the importance of historical fiction is summed up in my reaction to that paragraph on the screen. I’ve said this before, but—historical fiction is the closest we can get to understanding the past as it was lived. Nothing in that final general paragraph makes me feel anything, really. It’s just general, impersonal statements. But I cared about Lt. Dunbar, and his wife, and her family. I cared about what happened to those people. And I didn’t find out. And now I will always wonder.

Which fictional characters do you wonder about?

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2 thoughts on “Slapstick with Wolves”

  1. Also I usually don’t have to wonder about a character because almost everything is a trilogy any more , so I know what happens and I am tired of them by the end.

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