'Dances with Wolves

20th Anniversary Edition': Thrilling, Dramatic, Sweeping

by Jeff Ames

24 February 2011


About the Extras In the Blu-Ray Version

The special features, meanwhile, were quite serviceable. A lengthy documentary entitled “The Creation of an Epic – a Retrospective Documentary” covers much of the production through onsite interviews and production footage. The documentary is broken up into seven parts and entails everything from the writing process, to post-production, filming, and editing. Costner talks about his first day as a director and the moment he felt he was truly ready; Michael Blake talks about the difficult writing process the story underwent before he heeded Costner’s call and wrote the novel first (his book was eventually purchased and left to rot on airport shelves, but managed to become something of a paperback phenomenon); the cast reflect on the overall experience they shared, sometimes in an overtly silly manner (take a shot every time Blake says “when the lights turned on/when I stopped reading, people had tears in their eyes”); whilst legendary composer John Barry reflects on his struggles working with a first time director. There’s a lot more, of course, as the documentary lasts for a little over an hour. If anything, you get a sense of the devotion of the cast and crew, who speak passionately about the film, though have little to say about each other.

The second feature, “The Original Making of Dances with Wolves” feels more like a promotional video than anything, although you do get some slick behind the scenes footage, and your first shot of Costner getting t-boned off his horse (admirably, the actor literally got right back on the horse and finished the shot) during the buffalo hunt sequence. Not as comprehensive as “The Creation of an Epic”, but worth a look.

A third feature, entitled “A Day in the Life on the Western Frontier” essentially rebukes everything Dances with Wolves says about the settlers who came to live out West. Scholars and critics praise the film in some regards, but also point out that white settlers at the time weren’t so ignorant as to kill/maim hundreds of buffalo and then leave them to rot in a field, only taking their hides and tongues. It’s an interesting piece and deserves a watch if only to wash away memories of those one dimensional white villains in Dances with Wolves’ final act.

The features I enjoyed the most were the short vignettes. While only a few minutes or so in length, they show the filmmaking process, honing in on sequences such as Timmon’s death, and allow us to see Costner the director in action. Personally, I wish more Blu-rays/DVDs carried this type of material. I hate interviews, and promotional footage; I want to see moviemaking magic. Here you get a brief look at cast and crew, relentlessly firing arrows into actor Robert Pastorelli (or that guy from Murphy Brown) while he writhers and groans on the ground. It’s a basic shoot, filled with a lot of people who are, more or less, just standing around. Still, it gives a taste of what a director does and the difficulties found within the most rudimentary of Hollywood tasks. How do I get the crossbow guy’s job?

The other vignettes, including an atrociously outdated “Original Music Video” and another short making of piece entitled “Getting the Point”, round out the second disc. Oh sure, there are trailers (which, truth be told, are not at all interesting), and a few poster snippets, but nothing to get excited about. Honestly, as much as I enjoyed the bonus material, I felt slightly shortchanged, especially on something touted as a 20th Anniversary Edition. Where is the in-depth look at the film itself? The documentaries offer some keen insights, as do the commentaries by Costner and members of his crew (found on disc one), but where’s the nitty gritty, true-to-life documentary that explores the entire filmmaking process? One that includes both the negative and positive aspects Dances with Wolves surely provided. You get a sense that Costner, a young hotshot actor, was riding so far up his own ass that he never stopped to ponder the consequences of what would happen should Wolves ultimately flop. That’s the kind of stuff I want to see – a filmmaker, sweating at the palms, making the tough choices that ultimately lead to his Academy Awards.

Also missing from this set is the Theatrical Cut, or Costner’s original version. Why isn’t it on here? I’d also like to have all of the deleted scenes stacked together in one area for separate viewing; perhaps even a marker that tells you what scenes are new/added, etc. Fox really missed an opportunity to throw together something special here. Then again, since its initial release, Dances with Wolves has faded, somewhat, into obscurity. Most people that I know, including my own wife, have yet to see it; perhaps because it was too simple, too ponderous. For whatever reason, Dances with Wolves’ impact on pop culture came and went in 1990. Perhaps it has to do with all of those free McDonald’s VHS giveaways – buy a burger, get a free movie, or something along those lines – that Dances with Wolves typically found its way into.

The Blu-ray quality delivers the film in a reasonable manner. Day shots are exceptional, while the night shots carry an abundance of grain (especially in the added content). Colors are nice, especially the evening tones; the opening Civil War bit in particular looks spectacular; Dean Smeler’s Oscar-winning cinematography really jumps off the screen, though I’d be hard pressed to say the picture quality ranks among the Blu-ray format’s elite (like, say, Transformers, or more appropriately, Braveheart). 

Sound-wise, I didn’t discern a noticeable difference between the soundtrack here and that of the original DVD. John Barry’s score, one of the film’s many highlights, oftentimes gets lost amidst the louder soundtrack elements. I had to really adjust my speakers in order to get the full experience. Most of the noise seemed to exude from my front speakers, with little, if any, surround audio feeling the rear channels. Maybe I just had my controls wrong; I’ll keep playing with it. 

All told Dances with Wolves: 20th Anniversary Edition lacks the crucial details that would have taken it to the next level. The video and sound quality are passable, but nothing to write home about. The special features are good, but not amazing. Maybe I’m just spoiled, having recently purchased the Alien Anthology Blu-ray Collection, which featured an in-depth look at the filmmaking process of all four Alien films (two of which were awful). Surely a film that garnered as much critical acclaim as Dances with Wolves deserves as much respect as a sci-fi blockbuster. Is there no justice?

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