LONG it may be, but tiresome? Never. Though it never departs too far from Hollywood story conventions, Kevin Costner's three-hour epic ``Dances with Wolves'' reaches for something unusual in the movies: the solid depiction of Native Americans as whole human beings. Out of this effort comes something almost equally unusual: a sense of community that crosses cultural craters and language barriers. ``Dances with Wolves'' actually manages to celebrate a spirit of affection encompassing a society and embracing the one stranger who joins it.
The strength of this film lies in all the most modest moments when genuine humanity surfaces, buoyed up by insight and intelligence - the way friendships grow slowly, the humor and wisdom of tribal diplomacy, and the affectionate banter between husbands and wives.
Unlike the standard western knight-errant, the hero of this tale (Costner as Lt. John Dunbar) is no loner. He is, in fact, in search of familial identity. The Sioux band he meets and eventually joins provides him with family - supportive, elastic enough to embrace him as a brother, and devoted to each other.
Posted to a deserted frontier fort during the Civil War, Dunbar at first relishes his solitude. He makes friends with a lone wolf (somewhat heavy-handed symbol here) and eventually with the local Lakota Sioux, who initially regard him with suspicion and disdain, and who then cultivate his acquaintance for political reasons. He proves himself a real friend and they gradually include him as one of them.
The cavalry shows up later, and the clich'es, pent up until this point, pour out in buckets. All the white guys are real stinkers. The scenes with cavalry fail because they are utterly predictable, cheap shots meant to exhume white middle-class guilt with all the subtlety of a buffalo charge. Still, Costner's zeal to be more than just is understandable, considering how often American Indians have been portrayed as inhuman savages.
The complexities of leaning across the barriers of language and culture Costner captures with grace. He insisted upon his cast learning Lakota for the film and learned it himself. When the Indians speak, we read subtitles - a big risk according to current show-biz wisdom, but a risk that paid off. Lakota is a difficult language, and the respect Costner showed the Sioux by learning the language and asking his intertribal cast to learn it as well is unheard of in Hollywood. The device works on several levels to help us understand the deeper qualities of the heart and to reinforce our sense of a culture other than one's own. He achieves a sense of community, of human interrelatedness that appeals to the alienated contemporary American pro-foundly.
But the film's greatest success may lie in what it does for American Indians. Canadian born Graham Greene, an Oneida, gives a magnificent performance as Kicking Bird, a holy man. He says succinctly that what sets ``Dances'' apart from other films about Indians is that ``the people we created were human beings.''
Newcomer Rodney Grant, an Omaha, plays Wind in His Hair, Dunbar's antagonist and finally his best friend.
He says of ``Dances,'' ``It focuses on Native Americans as breathing, living human beings. As Dunbar says, a people eager to laugh and devoted to family. For once Native Americans can see their people on screen and be happy.''
The role itself inspired deep feelings of admiration in Mr. Grant ``for the people who came before me. The character was the type of person I would have wanted to be in that time. But I didn't really prepare for the role - except to learn the language. I try to be a good example for my kids. I think Wind in His Hair is a good role model for kids. He protected the people. He organized them.''
``The role relit a flame in me that made me want to get back into my own culture,'' Grant says. ``It really woke me up. And what a great opportunity - to wake up the Indian in me! To pick up and bring back my own culture to life. And the Sioux people opened up my eyes to a whole new world. I want to pass this on to my kids.''
Young Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse, a 15-year-old Sioux who plays Smiles A Lot, a key minor role, found great pride in his part and in the film itself. He also found a role model in Rodney Grant, with whom he became great friends. Best of all, he told me, his friends are proud of him and what the picture says about their Sioux heritage.
``A film like this had to come along to give an insight into what it means to be Indian,'' Grant says. Like so many others, he laments the images of American Indians usually delineated on film.
As much as there is to say for the western, the genre has almost utterly failed in its depiction of Native Americans. In fact, the vast majority of films dealing with Indian-white relations have stereotyped the American Indian as either the ``noble savage'' or the ``ferocious savage.'' Genuine humanity is missing.
We are all familiar with the ``ferocious savage'' - the Indian whose bloodcurdling cry issued from animal instincts of rage and cruelty. The Indian murdered and scalped indiscriminately any white in his path.
In these pictures no distinctions were made about culture or individual behavior or reasons for hostility. These generic ``Indians'' were so cruel, so fierce, so intractable they deserved to be wiped out by the cavalry or the homesteader.
They were not human beings at war with other human beings, they were wild beasts. If Costner strays from his purpose at all, it is in his overstated depiction of Pawnee warriors (Sioux enemies) as relentlessly ruthless, although one scene shows them to be more than just that.
Many past films idealized the Indian and romanticized the passing of the wild west in which he was at home. But the romanticization of the past unfortunately served to dehumanize Indians, too - placing certain Indians on an impossible pedestal and dismissing all who came after - as if ``true'' Indians were a people who had passed nobly out of history.
The Sioux of ``Dances With Wolves'' are noble, too. Not one of them is a bounder, a fool, or a villain. But so much attention is paid to character development, Costner refrains from outright romanticization.