Dances With Wolves

Director: Kevin Costner
Screenplay: Michael Blake (based on his novel)
Stars: Kevin Costner (Lieutenant John J. Dunbar), Mary McDonnell (Stands With A Fist), Graham Greene (Kicking Bird), Rodney A. Grant (Wind In His Hair), Floyd Red Crow Westerman (Ten Bears), Tantoo Cardinal (Black Shawl), Robert Pastorelli (Timmons), Charles Rocket (Lieutenant Elgin), Maury Chaykin (Major Fambrough), Jimmy Herman (Stone Calf), Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse (Smiles A Lot), Michael Spears (Otter), Jason R. Lone Hill (Worm), Tony Pierce (Spivey), Doris Leader Charge (Pretty Shield), Tom Everett (Sergeant Pepper), Larry Joshua (Sergeant Bauer)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1990
Country: U.S.
Dances With Wolves Blu-Ray
Dances With WolvesKevin Costner’s revisionist epic Dances With Wolves was an unexpected triumph when it was released in October of 1990, both critically and commercially. Still the highest grossing western on record and winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, Dances With Wolves was a deeply unfashionable gamble fraught with risk at every turn. Not just the auspicious directorial debut of an actor who had only recently reached stardom, the film was made at a time when the western genre was all but dead and lengthy epics were out of vogue (especially those with more than a quarter of the dialogue in subtitles).

Yet, Costner’s self-proclaimed “love letter to the past” caught on with audiences and critics, who appreciated the film’s humanism and broad, classical scope at a time when American cinema was becoming more and more overrun with shallow, violent blockbusters. At the dawn of the postmodern ’90s, Dances With Wolves harkened back to an earlier cinematic era even as it was clearly positioned as a rebuke to the classic western’s tendency to paint the conflict between white settlers and Native Americans in broad strokes of good and evil. The film’s revisionism was nothing new--both Ralph Nelson and Arthur Penn had turned the tables on western clichés back in 1970 with Soldier Blue and Little Big Man, respectively--but Costner and screenwriter Michael Blake (who adapted his own 1987 novel) reinvigorate the argument with depth of character and a narrative scope that allows for various shades of gray across all perspectives. At one point, Costner’s character concludes that everything he has been told about Native Americans was wrong, a point that is writ large in the film itself. Although often accused of being “simplistic” or “naïve” in its treatment of Native American culture and its destruction by the U.S. Army (Pauline Kael wittily accused Costner of having feathers in his hair and feathers in his head), Dances With Wolves is a nuanced and thoughtful portrayal of cultures both clashing and finding common ground.

Donning hats as director, co-producer, and lead actor (a daring triumvirate that has destroyed better men), Costner plays Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, a veteran of the Civil War who is determined to experience the American frontier before it fully disappears. He is posted to a remote fort in South Dakota, where he eventually comes into contact with a neighboring tribe of Sioux Indians. The Sioux are understandably wary of this lone white man encroaching on their land, and he is cautions, as well, having been filled with stories about Indians being beggars and thieves at best, bogeymen at worst. Yet, despite their radically different cultures and long-standing (and well-founded) suspicions, both Dunbar and the Sioux cannot resist their curiosities about each other, and through increasing contact and fumbling attempts at communication, they develop a mutual respect that grows into a strong bond of friendship. Dunbar’s primary contact is Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), the tribe’s medicine man who rejects the desire of the tribe’s aggressive warriors, particularly Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant), to respond to Dunbar’s presence with violence. Kicking Bird senses in Dunbar a good heart and a desire to communicate, rather than fight. Said communication is difficult, given their language barriers, but it is eventually bridged by the presence of Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who grew up in the tribe after her family was killed by Pawnee, the Sioux’s primary enemies in the region (Costner would again take up Dances With Wolves’ themes about the nature of communication and its break-down in his disastrous post-apocalyptic western The Postman seven years later).

The fact that Dunbar eventually sheds his own culture in favor of the Sioux--he “turns Injun,” as a soldier later accuses him--has been often read as a wholesale rejection of the American project of westward expansion, the country’s “Manifest Destiny” that necessarily entailed the violent removal of native peoples. The film’s title is the Sioux name that is given to Dunbar, and he tells us in voice-over narration that he never knew who he was until he was fully immersed in the Sioux culture, fighting alongside them as one of them. And the manner in which Costner depicts the third act return of the U.S. Army to the fort he fully deserted to live with the Sioux is harshly critical of both the country’s political project of stretching from coast to coast and the kinds of men who were enlisted to do it. In short, the Indian warriors have some sense of integrity and honor, while the U.S. soldiers are illiterate cutthroats and bullies who at one point literally wipe their ass with Dunbar’s written proclamation of his love for Stands With a Fist (and, by extension, his love of the Sioux and their way of life).

Yet, as boldly as Costner’s film proclaims its appreciation of the long-gone traditions of the horse culture of the northern plains, it is never as one-sided or as simplistic as many have suggested. The Sioux Indians are depicted with dignity and humanity, but never to the point of simple lionization. They, too, are subject to petty arguments, misunderstanding, prejudice, and anger. While Dunbar is clearly enraptured with their way of life, proclaiming in his journal that he has never known a people so dedicated to family (one of the greatest of American virtues), the film does not shy away from depicting elements of their culture that Dunbar cannot quite embrace. Most direct is the scene in which Dunbar realizes that the Sioux have not only tracked down and killed a group of white hunters who have slaughtered dozens of buffalo and left their carcasses rotting on the plains, but are wildly celebrating the kill by hoisting aloft scalps and severed hands, a brutal and grotesque display that Dunbar cannot join. On the other end, Costner leavens his negative portrayal of the U.S. Army, whose indiscriminate and thoughtless use of violence is made both metaphorically and emotionally devastating when they train their rifles on Two Socks, the scrawny wolf who has become Dunbar’s companion, with the presence of Lieutenant Elgin (Charles Rocket), who is a clearly decent man torn between his military obligations and what he knows is fundamentally wrong. We sense that, if he and Dunbar changed places, they would behave exactly the same. Dunbar is certainly portrayed as a hero of great standing; having already associated himself with baseball and Elliot Ness, Costner’s star persona was almost too perfectly attuned to such a character. Yet, he has his flaws, most of which are borne out of his naivety (we realize with great pain that Two Socks’s falling prey to the soldiers is largely Dunbar’s fault since he encouraged the wolf to disregard its natural wariness and trust human beings).

However you read the film’s political ideology, it is impossible to deny is beauty. Shot by veteran Australian cinematographer Dean Semler (The Road Warrior, Dead Calm), Dances With Wolves features some of the most extraordinary footage of the open plains since Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). Costner is as enraptured with the open frontier as his screen character, and he fills with the frame with gorgeous vistas that emphasize the literal and spiritual openness of the world. He stages several exhilarating setpieces, most notably a buffalo hunt that employed 3,500 stampeding buffalo, which creates a sense of physical weight and presence that even the best digital effects cannot replicate (for comparison, see the cartoonish cattle stampede in Baz Luhrman’s Australia). That grandiosity, however, is balanced with Costner’s acute sense of how to use close-ups to convey wordless communication; so much that passes between characters in the film comes through looks and body language, and it is here more than anywhere that we sense the actor behind the camera.

Costner also displays an inherent sense of how physicality can be rendered on film, a dimension of Dances With Wolves that is rarely mentioned. From the wince-inducing gore of the film’s opening sequence that finds Dunbar wounded with shrapnel during a Civil War battle, to the close attention paid to the horrible ways in which arrows and spears pierce the human body, this is an intensely physical, bloody film whose unwillingness to pull punches belies its PG-13 rating. That full-bloodedness is central to the film’s impact, as it balances some of its loftier platitudes with a sense of realness that even the best filmmakers rarely achieve. Both visually and thematically, Dances With Wolves is a beautiful, soul-stirring film, one that wears its humanity on its sleeve and asks us to do the same.

Dances With Wolves 20th Anniversary Two-Disc Blu-Ray Set
This Blu-Ray contains only the “Extended Edition” version of Dances With Wolves.
Aspect Ratio2.40:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround
SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
  • Audio commentary by actor/director Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson
  • Audio commentary by director of photography Dean Semler and editor Neil Travis
  • “Military Rank and Social Hierarchy Guide” interactive feature
  • “Real History or Movie Make Believe?” interactive feature
  • “A Day in the Life on the Frontier” featurette
  • The Creation of an Epic retrospective documentary
  • Original making-of featurette
  • Original music video
  • Dances photo montage with introduction by Ben Glass
  • Poster Gallery
  • Theatrical trailer
  • TV Spots
  • Distributor20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    Release DateJanuary 11, 2011

    Dances With Wolves has never looked more gorgeous on home video than it does in the new 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer on this dual-layered 50GB Blu-Ray. Capturing the celluloid quality of the images with a fine sheen of grain and a lack of edge enhancement, this transfer reminds us of why outstanding cinematography is such a gift. The film’s various sunsets have an exquisite sense of color, and you can almost feel the physical distinction between the land and the sky; textures are the image’s chief attribute, from rough leather to smooth seas of undulating prairie grass. There appears to have been some digital restoration since there are no signs of dirt or age on a film that is now two decades in age. The newly remixed, lossless DTS-HD 7.1 surround soundtrack makes great use of the extended surround channels, engulfing us in the thundering hooves of thousands of buffalo. John Barry’s magisterial score, which is so crucial to the film’s impact, has never sounded better. The only complaint I can muster about this disc is the fact that it only contains Costner’s extended version of the film, which adds roughly 50 minutes of largely unnecessary footage to the theatrical cut. With seamless branching, there is no reason why both versions couldn’t have been included. As it stands now, those of us in Region 1 who would like to watch the original version will have to keep our DVDs.
    The majority of the supplements included in this two-disc set are recycled from previous editions. However, there are a few new inclusions, such as the “Military Rank and Social Hierarchy Guide” interactive feature, which allows us to see on-screen information about the U.S. Army and the Native American culture. There is also a new “Real History or Movie Make Believe?” interactive trivia game and a fascinating new 15-minute featurette, “A Day in the Life on the Frontier,” which mixes 19th-century photographs and interviews with scholars and authors to explore the realities of settling the plains in the late 1800s (hint: it was hard). The rest of the supplements have been culled from previous DVD releases, starting with the two audio commentaries, one recorded in 1999 by actor/director Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson and one by director of photography Dean Semler and editor Neil Travis. There is an original making-of featurette that was likely part of the electronic press kit, and the seven-part documentary The Creation of an Epic, which originally appeared on the 2003 two-disc DVD and extensively recounts the film’s production history and reception. The disc is rounded out with a music video, a photo montage with an introduction by photographer Ben Glass, a poster gallery that includes a whopping three posters, the original theatrical trailer, and a handful of TV spots.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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