enema at the gates (and why I go to bat for Dances With Wolves)

Most nights I can’t sleep. Most nights I can’t sleep because I can’t stop thinking about a film. Usually, it’s not a great film that’s keeping me up. It’s a film that could have been great, but everyone fucked up.

One such movie is Enemy at the Gates (2001).

It’s a shame. This movie could have been dope. So what happened?

Now forgive me, it’s been a few weeks since I’ve watched it so I won’t go into plot details. But the screenwriters shouldn’t have committed to telling a love story AND a game of cat and mouse.

Individually these stories could have been interesting on their own. The Battle of Stalingrad was such a test of the human spirit that it provides an interesting backdrop to any story.

But Enemy at the Gates falls victim to a very serious problem…a problem that plagued so, so many movies of the era: it tries to have it both ways. It wants to be a gritty war film AND appeal to 90s sentimentality.

“But it’s based on a real historical account,” you might say.

And lo and behold, this is largely true. Of course, it takes a few creative liberties. I doubt Joseph Fiennes’ character was real. Same with Ron Perlman’s…a character that I hated so much because it seems to have been included for expositional purposes only. Because the film takes such liberties…it is a movie after all, and not a documentary…then pick a lane.

If I were making this movie, I would have focused exclusively on the chase between Ed Harris and Jude Law. But there’s no sense in crying over spilled milk.

Enemy at the Gates appears to have been one of the last of the so-called “90s, mediocre, sentimental historical dramas.” I don’t hate all of these movies. In fact, I go to bat for perhaps the greatest example of this genre: Dances With Wolves.

“Can you believe that Kevin Costner beat Martin Scorsese at the Oscars?” everyone says to me.

No. That’s not surprising at all. Have you seen the movie? I will pound the table every chance I get: Kevin Costner DESERVED his Oscar.

Quote me on that.

Honestly, as much as it pains me to say this, if there’s a flaw with the movie, it’s the screenplay. That’s a big one. This might not have been obvious to audiences then, but it’s clear 32 years later. BUT, it appears to me that Costner was involved in the project from the moment of its inception, so the script was suited to his strengths.

Could anyone else have made Dances With Wolves?

No.

And here’s where Costner excels: every character…EVERY last character…has their moment, however brief, to shine. When Stone Calf is killed, you feel it. Even when LT. Elgin is killed, one of the “villains”, there’s a shred of sympathy for him. This helps you become immersed in this lovely, bloody world.

Costner approaches the subject matter, much like his character, in a child-like, gentle manner. Not a detail is missed. It felt genuine, and not at all like it was trying “to have it both ways”.

It worked. It worked so well that nobody was able to emulate that style. They tried. But where every mediocre 90s historical drama failed, only Kevin Costner succeeded.

(Yes, I’m including Braveheart)

(Not sure about Saving Private Ryan)

2 thoughts on “enema at the gates (and why I go to bat for Dances With Wolves)

  1. I agree. Though Costner, like many an actor-director, can often take himself too seriously, there’s no denying that this is a brilliant film on so many levels. It feels so honest and real in ways that few films have been able to achieve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the film’s reputation suffers because of Costner’s reputation. People probably got tired of him after a killer 6 or 7 year run in the late 80s/90s where he was in everything. But Dances With Wolves is a legit great film, deserved it accolades as far as I’m concerned

      Liked by 1 person

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