‘Dances with Wolves: 20th Anniversary Edition’: Thrilling, Dramatic, Sweeping

[24 February 2011]

By Jeff Ames

Dances with Wolves is an extraordinary masterpiece. Thrilling, dramatic, sweeping in scope, Kevin Costner’s first (and best) bid behind the camera is well deserving of its Oscar and critical achievements – despite rumblings to the contrary from Scorsese’s camp – and mainstream success. Here is a heartfelt, honest look at a bygone culture – an ode to the western frontier, if you will.

Political motivations aside, what stands out most in Costner’s epic is the delicate treatment of the American Indians, that oft-ridiculed society that once dominated the nation entire, undone by the western expansion of the white man. Long portrayed as savages, or clueless barbarians, the Indians in Dances with Wolves, more specifically the Sioux tribe, are, more often than not, seen performing the rudimentary duties of everyday life. They tell jokes, hold sly conversations; laugh, play. At one point Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), a quiet, ponderous medicine man, slides into the sack with his wife, pauses, reaches into his blankets, and yanks out one of his children’s dolls. Costner’s intent is to demonstrate the similarities between two cultures, and then ask why one deserved less than the other. 

Such details tend to get lost amidst a film’s epic scope, but under the delicate hands of Costner and screenwriter Michael Blake, serve as a means of telling a story. That’s because, despite an abundance of awesome set pieces (the buffalo hunt standing as the best), Dances with Wolves isn’t an epic as much as it’s an intimate study of humanity, or a carefully hung portrait of friendship, love and acceptance.

Disillusioned Civil War lieutenant John Dunbar (Costner) inexplicably branded a hero after a failed suicide attempt wins him a battle, gets his choice of military posts. He chooses the frontier, something he wishes to see before it vanishes completely. Dunbar makes the long trek out west only to find an abandoned fort littered with the bones of previous dwellers. Isolated at his new home, Dunbar soon makes contact with the local Sioux tribe, and quickly establishes good relations. By happenstance the tribe carries with them a white woman called Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell) who has lived with the Sioux for most of her life. Stands with a Fist ultimately bridges the gap between Dunbar and his new contacts, the results of which open the lieutenant’s eyes, forcing him to forever rid himself of everything he thought he knew about America and its original inhabitants.

Dances with Wolvescan be summed up as a passion project. Director and star Kevin Costner carries the film on his creative shoulders. At the time he was a young actor, full of piss and vinegar. His ego, while certainly visible (check out those larger-than-life opening titles), gave way to a humbling directing experience, one many thought would be his undoing. That drive to prove all other’s wrong gives Dances with Wolves its heart wrenching soul, something a more established filmmaker may have missed altogether. Costner’s passion visibly shows in the way he meticulously lights and crafts each shot; the way he carefully unfolds his story, peeling away the layers to reveal the truth of the matter. The director makes bold statements, but does so without a hammer.

The plot surges forward at all times with confidence. Costner knew he had a winner on his hands, and the director films each sequence as though keenly aware of audience expectations. 
Even so, at times that sure footedness gives way to Hollywood convention. The love story, while touching, feels slightly contrived. The film more or less stops dead in its tracks so that Costner can clash tongues with the sultry McDonnell. The white villains in the final reel likewise feel artificial. For a film deconstructing stereotypes in such a manner, I was surprised at the painstaking lengths Dances with Wolves willingly traveled to portray settlers as one-note cartoon characters. Instead of delving into the complexities revolving around Dunbar being forced to choose between sides, Dances with Wolves gives him only one viable option. (Kinda like James Cameron’s Avater ...)   

Yet, if Costner the director sporadically loses his grip, Costner the actor never misses a beat. His performance here is second to none – quiet, methodical; more encompassed by silent observations than robust heroic actions. You understand Dunbar’s loneliness, and his eventual transformation; his curiosity, and then love for a peoples he otherwise hadn’t given a second thought. Not that Dunbar is a terribly difficult character to play, but the role doesn’t call for showboating. Dunbar is not a leader; nor is he a hero. He’s simply a man trying to understand the world, and Costner, as he did in Field of Dreams, pulls off the role with aplomb.

Of course it helps to have a splendid supporting cast, namely Oscar-nominees Graham Greene and Mary McDonnell. Greene’s performance, in particular, as the equally quiet, ponderous Kicking Bird, radiates intelligence and patience. A moment early in the film when Dunbar tries to mimic a buffalo works as more than a joke if only because Greene refuses to play it as such. He sits, unmoving, trying to understand what Dunbar is saying. For him, Dunbar represents the key to survival, or understanding another civilization. I liked that he grew frustrated at times and even became emotional – even the wisest of us succumb to human tendencies.

I also liked Rodney A. Grant’s portrayal of Wind in His Hair, arguably the most crucial character in the film. The character at first denies Dunbar, but then ultimately comes to respect him. From a visual standpoint he is raw, unhinged physical power – the iconic image of the American Indian. Inside he’s a complex individual full of pride, and fear for his people. If we could only see, then we might understand. Such seems to be the slogan for the film entire.

Dances with Wolvesrepresents a milestone in Hollywood cinema. As a film it’s a wonderful achievement, full of scope, simplicity and subtle humor. Many actors become directors (Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard), but few have the cajones to pull off as big a stunt as Costner – especially on their first stint. A film like Dances with Wolves is no easy undertaking; it requires dedication, humility and a certain amount of insanity to pull off. Good thing Costner was up to the task.

For this review I watched the 20th Anniversary Blu-ray edition and had my first viewing of the much touted “Extended Cut” which adds some 50+ minutes to the finished film. Costner has stated that he had nothing to do with this version of the film, and that his cut is the one seen in theaters. In point of fact, the “Extended Cut” doesn’t add or take away from the film. Actually, the film moves along at a nice pace either way, which surprised me since the “Extended Cut” lasts a little over four hours in length. I watched it in two hour segments, but only because I had other things to do. Otherwise I could’ve finished it off in one sitting and not missed a beat. I will say that some of the scenes, such as Stands with a Fist’s introduction, feel unnecessary. Likewise Kicking Bird’s character is given a brief sequence in which he has a simple conversation with the chief that I felt was included too early. Part of the film’s appeal is its slow unveiling of this new world; by diving head first into the Sioux camp, the veil of mystery unfolds all too quickly.

In truth, I can’t really remember the original cut perfectly, but I didn’t feel like the added 50-minutes hampered the film. The journey is still the same; it just takes a little longer to get to the finish.

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?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/137199-dances-with-wolves-20th-anniversary-edition/