MGM | 1990 | 234 mins. | PG-13
To date, Dances With Wolves is by far actor/director Kevin Costner’s best work. Aided by writer Michael Blake, Costner used the Civil War as a background for the story of Dances With Wolves, a film that attempts to give people an honest look at the plight of Native Americans during that period. Costner and cinematographer Dean Semler gave the film a stark, sober look that communicated almost as much emotion as Blake’s words. Rarely superficial, Dances With Wolves makes a strong statement about the United States and its treatment of Native Americans, without being threatening.
As the film begins, First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Costner) is being prepped by a surgeon to lose his foot. Having none of it, when the medics step out for coffee, he makes what seems like a suicidal choice—steals a horse and rides across the battlefield toward the Confederate lines—he inadvertently leads a charge that breaks the stalemate and wins the battle for the North. His unexpected heroism garners him a station at any Army outpost of his choosing. He decides on Fort Sedgwick, an isolated post at the far edge of the western frontier—he wants to see it before it disappears. When he arrives, he finds the area has been all but deserted. Despite this, he decides to set up camp. Dunbar sets about documenting his time in a diary—which Costner reads in voiceover narration—makes friends with a wolf, soaks up his surroundings, and keeps an eye out for Sioux tribesmen who undoubtedly drove out his predecessors.
The Sioux are watching him too. They’re wondering why a white man continues to hang out on abandon land. Is he there to make trouble? Warrior Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) wants to kill Dunbar, but holy man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), wants to learn more about this strange man, and by extension, all white men. Cautiously, they begin to make contact with Dunbar and slowly learn to communicate. Soon, Dunbar is learning the ways of the Sioux and even helping them to hunt Buffalo. Since this is a film, Dunbar falls in love with Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who was captured as a child during a raiding party and raised as a Sioux. Other movie necessities occur—a battle with the neighboring Pawnee tribe, a dust up with the military, and Dunbar earning his honorary Sioux name, Dances With Wolves.
While Dances With Wolves didn’t seem like it should be a hit before it came out, the reasons for its success are fairly easy to trace. Much of the credit goes to Kevin Costner and writer Michael Blake for creating developed characters the audience can care about and relate to. It is also important that everything that happens is put in the proper historical context, rather than being rewritten for the movies sake. While certain liberties might have been taken for that purpose—such as the romance between Dunbar and Stands with a Fist—the heart of the story, the plight of Native Americans, remains true.
This Blu-ray release of Dances with Wolves contains only the Director’s Cut, which runs six minutes shy of four hours long. It’s unfortunate that the shorter—and better—theatrical cut couldn’t also have been included via seamless branching, as the 55 minutes of added material slows down the picture and overexposes some of the film’s flaws, like Costner’s tendency to linger unnecessarily on shots or the script’s occasionally corny sentimentality. Still, this extended version does give the director opportunity to immerse us in Dunbar’s isolation and understand him better as a person.
The 1080p at 2.35:1 transfer is a little disappointing, as this is a visually stunning film. Unfortunately, large portions of the movie look soft, so detail is much less impressive than I had hoped. There are moments when things look fairly sharp, but for the most part this is a film which often looks like it’s been smeared with a thin layer of vaseline.
The audio is better, as the 7.1 mix is a rather rich one for a film that’s twenty years old. John Barry’s sweeping, memorable score is spotlighted when it appears, but the music does sound just a tiny bit wobbly at times. The action scenes in the film pack a huge punch, and the buffalo hunt is thrillingly immersive. Despite the disappointments, this is a huge upgrade from the DVD in both departments.
Most of the special features are ported over from the previous 2-disc special edition. You get two commentary tracks (one with Costner & Producer Jim Wilson, another with cinematographer Dean Semper & editor Neil Travis), an 81-minute multi-part documentary entitled “The Creation of an Epic,” a 21-minute making-of featurette from the time of the film’s release, a hisotical featurette called “A Day in the Life on the Western Frontier,” a 10-minute photo montage, a 4-minute music video featuring a remix of John Barry’s theme, a poster gallery and some trailers. The new items are two dry but informative in-feature viewing options: “Military Rank and Social Hierachy Guide” which offers information on the importance and standing of the characters in the film and “Real History or Movie Make Believe?” which separates the fact and the fiction in the film.
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