[box cover]

Dances With Wolves: Special Edition

MGM Home Video

Starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene,
Rodney A. Grant, Floyd 'Red Crow' Westerman, Tantoo Cardinal,
and Robert Pastorelli

Written by Michael Blake
Directed by Kevin Costner


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Review by David Walker                    


Given his past record of shear crapitude, it's easy to forget that not every Kevin Costner film is terrible. But the truth of the matter is that no matter how much he may be lacking in any sort of charisma or screen presence, the man has made some good movies. A majority of the good films on his resume came during the earlier part of Costner's career, before he became tainted with the overwhelming stench of garbage like Waterworld, Message in a Bottle, and 3000 Miles to Graceland. But even with such solid works as The Untouchables, No Way Out, Fandango, and Bull Durham, the burning mystery of Costner's popularity has always been perplexing, and will always remain one of the great riddles of the ages.

For many actors and filmmakers whose successful careers seem to indicate that the sale of souls to the Devil is indeed a common practice in Hollywood, there are moments of such pure brilliance in their body of work that it almost defies belief. For Kevin Costner, that moment was his 1989 directorial debut, Dances With Wolves. It is a film that, over the years, has been overshadowed by many of Costner's inferior efforts like The Postman (one of the best bad movies of all time), not to mention its 1990 triumph over Martin Scorsese's superior Goodfellas for Best Picture. But unlike Ordinary People, which defeated Scorsese's Raging Bull ten years earlier, Dances With Wolves holds up against the test of time. It also is worthy of the conceit that, while it may not have been the best film of the year, it certainly comes close.

Adapted for the screen by Michael Blake from his novel, Dances With Wolves caught audiences completely unaware. Orion Pictures initially released the $15 million film on a meager 14 screens, unsure of how it would be received. But as positive reviews and strong word-of-mouth continued to grow, the film got a wider release and began to find its legs. At the end of the day, Dances With Wolves would win seven Oscars, including Best Picture, earn well over $100 million at the box office, and play in theatres for a total of 50 weeks.

*          *          *

Costner stars as John Dunbar, a lieutenant in United States Army during the Civil War who has lost the will to live. While trying to commit suicide in the heat of battle, Dunbar inadvertently becomes a hero; as his reward, he is given the assignment of his choosing. Dunbar requests a posting somewhere on the frontier — the quickly expanding territories in the West that have yet to be contaminated by white men, where Indians still hunt buffalo — which he wants to see "before it's gone." While posted at the remote Fort Sedgewick, Dunbar encounters his first Indian, a Lakota Sioux he will later come to know as Kicking Bird (Graham Greene). For the naturally curious soldier, Kicking Bird and the rest of his tribe are an enigmatic mystery. But as he gets to know them better, the great mystery that begins to unfold is not what these Indians are all about, but what is John Dunbar all about? And as he spends more and more time with the tribe, he has an emotional and spiritual awakening within himself.

In its original theatrical release, Dances With Wolves weighed in at a hefty three hours; when it aired on network television for the first time, it included nearly an hour of additional footage. This footage, included as part of MGM's special edition DVD, is what elevates the film from being really good to a work of genius. Unlike so many other movies that restore originally deleted material, none of this footage is filler or throwaway scenes. Every additional frame brings more depth and texture to a film that was already rich with complexity and character development.

One of the things that made Dances With Wolves such a remarkable film was its portrayal of Native Americans. Rather than the one-dimensional cardboard cutouts, noble savages, and white men in redface that had been the norm in Hollywood, the movie boldly attempted to show Indians as real human beings. Not only does the film feature Indians as emotionally complex characters, but nearly 25% of the dialogue is in the Lakota language with English subtitles. Compared to such hackneyed trash as Chuck Conners in Geronimo or Frank De Kova on television's F-Troop, Wolves was a revolutionary film. Thankfully, much of the additional footage serves to flesh out the supporting cast of Lakota. Greene's Kicking Bird, Floyd Red Crow Westerman's Ten Bears, and Rodney A. Grant's Wind In His Hair also become more dense and fully realized men.

The additional footage also gives greater insight into the emotional conflict raging within Dunbar. In the original theatrical version, Dunbar and a Lakota hunting party stumble across the carcasses of slaughtered buffalo, as Dunbar laments in voice-over the reckless disregard his fellow white men have for the magnificent beasts. That scene is followed by the night before the great hunt, where Dunbar sits alone by himself as the Indians dance by the fire in celebration of the upcoming hunt. As the scene originally played out, it helped to show that Dunbar did not feel totally comfortable around the Indians. But what is revealed through additional footage in the restored version is that the Lakota had caught and killed the white hunters who butchered the buffaloes (the scalps and hands of the hunters are displayed near the roaring fire), and that Dunbar's reluctance to join the celebration was due to his conflicted emotions over the massacre. The addition of those few minutes adds much more depth to the character of Dunbar, and it gives his ultimate decision to renounce his life as a white man even more weight and substance.

But perhaps the most important thing brought by the additional footage is that it helps to further distance Dances With Wolves from so many other films about other cultures that have as their primary focus a white man. These films, like Cry Freedom, Glory, and Windtalkers, are the wet dreams of guilt-ridden white liberals who long to feel better about past misdeeds. And while Wolves shares some surface similarities with such pictures, it offers a far more complex story. Whereas so many other films are about white men coming to respect the noble savage as some form of inferior equal, Costner's picture destroys the commonly held myth of white superiority. It is film about a man who realizes that he is inferior to the devilish savages of the plains — that he is less of a human being. Ultimately, it is a film about a man who has died and who is then reborn.

*          *          *

MGM's two-disc Dances With Wolves: Special Edition features a beautiful anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that captures the beauty of Dean Semler's breathtaking cinematography. Of the seven Oscars the film won, Semler's is the most richly deserved, thanks to how he captured the sprawling beauty of the South Dakota landscape and gave the film the same epic quality John Ford brought to his westerns. And while a team of technicians, artists, and actors all came together to make this impressive picture, much of the grandeur comes from Semler's camera.

Disc One features the film (presented in two parts), and the original "making-of" documentary that came out when Dances With Wolves was initially released. Disc Two includes "The Creation of an Epic," a series of short retrospective documentaries that address various aspects of the production. Featuring some great behind-the-scenes footage, the documentaries shed interesting light on the creative process. The featurettes include "Novel to Screen," "The Actor Becomes the Director," "The Buffalo Hunt," "The Look and Sound of Dances," "The Art of Composition," and "The Success of Dances."

Two commentaries are included, one with Costner and producer Jim Wilson, the other with Semler and editor Neil Travis. In both the documentaries and his commentary, Costner is quick to point out all of the talented people who came together to make the movie work. From cinematographer Semler to Lakota dialogue coach Doris Leader Charge to costume designer Elsa Zamparelli to production designer Robert Beecroft, it is always made clear that the film was a collaborative labor of love. Also on board are a photo montage, a poster gallery, TV spots and trailers, and a music video featuring the work of composer John Barry.

In every person's life there exists the capacity for greatness above and beyond their apparent abilities. Given the quality of Kevin Costner's work both before and after this moment, it would seem that Dances With Wolves is his moment of unexpected greatness. It deserves to be called an epic. And despite the fact it features a lead actor who suffers from a charisma deficit and an annoyingly monotone voice, it manages to achieve a level a brilliance that defies reason.

— David Walker



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