I just read over at SamuraiFrog’s place that Michael Blake, who wrote both the novel Dances with Wolves and the screenplay for its hugely successful film adaptation, passed away last week. I hadn’t heard, which, as long-time readers know, is kind of odd for me. I hear about all of them, usually.
I have to confess that the movie version is the one that made an impression on me, not Blake’s original novel. I remember reading the novel not long after the movie came out, but that’s about all I remember about it. The truth is, I don’t have very good retention for books anymore, and if I’m being honest, it’s always been movies and television that have had the greatest impact on me. That’s a pretty unsettling thing to admit after believing myself to be a literary person for much of my life… perhaps that’s something to explore in another entry someday.
Dances with Wolves the movie, though… it’s one of my all-time favorites. I know a backlash against it has developed in recent years, with serious movie buffs saying it unfairly took the Best Picture Oscar that’s should’ve gone to Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and anti-PC political types criticizing it for simplistically depicting all the white people except star Kevin Costner as loathsome and all the Indians as noble. (This is untrue if you’re paying actually paying attention to the film, by the way, but it’s not something I’m inclined to argue right now.) Whatever. The movie worked for me. It came out shortly after my 21st birthday, at a time when I was floundering a bit with the whole life thing. A bit more than I usually am, I mean. I was lonely and hurting from breaking up with a girl some time before, and I was longing to explore the world while trying to decide what college major to choose. I fancied myself a Byronic hero, battered by affairs of the heart, outwardly mysterious, closely guarding all these feelings that no one else had ever felt and no one could understand… especially no one of the opposite sex. (It’s not coincidental that my other favorite movie of 1990 was Darkman, about a horribly scarred man who hides in the shadows and ultimately tells his former love he can’t be with anybody ever again, that he’s just a monster now.) And then along comes this sprawling epic that simply looks beautiful, with a lush, melancholy John Barry score, a bittersweet ending, and a theme about the end of an era… it pushed a lot of buttons in my Romantic (in the classical sense) young heart. It still does now, 25 years later, in particular the reason Costner’s Lt. John Dunbar gives for wanting to be posted to the distant fort (“I want to see the frontier…before it’s gone”) and the final scene, in which the stoic Wind In His Hair shouts out in despair to the departing Dunbar that he will always be his friend… I actually got a little teary-eyed just thinking about that scene as I typed that. Guess I still have a Romantic heart.
The bottom line is that Dances with Wolves (the movie) appeared in my life at the right moment and it resonated for me and touched me in ways that are hard to articulate. Ways that make the film immune to criticism in my book. I recently spent a small fortune to obtain a BluRay from the UK of the original (superior) theatrical cut, because the experience I had in 1990 was that important to me. I owe Michael Blake my thanks for his part in creating that.
Blake was 69 years old. For more information about how he came to write the novel and the movie (hint: Kevin Costner played a big role in both) check out his New York Times obit.