Early on in Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, a disturbed military bigwig tells Costner’s Lt. John Dunbar, “I have just pissed in my pants, and nobody can do anything about it.” The same can be said about Academy members in 1990, who famously screwed Martin Scorsese out of the Best Director statuette for Goodfellas in favor of Costner’s proficient but overrated work; 13 years after its original release, the film remains nothing more than a well-polished but generic example of epic Hollywood filmmaking. The tale of Lt. Dunbar’s spiritual journey from disenchanted Civil War soldier to revered member of the Great Plains Sioux tribe is one that admirably forgoes demonization of the country’s original inhabitants in favor of a compassionate portrait of indigenous people attempting to survive the encroaching hordes of American settlers.
Dunbar, electing to take a post in the middle of nowhere rather than continue to do battle with his fellow countrymen, finds himself surrounded by both the Sioux and Pawnee communities, neither of which is interested in accommodating white strangers—except, that is, for prescient Sioux holy man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), who correctly surmises that a man stranded alone in the vast plains isn’t looking for a fight. Soon, lonely Dunbar is accepted by the Native Americans, dubbed Dances with Wolves (for his friendship with a stray wolf) and falls in love with a white woman named Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell) who had been kidnapped and raised by Kicking Bird as a child.
Despite its empathy and respect for Native Americans, the film has very little going for it besides its admittedly majestic trappings. Working with cinematographer Dean Semler on location throughout the American West, Costner captures a dizzying array of gorgeous panoramic compositions that situate tiny silhouettes of humans amid expansive stretches of green fields and blue skies. What the first-time director doesn’t do, however, is infuse these images with any thematic weight or import—they are, in the end, just pretty landscape shots. Unlike legendary western directors John Ford or Sergio Leone, Costner doesn’t intend for these snapshots of sprawling vistas to symbolize much of anything (here, they’re just transitional devices or mere filler material), and thus the size and scale of the film, although logistically quite immense, seems, in terms of emotional resonance, to shrink before our eyes.
If the film’s visual splendor lacks profundity, Costner does provide a handful of transcendent moments, the most spellbinding of which is Dunbar’s participation in a Sioux Buffalo hunt. And I’d be remiss in not congratulating the actor-director for taking a leisurely, contemplative approach to a story that could have functioned as mere pretense for extravagant and indulgent open-field battle sequences (a pitfall Mel Gibson would fail to avoid in 1995’s ponderous Braveheart). It’s a laudable adventure that neither redefines nor simply mimics the genre’s storied conventions, a sturdy, mildly stirring revisionist cinematic portrayal of the American West as a place where manifest destiny meant not only modernity’s expansion, but also ancient cultures’ decimation. But time hasn’t changed the fact that Scorsese remains a victim of Grand Theft Oscar.
MGM's lavish Dances with Wolves: Special Edition features a new extended cut of the film, integrating 52 minutes of previously unseen footage into Costner's already lengthy western opus. Fortunately, viewers will have an extremely hard time recognizing the new from the old based solely on video quality. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is an absolute stunner, with only two unimportant shortcomings: every once in a while, flesh tones seem a bit rosy, and the image has a tendency to appear a tad soft. Otherwise, the picture exhibits fantastic color reproduction, rich black levels, impressive image detail, and wonderful contrast. Ably matching this beautiful transfer is an immersive Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that boasts a heavy amount of panning and imaging effects and some strong bass reproduction. John Barry's sweeping score comes through with sharp and accurate fidelity, and dialogue-with a couple of exceptions-sounds perfectly natural.
Besides the extended cut of the film, this two-disc Special Edition features two full-length audio commentaries that, all told, wind up providing eight hours of Dances with Wolves discussion. The first, with Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson, is the better of the two tracks. The duo talk about virtually everything: turning the novel into a screenplay, the hurdles encountered with undertaking such an enormous production, the cast and crew, the difficulties working as both a director and actor, and the film's success and accolades. If you can stand to hear Costner's voice for nearly four straight hours, this track offers a comprehensive history of the film. The second commentary, with cinematographer Dean Semler and editor Neil Travis, is not nearly as compelling, but winds up providing a nice bit of background on the specific strategies used for shooting and cutting such a lengthy film. Semler and Travis have a tendency to go silent, but the information they provide is well worth a listen. Also on Disc 1 is the original 1990 promotional featurette The Making of Dances with Wolves, which offers behind-the-scenes footage and generic interview soundbites, and a silly original music video for John Barry's theme music.
Disc 2's best extra is the new hour-and-a-half documentary The Creation of an Epic: A Retrospective. The doc features recent interviews with everyone involved with the film-Costner, Wilson, author/screenwriter Michael Blake, Semler, Travis, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, as well as many crew members-and each contributes fond memories of working on the film. The documentary's general tone is one of subjective admiration, and the constant praise bestowed upon Costner can drive one batty after a while, but the wealth of insightful anecdotes and production footage make it a worthy addition to this great disc. A photo montage features numerous production stills set to music, and a poster gallery, TV spots, and theatrical trailers (for Dances with Wolves, Windtalkers, and Platoon) round out this magnificent DVD release.
In the spirit of the great Sioux tradition, I dub Dances with Wolves' Kevin Costner "Directorial One-Hit Wonder."