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BOLD, LANDMARK EVENT COSTNER DIRECTS BETTER THAN ANY ACTOR EXCEPT BEATTY

NEWMAN DID it. Redford did it. So did Warren Beatty, Barbra Streisand, Jack Nicholson and James Caan. To that list of stars turned directors you can now add Kevin Costner in his Western epic about soldiers and Indians on the plain "Dances With Wolves."

Costner didn't just do it, he did it better than all the others, with the sole exception of Warren Beatty, whose "Reds" stands out as one of the most amazing films of the past quarter century, in subject matter if not necessarily accomplishment.

In fact, what Costner has done in "Dances With Wolves" far outstrips "Silverado," the film he appeared in by the director (Lawrence Kasdan) who cut him entirely from what would have been his first big film, "The Big Chill."

One of the great myths that has sprouted in this, the television era's Age of Envy and Malice, is that Big Star filmmaking is a festering boil on the body of American movies, a grab of prerogatives best left to Hollywood's indentured creative class.

Baloney. Balderdash. The truth has to be faced -- for all the prima-donna posturing these superstars are guilty of, they have added far more boldness and accomplishment to American movies than might otherwise be possible in the conglomerate era.

Without Warren Beatty, there would have been no "Reds" -- a huge-scaled film about America's homegrown form of leftist idealism in this century's toddling years. And now, without Kevin Costner, there would have been no "Dances With Wolves" (no "Field of Dreams" or "Bull Durham" either. It was the actor's clout that helped get those films made).

"Kevin's Gate" was what "Dances With Wolves" was called for months in the channels of resentment before it was released.

No way. From a distance, "Dances With Wolves" looks like the Holy Grail that some of the most enlightened of American filmmakers keep looking for in modern American movies -- the great epic western with old style sweep that can nevertheless speak to modern film audiences. To put it more crudely, "Dances With Wolves" is a Western women will like.

Kevin Costner is no John Ford. As filmmakers go, he is a tyro -- but a tyro of considerable gifts and enormous integrity that more than makes up for inexperience.

Costner has accepted the glorious American landscape as a moral responsibility of American film-making. He has filmed a stampeding Buffalo hunt sequence even John Ford might have been pleased with. But he has downscaled his epic to the story of one wandering soldier's adoration of the frontier and his slow absorption into the Lakota Sioux.

Nothing would be easier than to make japing sport of the soft-headedness of "Dances With Wolves": the constant benevolence and absence of evil or malice among the Sioux (put 20 people of any sort together and you'll find pure spite and meanness somewhere); the heavy-handed Crucifixion symbolism of a Union soldier riding suicidally into battle with arms outstretched; the grandiloquent music by John Barry that filches from everything from Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony to Acker Bilk's "Strangers on the Shore" (and Barry's own music for "Goldfinger"); the scenes that look like a Ralph Lauren magazine ad photographed by Kurt Markus.

I'm not going to do it though.

When you're presenting a bold, landmark, three-hour film about America's Western Romance from the Indian side, you're entitled to more than your share of awkwardnesses, stupidities and mistakes. (The only American film to suggest a full moral spectrum inside Indian society remains Arthur Penn's movie of Thomas Berger's riotous novel "Little Big Man.")

For all the material that's little more than a stretched-out, New Age update of James Stewart and Debra Paget in "Broken Arrow," there are notions that are absolutely fresh in "Dances With Wolves."

The whole first half hour of the film is a weird Western death trip, dotted with suicides and suicide attempts. Costner plays an accidental Civil War hero who wants "to see the frontier before it's gone." He is posted to a fort that is barely more than a shack. He is a romantic, a poet, a mystic in a movie landscape Hollywood has usually peopled with inarticulate roughnecks, devouring capitalists and woolly wild men.

In his acute loneliness, he passes the time by writing and befriending a local wolf ("Dances With Wolves" is the name the Sioux give him when they see him one night prancing around his wolf). Eventually he is pulled into the orbit of the nearby Sioux when he discovers one of their women trying to kill herself after her husband was killed. She is white, having been brought up by the Indians after wandering into the arms of the tribe's shaman when she was an orphaned child.

She is, as the Hollywood boys used to have it, the "love interest" and she is played with rending loveliness by Mary McDonnell. McDonnell is incredibly beautiful in a way movies aren't used to. She looks like a mournful Jane Fonda -- a Jane Fonda who let the lines in her face remain. Their love scenes have simplicity and conviction.

The solider's simple act of compassion puts him into the Sioux life. He discovers that everything he had been told about them was wrong. He learns their customs -- even to the point of munching on a Buffalo heart to celebrate a successful hunt.

Costner's use of himself is canny and not entirely self-serving. He is a lieutenant type -- a handsome, light-voiced idealist of all-American stripe, the kind of fellow who, in military mythology, is the shavetail lieutenant and, in sports, becomes the quarterback of the high school football team.

"Dances With Wolves" is the story of a naive, lost man who opts out of his own society -- a constant in American literature from the earliest days.

It's based on a novel by Michael Blake, whom Costner encouraged while it was being written. In other words, Costner has been close to this from the inception.

Above the lieutenant's personal story there is, of course, that elegaic story no Western can seem to stand away from -- the vanishing of a way of life, in this case, the nomadic life of the plains Indians in search of Buffalo herds.

At three hours, it is film of even more courage than ambition. There is no question that amid all these breathtaking landscapes and horizons, there could have been more humor and several scenes that were shorter. But Costner and Orion were both wise enough to know that 25 minutes more or less wouldn't have mattered.

That's what people have always loved about Westerns -- the feeling of size which, in the age before radio, TV and the airplane, seemed the very nature of the country.
Review Dances With Wolves Rating **** Epic Western of life with the Lakota Indians, starring and written by Kevin Costner. Rated R, opening today in the Boulevard, Eastern Hills and Walden Galleria Mall theaters.

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