The film opens during the American Civil War. In a United States Army field hospital, First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) learns that his injured leg is to be amputated. Seeing the plight of fellow soldiers with amputated legs, Dunbar leaves the hospital, steals a cavalry horse, and attempts suicide by riding acrossthe no man's land between the opposing Union and Confederate positions. The Southern soldiers try to shoot him, but are unable to, and open their ranks to a counterattack by the Union army in the process. His action unexpectedly rallies the Union soldiers, who storm the Confederate defenses to win the battle. Impressed by Dunbar'sactions, the commanding general of the Union forces, Major General Tide (Donald Hotton), summons his personal surgeon to save Dunbar's leg. Tide declares Dunbar to be a hero and awards him Cisco, the horse who carried him in battle as well as offering Dunbar his choice of posting. Dunbar requests a transfer to the western frontierand soon after his leg heals he arrives at a fort which is a gateway to the west. This is where he begins to record his frontier experiences in a journal read in voice over.

Dunbar meets Major Fambrough (Maury Chaykin), who has slipped into alcohol-fueled delusions of grandeur (apparently believing he is a king and Dunbar amedieval knight). Fambrough scribbles out Dunbar's orders to report to Captain Cargill at Fort Sedgwick and pairs him off with an uncouth drayage teamster named Timmons (Robert Pastorelli), who is to convey him to his post. After they depart, Fambrough shoots himself in the head.

After a journey across the South Dakota plains,Dunbar and Timmons arrive at the desolate Fort Sedgwick. Timmons leaves, and Dunbar is left by himself at the outpost, with a lone wolf that he befriends and dubs Two Socks. The deaths of Fambrough and Timmons, who is ambushed and scalped by Pawnee Indians, prevent the rest of the army from knowing of Dunbar's isolated [continua]

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