Dances with Wolves Review
Kevin Costner’s multi-award winning epic ‘Dances With Wolves’ comes to American Region A locked Blu-ray in a highly anticipated 20th Anniversary extended edition. Containing an extra 50 minutes of footage than the theatrical release, the extended version clocks in at a whopping 234 minutes running time.
I recall going to see the theatrical version in the Cinema upon its release (was it really 20 years ago?) and sensing boredom from my other half as the movie stretched beyond the 90 minute mark. I was thoroughly enjoying being immersed in the great American frontier, although someone seemed to have replaced my cinema seat with a concrete block. ‘Dances With Wolves’ is one of my favourites and so joins the list of movies that a chap watches when his other half is out for the evening.
All in all, the extended version offers changes at 64 points of the movie (compared to the theatrical version). The most common change is the insertion of new scenes or the extension of scenes that were already included in the theatrical Version. The effect is that we are given a fuller understanding of certain sequences, such as when Dunbar arrives at Fort Hays and meets with the ‘strange’ Major Fambrough (Maury Chaykin). The senior officer, throughout the entire scene, demonstrates his lack of sanity. In the theatrical version, after Dunbar leaves the office we mix to him leaving on his long journey. In the Extended version a few scenes are inserted where Major Fambrough speaks with another officer as if he was one of his royal subjects - just before he commits suicide. It's assumed that because he is the "king", nobody can stop him from doing what he wants. With this footage in place, the whole sequence makes more sense. When I first saw the movie, I just thought that this section was a bit odd or not particularly well explained. Another notable scene where the extended version varies from the theatrical release is where we get a chance to understand the conditions that the soldiers at Fort Sedgwick had to live under, including dwelling in caves.
After viewing the extended version, it’s clear that the extra scenes had a valid purpose and really should have been included in the theatrical version, but the Studio’s desire to get the running time down for release took precedence over completeness. The Distributor actually wanted the movie to have a 2 hour 20 minute running time, but it was felt impossible by the Editor and Director to get it below the eventual 3 hour version that was released. Not bad for a movie whose first ‘rough cut’ was over 5 hours long.
Upon its release there was some scepticism that an actor, such as Kevin Costner, would have what it takes to direct a movie on this scale. He collaborated with some old trusted friends like Producer Jim Wilson and Writer Michael Blake. Costner actually told Blake to go write the book before turning it into a movie – and it was the manuscript for the book that sold the film to many people including backer Jake Ebert and Australian Cinematographer Dean Semler. Composer John Barry came on board shortly after reading the first script. Getting people to put up a large sum of money to finance a movie is a major feat in itself, but what seems to have impressed them all was Costner’s very clear vision of what he wanted in the movie. During the shoot, everyone was impressed that he knew what he wanted for every shot, although he was starring in the movie too.
‘Dances with Wolves’ is visually a very beautiful film. The shots of the prairies with the wind ruffling the long grass as Dunbar’s wagon heads toward Fort Sedgwick, the blue skies with stunning cloud formations, the composition of the panoramic shots with distant mountains, the yellow sunlit ‘golden hour’ footage, the Tepee interior shots with faces lit by firelight … I could wax lyrical all night. This was all the work of Director of Photography Dean Semler, who modestly claims that he was ‘lucky’. It seems that the more talent you have, the luckier you get.
When it comes to describing wide vistas through music, nobody does it like John Barry. His use of broad strokes as he paints on his canvas with orchestral strings and rising horn sections causes the heart to lift and a swelling in the chest as his work augments the visual beauty of the American frontier land. In the more tender scenes between Dunbar and Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell) the gentle use of the flute works so well.
The acting can’t really be faulted either, with leading man Costner turning in a very human performance as a man out on his own, combating loneliness and finding friendship as well as love among the Sioux Indians. Graham Greene as Kicking Bird makes a very patient, likeable, thoughtful Medicine Man who forms a bridge between the ‘white man’ and the American Indian. Mary McDonnell as Stands With A Fist – a young white girl, taken in by the Sioux after they have killed her parents and brought up in their ways – is totally convincing as the woman with whom Dunbar falls in love. There are also many other well drawn characters among the Indian tribesmen, whose faces seem to be ingrained with the hardship of life on the Great Plains. Let’s not forget the wolf, ‘Two Socks’, of whom it is said that there was almost as much raw footage as the Buffalo Hunt.
‘Dances with Wolves’ is one of those movies that proves that the story is far more important than CGI content. Indeed, there are also only a couple of matte shots (glass paintings as CGI was in its infancy in 1990) in the whole movie and everything else – in terms of scenery - is ‘as found’. It’s a movie in the old tradition of story telling that calls upon the skills of a writer, director, cameraman and editor – ably supported by a composer.
At the 1991 Academy Awards, ‘Dances with Wolves’ swept the board, walking away with Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Music, Best Sound and Best Scriptwriting statuettes. It was further nominated in another five categories including Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress for Costner, Greene and McDonnell.
It’s a movie that stands the test of time as it doesn’t look dated due to the historical period setting and is worthy of a place in any serious film buff’s collection. The extended edition, now out on Blu-ray, gives us all the chance to see the version that the Director would have liked to release back in 1990.