Here's a sample of an essay which reviews a film. It was written by Adrienne who took this class several years ago.
Dances With Wolves Essay
No matter how you choose to categorize human beings, whether by race or religion, nationality or gender, the resultant categories will display at least one immutable constant. Each group, no matter how diverse their beliefs or how dissimilar their behaviors, will contain men of honest and peaceful natures as well as men of divisive and violent natures. In the film Dances With Wolves, we are exposed to two distinct categories of people inhabiting post civil war America, the white man and the Native American. We, most likely, begin the movie with defined ideas as to which group contains honest, peaceful men and which group contains violent and savage men. We are, however, exposed to behaviors which are in opposition to the accepted stereotypes associated with these groups. As we move through the film we are taken from the comfortable starting point of our existing stereotypes into new territory, both literally and philosophically. The film accomplishes this by allowing us to journey with John Dunbar, a man who is as open minded and free of preconceived notions as the originally empty journal on which his new ideas and understandings are written. Through his experiences we are exposed to the sharp contrast between the violent and crude, as well as the peaceful and thoughtful natures of men. With every exposure we are purposefully moved further and further away from what may have been our preconceived notions regarding these groups of people.
Through John's eyes we are first exposed to the world of the white man embroiled in the carnage and butchery of the Civil War. The gruesome hospital scene only emphasizes the fact that life in the "civilized" world can be anything but. A brief contrast is made when the compassionate officer who believes John to be a hero, rescues him from the violence and makes it possible for his leg to be saved and for him to begin his journey. But, compassionate, thinking white men are definitely in the minority in this film.
When John begins his Westward move, the crude, maniacal white man makes his reappearance. The officer who gives John the information about getting to his new post appears to be downright insane and apparently kills himself. The guide who accompanies John to his post is also no prize. John refers to him as "the foulest man alive"(Dances with Wolves). This constant exposure to the violent and crude men who make up the white race is an effective first step in shifting our sympathies. We want to distance ourselves from these shameful characters. We don't want to identify with them.
Our first exposure to Indians is a mere suggestion of the expected stereotype. We are shown a skeleton on the ground with an arrow stuck through it. So far so good. We are accustomed to that image. Dunbar's guide states that Indians are "nothin' but thieves and beggars" and that you only want to see them when they are dead (Dances with Wolves). He, of course, is such an exemplary man that it's not ironic at all to hear him degrading someone else.
From the beginning of the film we are given hints that Dunbar is not like his fellow "ugly Americans." When John and his guide arrive at the deserted Fort, the guide is in a hurry to be away. He is nervous and uncomfortable and thinks nothing of leaving without accomplishing what he was sent to do. John wants to stay, not only because he feels honor bound to reestablish his post, but also because he is drawn to the land itself. He states, "The country is everything I dreamed it would be. There can be no more beautiful place on earth" (Dances with Wolves).
After being forced to help unload the wagon at gunpoint, John's guide begins his return trip. At this time we see our first Indians. They are the Indians we expect, the painted, violent takers of scalps. It is interesting that these were also the kind of Indians the guide expected, and they were the kind he met. He is killed and scalped and we say to ourselves, "we were right, Indians are evil."
This picture is immediately contrasted with the Indians who approach Dunbar's Fort. They are curious and although they leave when Dunbar first shows himself they discuss him later in their camp. We get our first glimpse of the white man through an Indian's eyes. They describe the white men as being dirty men who ride and shoot poorly. Their meeting shows them to be contemplative and intelligent. They are respectful of their elders and obey the Chief when he decides the matter needs to be discussed more before any action is taken.
Dunbar, being a man who chooses to act rather than react, decides to present himself to the Indians as an Ambassador. His desire is to create a channel of communication with the Indians that will, in the future, benefit both groups. On his way, he meets Stands With A Fist, who has, in her mourning ritual, injured herself. She passes out and John returns her to the Indian camp. When he first sees the camp, he is impressed by it. He hands the woman over and is allowed to leave in peace.
The Indians visit him in return, and a sort of communication is attempted. Dunbar is forming an opinion of these people based on knowledge and personal experience rather than generalizations. He reveals the feelings he is having when he states, "Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not beggars and thieves. They are not the bogeymen they have been made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and have a familiar humor I enjoy" (Dances with Wolves). A friendship begins to grow out of this ability to communicate and learn about one another. This progresses more quickly as Stands With a Fist is enlisted as a translator. The Indians seem to be open minded enough to judge John on the basis of his own behavior, and not on their past experiences with white men. Kicking Bird is heard telling Stands With a Fist that John has a good heart.
More and more we are exposed to positive traits about these Indians. When camp is broken in order to follow the buffalo, John thinks to himself that "the efficiency of the people and the speed at which they move was enough to impress any military commander" (Dances with Wolves).
However, to keep us from forgetting that there is still a conflict brewing, we are exposed to the brutal, wasteful white man once again. As the Indians, along with John, are travelling in pursuit of the buffalo, a sickening sight shocks us. We see hundreds of buffalo left to rot out on the open prairie. Killed solely for their skins and their tongues, everything that remains is abandoned without a thought. We are offended right along with John and his companions. Our allegiances are shifting. The once firm footing we possessed in regards to identifying the "good" guys and the "bad" guys is shifting beneath our feet. Maybe we can't make sweeping generalizations.
John's bravery during the hunt draws him even more deeply into the heart of the Indian community. He had piqued their curiosity, experienced their tolerance and now, earned their respect. We smile with him as he tells his battle story over and over. We are warmed by the glow of his acceptance as evidenced by the trade that he makes with the once belligerent Wind in His Hair, who goes as far as ensuring that other trades made with John are equitable and fair. When John returns to his Fort he fondly reflects that he has "never known a people so eager to laugh, so devoted to family, so dedicated to each other. The only word that came to mind was harmony" (Dances with Wolves). Dunbar has chosen them and it is difficult not to agree with his choice. He preferred their world and their ways to the world he has come out of, the world of white men we have been exposed to earlier in the film. Even their wars are contrasted with the wars of the white man. After the battle with the Pawnee, Dunbar states, "I'd never been in a battle like this one. There was no dark political objective. This was not a fight for territory or riches or to make men free. It had been fought to preserve the food stores that would see us through the winter, to protect the lives of women and children and loved ones only a few feet away" (Dances with Wolves). Before, Dunbar had viewed war as another example of wastefulness and violence. It had been so meaningless to him that he hadn't wanted to live anymore. Yet, with the Sioux he had found meaning, even in battle. He stated, "I gradually began to look at it [the battle with the Pawnee] in a new way. I felt a pride I had never felt before. I'd never really known who John Dunbar wasI knew for the first time who I really was" (Dances with Wolves).
Who John Dunbar really is, is now plain to see. He is dressed as an Indian. He speaks their language. He is married to Stands With a Fist. He has found peace and happiness. He considers the Sioux his people. His desire to protect them from what he knows is coming takes him back to the Fort to retrieve his journal. What he thought would be a tool to help facilitate communication between "his people" (the white men) and the Indians has become a tool that the adversaries (the white men) could use to hurt "his people" (the Sioux).
The ultimate contrast is now revealed. John returns to his Fort to find it inhabited by white men. The same white men who have referred to the Indians as savages and godless barbarians set out to kill John on sight because they believe him to be an Indian. They don't wait to see if he comes in peace. They don't give him a chance to identify himself. They see what they think is an Indian and they purpose to kill him. They mortally wound his faithful horse. They attack him and knock him out. When he regains consciousness, we are once again able to see the "civilized" white man through the eyes of an "Indian." What we are shown is primarily a group of dirty, crude, brutal and stupid men. We see that they don't possess the wisdom of Kicking Bird or the Bravery of Wind in His Hair. They do have a Lieutenant that seems to be a man of thought and reason, but unlike the discipline that existed in the tribe, the men under the officer's authority do not respect his wishes or listen to his commands when his back is turned.
John has made his final break with his past. He looks at the men he used to be one of, and realizing he was never really one of them, he speaks to them in Sioux. He tells them they are not worth talking to. They have failed to realize that it is just as much of an injustice to define all Indians by the behaviors of the violent and savage tribes as it would be to define all white men by the ignorant and repulsive examples they themselves portray. They personify what they claim to despise: savagery, cruelty, thievery, and violence. We, along with Dunbar, separate ourselves from them.
The film Dances with Wolves provides us with an opportunity to journey out of a comfortable world which may be founded on hastily established stereotypes, into a world of truth. It begs us to deal with people from a position of knowledge and understanding, rather than one of ignorance clothed in superiority. It shows us enough of our own shortcomings to make us see that we could also be the victims of generalizations made by others based on the behaviors of the few. It presents us with a poignant example of what can be lost when people become what they claim to be fighting. It is a message that is as applicable today as it was in the time of the American West.
Costner, Kevin, dir. Dances with Wolves. Perf. Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, and Rodney A. Grant. 1990. Videocassette. Orion, 1991.