When I think of “Dances with Wolves,” my mind reels back to December of 1990, a time where I first encountered word of the picture’s release from a local pennysaver film critic (for you Minneapolis movie folk, the man was Barry ZeVan). Already entrenched in moviegoing habits, I was well aware of Kevin Costner and his upcoming western, hypnotized by the film’s unusual teaser marketing campaign. However, on this frigid weekend morning, sitting down at a local strip mall with a soda, I began to grasp the film in more than just simple movie attendance terms, reading about the picture’s awe-inspiring scope and thematic novelty. It’s a sweet memory of growing anticipation, especially for an underdog film nobody was expecting much from. It was perhaps the last time “Dances with Wolves” enjoyed the element of surprise.
Collecting numerous honors, omnipresent publicity, and gargantuan box office during its theatrical run, it’s easy to forget the precarious position “Dances with Wolves” was in before its release in 1990. Here was a three-hour motion picture working a wheezing genre, with a major chunk of its running time devoted to subtitles for the Lakota Sioux language spoken in the film. It was a picture of respect and revisionism in a time when Westerns weren’t so culturally tolerant, driving into the great expanse of the West to explore the tentative bond between enemies. It was also a 17-million-dollar gamble for Costner, who pieced together the budget while developing a script written by dear friend Michael Blake (adapted from his own novel), while also assuming intensive performance duties. And to make the project even more unattractive to outsiders, Costner elected to direct, making his feature debut with this little oater that could.
And it did. Boy, did it ever. “Dances with Wolves” quickly ascended to cultural ubiquity, assuming sleeper command as audiences flocked to see a compassionate western starring a rare actor of affable all-American charisma. However, its raging success obscured a great deal of its artistry, with subsequent years turning the film into a punching bag for loutish Oscar pundits and the understandably disillusioned anti-Costner crowd. A burning resentment that’s unearned and unfair.
At the core of “Dances with Wolves” lies a story heavy with vulnerability, taking an uncommon route of contemplation in a genre that typically revels in war. Blake’s tale is one of spiritual breakthrough, as Dunbar grows to find himself in the middle of nowhere, compelled to follow his heart while his head rattles with duty and doubt. It’s a beautiful illustration of instinct as the lead character interacts and soon melds with the Sioux, finding a home with his adversary, only to discover there are little differences between the “white man” and the Native Americas. It’s a note of tolerance that would crumble in many other hands, played either too syrupy or too abruptly. Costner allows his film to soak in the juices of discovery, encouraging the viewer to be lulled in by the majesty of the locations and the integrity of personal expression -- a directorial blend of John Ford and David Lean, with a few Terrence Malick beats of naturalistic texture found along the way.
“Dances with Wolves” is never saccharine, never melodramatic; it’s paced to embrace character catharsis while the narrative moseys along, intensifying Dunbar’s odyssey. There’s no doubt the rebirth is nurtured by Dean Semler’s stunning prairie cinematography (it’s a film to live inside of, not just watch passively), which treats blue skies and rolling pastures as scripture, but the central emotional bloom of the film is carefully encouraged throughout, creating this tractor beam of drama as Dunbar is compelled to push his Sioux alliance further. The arc is hypnotic, not simply because of Costner’s deceptively straightforward “aw, shucks” performance, but in the deliberate pace of the story, which takes the time to appreciate the psychology shared between the diverse cultures, honoring stances of pride and threat (the Sioux are hardly pipe-sucking pacifists), breathing in the pure magnificence of the pause as this sweeping drama plays out.
It’s Costner’s steady hand that makes a miracle out of “Dances with Wolves.” It’s cinematic integrity with timing and composure that could only emerge from a young, hungry filmmaker surrounded by a pack of supportive friends, remarkable collaborators, and a splendid ensemble offered an exquisite amount of screen time to feel out the unsettled nature of their characters. Extra attention must be paid to McDonnell, who creates a feral, wounded creature out of Stands with a Fist, refusing to wilt in the presence of picture’s brightest star. The performance is a sustained surprise, taking intriguing linguistic turns while generating authentic heat with Costner and their extended dance of the pants. Greene also hits several grace notes as the conflicted tribal leader, a man willing to trust Dunbar, yet wise enough to understand the charge of settlers sure to follow him.
Of course, no discussion of “Dances with Wolves” would be complete without genuflecting in front of composer John Barry, who gifts the screen one of the great all-time film scores, soothingly enriching Dunbar’s journey with romantic and adventurous themes that curl up around the picture, evoking cross-country movement and longing with a symphonic sanctuary that’s emotionally crippling. It’s aural splendor from a longtime industry deity. Who better to score the heartbreak of America’s conquest than a Brit?
“Dances with Wolves” is presented here solely in an Extended Cut (233:49), expanding the Theatrical Cut with nearly an hour’s worth of subplots and general elongation. It should go without saying that the absence of the Theatrical Cut is a real mystery, with greedy BD producers perhaps holding the shorter version of the film for a future release. Grumble. However, as a devoted follower of the film, I find the EC to be something extraordinary, returning the viewing experience back to its literary form, with the additional screen time devoted to widening the story, shaping a more expansive portrait of Blake’s world, with all of its madness, violence, and deliberation. It’s a darker take on “Dances,” with more rewarding acts of sacrifice and loss, perhaps reserved only for the faithful. If you’re new to the picture, don’t start here.
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) is a revelatory experience, with “Dances” coming across as majestic as ever on BD, providing a richly rewarding viewing experience unseen since its theatrical debut. Colors are of primary concern, with the presentation clinging tightly to the wondrous blue skies and outdoorsy particulars of the locations, supplying crisp hues that preserve the cinematographic intent, creating several astonishing moments of naturalistic intensity. Costumes and actors are heartily detailed, with textures easy to recognize and enjoy, greatly reinforcing the production effort and the tattered integrity of the era. Close-ups are ideally gritty and natural, displaying natural skintones and intricate make-up work. Shadow detail buttresses the image superbly, pulling pure detail out of low-light scenarios, supplying a richer read of frame information with moderate softness. The viewing event is crisp and evocative, allowing the film some home entertainment glory.
The DTS-HD 7.1 sound mix is an invigorating aural experience that assists the film’s mood and dramatic hold with a wide range of elements, smoothly blended into a cinematic event. Perhaps most important here is the score, which retains such elegant, persuasive life on the track, sweeping across the mix when called upon, or keeping a respectful distance during more private encounters. The music is a key element of the feature, keeping in perfect step with the images. Atmospherics are just as critical, with beautiful, lush elements of environmental changes keeping the surrounds alive with energy, nicely balanced with the frontal dialogue exchanges. Action beats are intense without overkill, feeling out interesting directional activity with arrows and bullets. Low-end is lovely, becoming something truly remarkable during the buffalo hunt centerpiece sequence, with the creatures rumbling along, creating a gorgeous sensation of weight and power to best underscore the enormity of the moment. A 2.0 mix is also included.
English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are provided.
New to Blu-ray:
“A Day in the Life of the Western Frontier” (14:18) is a historical featurette covering the early settling of the Great Plains, using interviews with experts (including “Dances” author Michael Blake) to explore the hardships of the land, detailing how newcomers survived the difficult environment. That’s right, I’m talking buffalo chip-fueled fires.
“Military Rank and Social Hierarchy Guide” is a trivia track that runs during the film, educating viewers on the particulars of military badges and Native American symbols.
“Real History or Movie Make-Believe?” is a game that runs the length of the film, tossing out questions on the authenticity of the events depicted in the movie.
Ported over from previous releases:
The feature-length audio commentary with Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson shows surprising stamina for a multi-hour chat. Dead spots are inevitable, but Costner is invested in the conversation, talking up his approach to the film, spotlighting the scenic beauty of the frame and the constant challenges facing a relatively low-budget film. Moments of play-by-play can be a little tedious, but the twosome stay on target the best they can, reflecting on their movie with equal parts pride and awe, still floored over what they were able to achieve.
A second commentary with cinematographer Dean Semler and editor Neil Travis is a far more technical conversation, discussing the painstaking look of the film and its dramatic progression, with both men making an effort to break down the image to its individual elements, revealing the steps of the artistic process. In many ways, it’s the superior track, if only because these guys are a touch more direct with their comments.
“The Original Making Of ‘Dances with Wolves’” (20:58) is a mini-doc from 1990, providing a rush of nostalgia with this look at a slightly different era of promotion, where honesty, ego, and BTS footage were combined to survey the production process. Here’s Costner in his prime, discussing his approach to direction and adaptation, while pallin’ around with Michael Blake and producer Jim Wilson.
“The Creation of an Epic” (74:39) is a gargantuan retrospective document that breaks down the filmmaking machine into featurette chunks to help explore how the movie came to be. With cast and crew interviews as the guide, the documentary steps back in time to recount the adaptation challenges and filmmaking adventures, communicating the labor of love atmosphere of the “Dances” shoot and its quest for authenticity. The participants have a tendency to lay the admiration on thick, but the primal emotion of achievement is wonderful to see, along with some candid thoughts about the film’s Oscar triumphs.
“Original Music Video” (3:52) is a promotional clip using a contemporary pop version of the John Barry theme music.
“Second Wind” (5:18) is a presentation reel from editor Neil Travis, who assembled the first 30 days of shooting as a way of motivating the production through the lengthy shoot.
“Confederate March and Music” (2:13) follows a cast of Civil War reenactors as they stroll to the film set and prepare for shooting.
“Getting the Point” (3:58) observes the filming of a early attack sequences, with Costner walking actor Robert Pastorelli through the finer points of arrow-based death. It’s surprising to see an actual marksman shooting arrows into the actor.
“Burying the Hatchet” (1:12) showcases Costner and the repetition of a gruesome hatchet fatality.
“Animatronic Buffalo” (2:18) surveys the moviemaking tricks involved in depicting buffalo slaughter from the geniuses at K.N.B. Effects Group.
A Poster Gallery and a Photo Montage (with introduction by photographer Ben Glass) are offered.
A Theatrical Trailer and two T.V. Spots are included.
Time has softened the impact of “Dances with Wolves” and sugarcoated many of its grim realities (the film’s detractors tend to forget the picture’s eye-opening body count), yet the feature retains extraordinary intelligence and care, earnestly investigating the ties that bind and the prejudices that divide. It’s a tale of immense pastoral presence and intimacy, an irresistible serving of consciousness in the heartland. Costner might’ve lost his way during his career as his ego inflated and monetary concerns were raised (seizing mastery again with the hard edges of 2003’s “Open Range”), but “Dances with Wolves” is as genuine an artistic triumph as they come; a spellbinding American classic that tastes the tears of a country in the midst of all its incomparable beauty.