JC: Yeah, yeah, “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” was among the videos that I used as a reference. Yeah, absolutely. Tom Berenger did some real interesting stuff in that film.
GB: There’s also maybe some heritage linking it to “Dances With Wolves,” considering your story here of a battered military man who finds something pure in an endangered tribal culture.
JC: Yes, exactly, it is very much like that. You see the same theme in “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” and also “The Emerald Forest,” which maybe thematically isn’t that connected but it did have that clash of civilizations or of cultures. That was another reference point for me. There was some beautiful stuff in that film. I just gathered all this stuff in and then you look at it through the lens of science fiction and it comes out looking very different but is still recognizable in a universal story way. It’s almost comfortable for the audience--“I know what kind of tale this is.” They’re not just sitting there scratching their heads, they’re enjoying it and being taken along. And we still have turns and surprises in it, too, things you don’t see coming. But the idea that you feel like you are in a classic story, a story that could have been shaped by Rudyard Kipling or Edgar Rice Burroughs.
The theme in question isn't just "a battered military man who finds something pure in an endangered tribal culture." It's "a battered military man who becomes the dominant player, even the leader, of an endangered tribal culture." In other words, these works are about white people who co-opt indigenous cultures, not the indigenous cultures themselves.
It remains to be seen what Avatar will be like, but comparisons to Kipling, Burroughs, and Dances with Wolves are not what I'd consider encouraging. Geoff Boucher, who conducted this interview, may want to examine the premise more critically next time.
For more on the subject, see James Cameron's Avatar and The Best Indian Movies.