A revisionist western with enough expansive sweep and sun-drenched vistas for at least two movies, Dances With Wolves (1990) marks the memorable directorial debut of its star, Kevin Costner. In hindsight, Costner’s movie career has always been one of minor regrets for yours truly. After a few false starts in the 1980’s (most notably, having his scenes in The Big Chill, 1983 left on the cutting room floor) Costner began anew, auspiciously billed as the scruffy, blue-jeaned, mid-western stud muffin of two baseball classics; 1988’s Bull Durham and 1989’s Field of Dreams. He also appeared to more awkward effect in Brian DePalma’s compelling big screen revamp of the old TV G-man drama, The Untouchables (1987); in hindsight, a more noteworthy film for Sean Connery’s Oscar-winning performance than Costner’s rather goony impression of Elliot Ness. But then, Costner hit his stride. More than that, he sent shock waves through the complacent film-making community with Dances With Wolves – made at a time when the Hollywood western was considered box office poison. Indeed, the last sprawling sagebrush saga had been Michael Cimino’s disastrous Heaven’s Gate (1980); a film that so completely put the fear of God into this otherwise godless mecca by breaking the venerable United Artists down to bedrock. The Hollywood press, never at a loss to condemn any movie before it actually hits theaters, had already sardonically dubbed Dances With Wolves, ‘Kevin’s Gate’, even before the ink on Costner’s contract with Orion Pictures had dried. And in the intervening months between its arduous gestation and lengthy production shoot in Wyoming, the critic’s eagerness for another fiscal and career-ending implosion could not be concealed.
While praise was swift, it was not unanimous upon the movie’s debut, the critics again too quick and too clever with their vitriol; perhaps because Dances With Wolves belied their naysaying by becoming an instant smash hit with audiences, earning $424 million worldwide and taking home a slew of little gold statuettes on Oscar night. Indeed, Dances With Wolves was the first western since 1931’s Cimarron (a commercial flop) to win the coveted Best Picture Academy Award. As nothing breeds jealousy more than success, so, invariably, has Dances With Wolves been more heavily panned of late for its ethnocentricity; just a story about a ‘white guy who saves the day’, feeding into revisited clichés regarding ‘the noble savage’. Rubbish, if you ask me. It is important to note Dances With Wolves was – and still ought to be considered – a monumentally progressive depiction of native Americans. The Lakota language employed extensively throughout the film, though maligned for its periodic misuse of the female-gendered spoken dialect, has not deterred the First Nations’ peoples from embracing this movie as a part of their collective heritage. Costner was, in fact, made an honorary member of the Sioux and, on Oscar night, was sincerely touching in his extensive plaudits to all the indigenous peoples who had helped shape and guide the integrity of his epic.
Dances With Wolves is impressive for other reasons too. Michael Blake’s screenplay (based on his novel) is understated, yet potent. Here is a writer unafraid to allow for the luxury of time to pass, to enrich us with his even-paced reveal of our central character, Lieutenant John Dunbar (Kevin Costner); an idealist with a misguided illusion about the American west. Asked by his superior, the insane and suicidal Major Fambrough (Maury Chaykin) why any man should so desire an assignment to Fort Sedgwick, a forgotten outpost in the middle of this godless nowhere, Dunbar’s optimistic reply of wanting to ‘see the west before it’s gone’ immediately sets up our hero for a fall. The cinematic landscape, impeccably lensed by cinematographer, Dean Semler, reveals all the sumptuousness and breathtaking natural beauty any daydreamer like Dunbar could hope for, much less imagine. But the wilderness is untamed, and frequently inhospitable, and – of course – dangerous; particularly for the white man.
Dunbar’s first encounter with the Sioux’s fiery warrior, Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) is hardly encouraging. Neither is Dunbar’s initial meet with Two Socks, the lone wolf cautiously monitoring his every move. Perhaps a little too optimistically, things begin to fall into place for the ambitious Dunbar, despite his isolation on the plains. Depending on one’s point of view, Fambrough’s suicide and the murder of uncouth and foul-smelling wagon train master, Timmons (Robert Pastorelli) creates either a vacuum for this isolationism to ferment or the perfect storm in which Dunbar can explore an unlikely friendship with Kicking Bird (Grahame Greene) who is as curious about this pale-skinned stranger. Kicking Bird encourages Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman reared from childhood by the Sioux after her family was killed, to ‘make talk’ with Dunbar. This détente, predictably, is fraught with immediate romantic underpinnings and overtones. As Dunbar’s appreciation for the Sioux continues to evolve, so does his great admiration blossom into love for this mediator who has brought them together. McDonnell is perfectly cast as the marginally frightened, intensely passionate interpreter; her eyes even more expressive than her wafer-thin whispers that build from inward shyness to defiant resolve.
Interestingly, Dances With Wolves began its life as a screenplay back in 1979. Alas, Michael Blake could find no one to take an interest. Even after the property was adapted as a novel by Blake - with Kevin Costner's encouragement - it proved un-saleable with publishers until late 1988; almost a decade after it was initially conceived for the screen. By then, however, Kevin Costner had risen to prominence in the Hollywood community. He quickly snatched up the film rights and thereafter set about courting interested parties to raise the $22 million necessary to produce it. In the end, Costner would fork out nearly $3 million of his own cash to complete Dances With Wolves. Production delays were considerable, most attributed to South Dakota’s temperamental weather; also owing to considerable difficulties in ‘wrangling the various live wolves, and finally, due to the complexities in staging both an all-out Indian battle and bison hunt sequences. Alas, the shooting of the latter was not without incident. Employing domesticated bison from singer, Neil Young’s ranch, Costner, who did most of his own horse riding, was T-boned during the stampede, knocking him, full force, to the ground. Badly bruised, though otherwise unharmed, Costner’s pride was likely the only true casualty of the accident. But it just as easily could have broken his back or even paralyzed him for life.
Our story begins with one of the last standoffs between the Confederate and Union Armies during the American Civil War. Awakening, bloodied, on an operating table inside a gruesome makeshift hospital on the front lines, where surgeons lop off limbs with savage and unclean utensils and without the benefit of chloroform, Major John Dunbar discovers that his own wounded leg is slated for amputation. In a moment of semi-lucidity, Dunbar hops off the table and hobbles to his waiting horse, determined to go out in a blaze of glory as a suicide rider between enemy lines. This stunt is repeated over and over again, Dunbar’s audacity winning him mutual respect on both sides of the battle line. He is afforded his General’s private surgeon, who operates and saves Dunbar’s leg. Dunbar is also given his choice of commissions. He chooses Fort Sedgwick, a frontier outpost in the middle of the wide open west. His motives are fanciful. He wants to ‘see the west’ before it becomes overpopulated by settlers.
Dunbar’s initiation to this untamed wilderness is hardly welcoming. His superior, Maj. Fambrough has lost his mind, signing Dunbar’s orders to proceed to Fort Sedgwick before barricading himself in his office and declaring “to your journey…to my journey!” then, blowing his brains out with a pistol. Dunbar is assigned a wagon master, Timmons, to see him to Fort Sedgwick. Regrettably, the man is about as unkempt, slovenly, ill-mannered and inarticulate as traveling companions can get. The arrival at Sedgwick is even less assuring. Dunbar discovers the fort virtually abandoned, the nearby sump full of carcasses of slaughtered animals and the previous occupants, presumably either from fear or madness, having moved all their supplies and living quarters to some man-made holes dug in the side of a nearby hill. Dunbar elects to send Timmons back with a message, instructing for military reserves to be sent at once. Alas, on the long journey Timmons is pierced through the heart with an arrow by the marauding Pawnee, dying in the open fields of tall waving grass. Although Dunbar does not realize it, he is now completely isolated from civilization.
Electing to proactively restore the fort, Dunbar spends his days cleaning out the sump, burning the decomposing animal remains in a bonfire and making the most of what limited repairs can be made to the fort itself. His industriousness attracts the attentions of the neighboring Sioux, also a lone wolf whom Dunbar nicknames ‘Two Socks’ since the animal’s front paws are uniquely colored in white fur. Dunbar’s first encounter with Wind In His Hair is eventful, the rider gallantly charging and shouting in his native tongue. The spectacle is startling to Dunbar and witnessed at a distance by Kicking Bird, who is more reticent and curious about this newly arrived stranger. Returning to their encampment, Kicking Bird explains to his chief, Ten Bears (Floyd Westerman) that perhaps their next line of recourse ought not be intimidation, but a cautious extension of friendship. Soon, Kicking Bird returns with members of the tribe. Dunbar attempts to make them feel at home, bartering for goods and preparing coffee. But the language barrier between them is a stumbling block that Kicking Bird attempts to rectify when he encourages Stands With A Fist to ‘make talk’ with the white man.
Dunbar’s initial introduction to Stands With A Fist, a white woman, captured as a child after her entire family was slaughtered and raised by the Sioux (shades of Natalie Wood in John Ford’s The Searchers), is heartrending. She is uncommunicative and seemingly inconsolable after the death of her husband, attempting to take her own life with a knife. Dunbar prevents this suicide and returns her to Kicking Bird, whom he later discovers has acted as her adopted father all these many years. (Interestingly, Mary McDonnell was actually several months older than both Grahame Green and Tantoo Cardinal, who plays her Sioux mother, Black Shawl). Kicking Bird’s admiration for Dunbar is firmly established and Dunbar is soon drawn into the tribe’s lifestyle. Stands With A Fist begins to teach him the Lakota dialect, and Dunbar wins even more browning points with the tribe when he helps locate a huge herd of bison for their annual hunt.
Forsaking his ambitions for the fort, Dunbar becomes an honorary member of the Sioux, befriended as something of an elder brother by Cisco (Justin). Dunbar is also rewarded with a betrothal of marriage to Stands with a Fist after he helps smite the onset of a village invasion from the rival Pawnee. Owing to these increased threats, Ten Bears urges the tribe to relocate further west. Alas, Dunbar explains he must first retrieve his diary from Fort Sedgwick, as it would provide proof of their existence and thus, put the entire tribe in danger. Regrettably, Dunbar, escorted by Cisco, discovers the Fort occupied by the U.S. Army. As he is dressed in native garb, Dunbar is mistaken as Sioux. The military open fire, killing Cisco and taking Dunbar hostage. Unable to prove his miraculous story, Dunbar is charged with desertion and sentenced to be taken back east for a court martial. Soldiers of the escort cruelly kill Two Socks after he attempts to follow Dunbar’s military escort. Eventually, the Sioux track down the convoy, attack and kill the soldiers, setting Dunbar free.
Reunited with Kicking Bird and the rest of the tribe at their winter camp, Dunbar elects to leave with Stands With A Fist for parts unknown. His presence, if he stays, would only place the rest of the tribe in grave danger. In their bittersweet farewells, Kicking Bird gives his blessing to the couple and a soulful Wind In His Hair reminds Dunbar to never forget the loyalties of their friendship. In the movie’s epilogue we hear the panged, echoing cry of a lone wolf and see the U.S. military searching the mountain range for any sign of Dunbar. An epitaph explains how a mere thirteen years into the future, the Sioux were all but vanquished by the U.S. government’s forceful push into the western frontier.
Dances With Wolves’ finale is both sobering and sentimental; a sort of ambiguous – if marginally flawed – attempt to reconcile the plight of the Native culture, while basically reasserting the white male perspective at the crux of its central narrative. There’s never any doubt about this. The film belongs to Kevin Costner’s forthright man of integrity. Yet, we must recall Dunbar’s willingness to ‘learn’ from the Sioux, as well as his embracement into the very heart of their way of life as a Hollywoodized notion of history at best. Such noble interactions, inbred with tolerance and mutual respect were hardly the overriding altruistic motivations or principles on either side. The west was conquered in bloodshed, not bittersweet tears, as Dances With Wolves’ finale erroneously suggests. There was ignorance and arrogance on both sides. And Dunbar’s escape into the night with Stands With a Fist at the end of this lengthy 236 minute director’s cut does more than simply reinforce the reality of ‘civilizing’ the American west. It returns the audience’s ethnocentric center of gravity to the Caucasian patriarchy; an affirmation of those dyed in the wool policies that were to prove a hellish expense to these indigenous custodians of the earth.
Still, Dances With Wolves remains impressive large scale film-making at a time when both the concept and the western genre were considered box office poison. On set, Kevin Costner was an exacting professional. When cost overruns threatened to shut down his production, and Orion Pictures adamantly refused to put up one cent more to finish the picture, Costner dipped into his personal finances to finish this passion project. His stubborn faith in Dances With Wolves, and his commitment to make it as true and respectful to both sides, remain unbowed. Originally planned at a truly epic four hours with intermission, a full hour of footage was excised shortly before the film’s theatrical engagement at the insistence of Orion Pictures. Costner pruned his opus magnum to the more manageable 180 minute general release; promised by Orion the film would be seen in its entirety for its home video debut. Both sides remained true to their word and in 1995 Dances With Wolves was afforded its first ‘complete’ release on Image Laserdisc. Since that time, many things in Hollywood have changed; chiefly, Orion’s financial ruin and the film coming under the acquisitions banner of United Artists and then, MGM/Fox Home Entertainment.
In the intervening decades only Costner’s director’s cut has survived the transition to DVD and now Blu-ray. Fascinatingly, at 236 minutes we are never strained or bored; the intensity and methodical pacing of Costner’s final cut remains a sumptuous story-telling feast for the eyes. Dances With Wolves was one of MGM/Fox’s first Blu-rays, the entire feature compressed onto a single Blu-ray without intermission. In 2010, Dances With Wolves was afforded a fairly lavish 2-disc 20th anniversary affair; the second disc containing a wealth of vintage documentaries on the making of the film, a history lesson about the actual American western frontier and some fairly comprehensive featurettes dedicated to the movie’s production design and Costner’s own recollections about creating what he undoubtedly – and rightfully – has come to regard as his masterpiece.
In short, the 20th anniversary Blu-ray was a cause for celebration, with minor caveats pertaining to compression-related artifacts on the actual feature film. Actually, given the movie’s monumental run time, the hi-def image quality was fairly startling. Rich, vibrant colors were evident throughout with very natural looking flesh tones. Contrast seemed just a shay lighter than expected, but not at negligible levels. Film grain had an overall highly pleasing texture, surely not to disappoint. Although there remained instances of faint and fleeting compression noise, the image quality was bar none a surplus of tactile textures with virtually no untoward digital tampering and no distracting DNR, edge enhancement or boosting.
The impressive DTS 7.1 surround was equally startling in its clarity and depth with low-end rumbles to give your subwoofer a real workout during the bison hunt; John Barry’s glorious underscore rising to new levels. In short, there was nothing to poo-poo about regarding the 20th anniversary. All of the above accolades may be reapplied to this newly released 25th anniversary of Dances With Wolves. What is frankly, and bafflingly inexcusable is MGM/Fox Home Video’s decision to excise virtually all of the aforementioned extra features. Not only this, but the 25th anniversary is a single disc affair, with only a digital copy option to recommend it. Ho-hum, how I am tiring of these lackluster reissues. Pointless, just pointless!
We get the same audio commentary; the first featuring Kevin Costner and producer, Jim Wilson, the other an in-depth analysis of the creation of the movie’s visuals by director of photography, Dean Semler and editor, Neil Travis. MGM/Fox has given us two superfluous featurettes; Military Rank and Social Hierarchy Guide, and, Real History or Movie Make-Believe? Honestly, I think this is just a really dumb money grab on the studio’s part. A real 25th anniversary might have included both the theatrical and director’s cuts (on separate discs), and should have contained all of the aforementioned extras from the 20th anniversary, plus the add-ons from this outing.
Bottom line: Dances With Wolves deserves the deluxe box set treatment a la a Lawrence of Arabia or Gone With The Wind. Do I see a 30th anniversary on the horizon? Unlikely. MGM/Fox is not really into producing such sets. But their idea of swag on this outing is, frankly, pathetic. If you own the 20th anniversary I can’t think of a single reason to repurchase this time around. If you don’t, I would strongly recommend you seek out the 20th anniversary instead, from any number of online vendors as it contains far more detailed back stories on the making of the movie than this meagerly appointed reissue. Bottom line: pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)