Co-produced, directed by and starring actor Kevin Costner, the workmanlike Western epic Dances with Wolves was destined for Oscar gold: the 1990 film took home awards for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Sound, Score, Editing and Cinematography. As one, American cinephiles slapped palms to heads in disagreement with AMPAS, who had overlooked Martin Scorsese and his blistering Goodfellas. If the simultaneously old-fashioned and newfangled Dances with Wolves didn't quite earn all of those Oscars, it did at least earn a place in movie history as the most prominent corrective to years of Westerns that demonized Native Americans as primitive, bloodthirsty "others" driven by a "motiveless malignancy" (just ask Sacheen Littlefeather...). As Costner's hero plainly puts it, "Nothing I've been told about these people is correct."
It might be easy to forget now that Costner's picture was a gamble, as Westerns had been considered box office poison for years. Two decades earlier, A Man Called Horse and Little Big Man showed characters attempting to bridge the divide between white American culture and Native American tribalism, but Costner went for broke with his large-scale, Panavision epic, clocking in at three hours. Here were the action scenes one expects of the genre: a jaw-dropping buffalo-hunt sequence and frontier battle scenes. But here too were a culture-clash romance (albeit between two white people) and bromance, and a white man's education taken at a lesiurely pace (the Director's Cut now available on home video adds an hour of character development and handsome languor).
Adapted by Michael Blake from his own novel, Dances with Wolves opens in 1863, as Lt. John J. Dunbar (Costner) proves his integrity the hard way through a suicidal act. His unexpected survival leads to a posting on the far frontier, between Union and Sioux encampments. As the lone Dunbar literally holds down the fort, he catches the attention of a wolf (who Dunbar names "Two Socks") and eventually the curious Sioux, who decide Dunbar's intent is benign. A relationship develops between Dunbar and the tribe, whose principal emissary is medicine man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene). Conviently, the Sioux also have a white woman in their community, Kicking Bird's adoptive daughter Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell); yet more conveniently, she has recently been widowed. Most of the story follows Dunbar's tentative first-contact experiences with the Sioux, which blossom into full-blown love of the tribal culture at large and Stands with a Fist in particular. Fret not: there's a built-in climax in the inevitable arrival of the Civil War soldiers Dunbar left behind.
The sweeping, though repetitive scoring of John Barry lifts the picture, as does lots of “magic hour” big-sky photography by Dean Semler, remembered largely for its gorgeous but thematically empty picture-postcard snapshots (best not to compare to the muscular work of Scorsese and Michael Ballhaus on Goodfellas). Costner lives and dies by his affectless delivery here, but his much-remarked-upon screen image of "Gary Cooper"-esque guilelessness suits the film as Dunbar goes native. McDonnell acquits herself well, and Greene happily broke through with his performance, establishing himself as one of the great character actors of the last twenty years (points, too, to Robert Pastorelli, unforgettable in a brief, humorous role).
While liberal sensitivity is the film's strong suit, historical subtlety (and accuracy) takes a back seat. To be sure, Dances with Wolves answers the terrible cultural disservice of so many Westerns with a beatification of the Sioux that's nearly as simplistic (at least Dunbar does a bit of soul searching about the violent spirit that emerges in native battle), and an expediency-mandated depiction of the Pawnee as killing machines pretty much straight out of the John Ford playbook. And Blake and Costner's romanticized view of the period must make Dunbar the saintly exception to the genocidal U.S. Cavalry, the better to suit a movie star (call it "Everybody Loves Kevin"?) and comfort an enlightened modern audience. Forget it Jake, it's Hollywood.
MGM does a bang-up job of upgrading Dances with Wolves for Blu-ray in a 20th Anniversary Edition. Compressing four hours onto a BD risks some image degradation, but the picture quality holds up very well, particulary in comparison to earlier DVDs. Most impressively, the disc authors don't use DNR, allowing the film to retain its natural grain and strong texture. Detail improves, and the subdued color scheme remains true to the theatrical source: the film looks very much as I remember seeing it on the big screen, and there's no discernable difference to the extra hour of footage in this Director's Cut (it's only unfortunate that seamless branching wasn't employed to present the Original Theatrical Cut as well). The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround mix is quite impressive for a film of this vintage, especially when the soundscape comes to life with hoofbeats.
This definitive special edition includes new extras in addition to the ton of bonuses found on previous editions. Starting things off are an audio commentary with Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson, and an audio commentary with director of photography Dean Semler and editor Neil Travis. Obviously, these are a big commitment for a four-hour feature, but fans will be pleased at the level of detail provided. Also on disc one are two viewing options: the trivia track Military Rank and Social Hierarchy Guide, which allows the viewer "to learn more about the roles, the era and the events that occurred during the historical period in which Dances with Wolves takes place" and Real History or Movie Make-Believe?, a quiz that "challenges your knowledge of the 19th century American military, the Lakota way of life, and the film."
Disc Two houses the tatanka's share of extras, starting with the new featurette "A Day in the Life on the Western Frontier" (14:18, HD), which gathers historians to school us on the film's time and place.
Dating from 1990, "The Original Making of Dances with Wolves" (20:58, SD) is self-explanatory.
The seven-part "The Creation of an Epic - A Retrospective Documentary" (1:14:39, SD) is considerably more in-depth, and certainly recommended for those wanting a history spanning from pre-production to Oscar glory.
"Original Music Video Featuring Music by John Barry" (3:52, SD) is a pointless montage included for historical interest, I suppose, as is "Second Wind" (5:18, SD).
"Confederate March and Music" (2:13, SD) is a quick bity of video of musical Civil War reenactors.
"Getting the Point" (3:58, SD) demos bow-and-arrow special effects, while "Burying the Hatchet" (1:12, SD) demos an axe effect.
"Animatronic Buffalo" (2:18, SD) may sound like a David Mamet play, but it's actually a quick featurette demonstrating the work of KNB Effects.
Also on hand are two "TV Spots" (1:04, SD), the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:33, HD), a Poster Gallery (HD) and a "Dances Photo Montage" (9:21, SD).
Especially given the promise of the A/V upgrade, Dances with Wolves enthusiasts will have a hard time resisting this release.
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