A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Dances With Wolves” (1990) – The 30th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “My place is with you. I go where you go”. A 30th anniversary celebration of Kevin Costner’s seven time Oscar winner “Dances With Wolves”. Credited to be the Western that revitalized the once dead genre. Kevin Costner’s directorial debut was a style, that defied all of the rules. A big screen epic that clocked in at three hours long, coming in at millions of dollars over budget and included a cast full of unknown Native American actors speaking a language most audiences had never heard of. It was the third highest grossing film of 1990, taking in $425 million worldwide. Based on the book by Costner’s real life friend Michael Blake. It was a meant to be project for Kevin Costner (the story of how it came into Costner’s life is featured in my write-up). “Dances With Wolves” was turned down by both book publications and movie studios. Once filming had started it became quite the troubled production including going over budget, which caused Costner to pay for a portion out of his own pocket. “Dances With Wolves” has a simple story, that is magnificently told. It has the epic sweep and clarity of a western directed by John Ford and recalls the sweep of a David Lean epic. It’s as genuine an artistic triumph as they come; a spellbinding American classic that is all done with an eye to detail and a respect for tradition. It has the kind of vision and ambition that is rare in movies. It is a personal triumph for Kevin Costner, who showed a command of story and of visual structure that is startling. Costner’s movie moves so confidently and looks so good it seems incredible that it was a directorial debut. Seeing how he has become one of our greatest actors and filmmakers it really is no surprise that “Dances With Wolves”, was such a marvel and masterpiece from beginning to end when it premiered in 1990 and still is 30 years later. 

Aside from me being a sucker for romantic comedies. I love westerns even more. It’s been my favorite genre of movie since I was a kid. I mean come on…what little boy didn’t grow up wanting to be a gunslinging cowboy? I love the way it provides timeless pleasures, tough guy heroes, action set pieces on horseback, adventures in magnificent landscapes and seeing good triumph over evil.

But by 1990, the western was dead. Largely at blame for killing the genre, was director Michael Cimino’s American western “Heaven’s Gate” (see my 40th anniversary article on the film at MauiWatch.com). Over budget, overindulgent and under-stimulating, “Heaven’s Gate” defined the word flop for generations to come. Although it’s enjoyed some critical rehabilitation in recent years due to extensive re-cuts, it now stands as a masterpiece.

“Heaven’s Gate” was the key film that convinced Hollywood, that nobody wanted to see Westerns anymore. There were no longer new frontiers for the once beloved genre, so the movies had turned their eyes skyward to the genre ever since. Tastes had changed and audiences had moved on. Other than Clint Eastwood, very few were making Westerns and Eastwood himself hadn’t made one since 1985’s “Pale Rider”.

The summer of 1985 also saw the release of another western “Silverado”. Cast as the brash young cowboy was Kevin Costner, whose star would rise considerably in the coming years, with movies like “The Untouchables” (1987), “Bull Durham” (1988), “Field of Dreams” (1989) and so many more. Costner who went against all odds, had his life and career changed at age 35, as he had decided to revive the western with his own project, one in which he would star, produce and direct. 

The film of course was, “Dances with Wolves. It wasn’t just any Western, it was the Western that revitalized the genre and went on to win seven out of it’s twelve Oscar nominations which included: Best Picture, Best Director for Kevin Costner, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score and Best Sound Mixing. The film also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture. It earned $184 million domestically in the states, making it the third biggest hit of 1990, after “Home Alone and “Ghost. On a worldwide scale, it grossed $425 million and had become one of the most successful Westerns ever made. 

Any filmmaker that did get the green light to make a western would need to keep the project within budget, under two hours, and of course, keep all the dialogue in English. But that wasn’t Costner’s style, he defied all of that. Costner’s “Journey Movie” (which is what he called it), clocked in at three hours long, coming in at millions of dollars over budget and included a cast full of unknown Native American actors speaking a language most audiences had never heard of. 

“Dances With Wolves” was just meant to be for Costner, which is clearly evident in Costner’s re-telling of how it all came to be. Costner had met Michael Blake in a Los Angeles acting class, and advised him to write a novel instead of a screenplay, reasoning that a novel could generate more studio interest and more effectively than a cold script could. In the mean time, Costner tried to get work for him by arranging numerous interviews with studio representatives and introducing him to Hollywood friends. But Blake spoiled every opportunity by arguing with the reps. “I really started to lose patience with him and how he was treating the friends I was introducing him to” Costner said. 

Costner and Blake became increasingly at odds and it didn’t help that Costner was all this time lending his home to Blake who needed a place to stay. The tension between the two culminated in a physical confrontation that had Costner pinning Blake against a wall. Costner remembers telling Blake “Quit pretending you want to be in Hollywood”. But while Blake was staying with Costner he was writing in the process of writing a novel. While all the tension wasn’t enough, Blake had kept pestering Costner to read the work he had written. Costner refused, and Blake quickly wore out his welcome and Costner asked him to leave. 

Blake eventually moved down to Arizona, where he washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant for $3.35 an hour. He called Costner asking for money, so Costner mailed him a sleeping bag and a portable stove. Blake again pestered Costner to read the book, which he’d since finished before being asked to leave Costner’s home. Costner again refused and one day at home he finally gave in and gave it a shot. Costner was stunned by the book titled “Dances With Wolves”. Costner said “It was the clearest idea for a movie that I’d ever read”. 

“I wrote the entire book in my car, really”, Blake said. Once finished, Blake had tried to submit “Dances with Wolves”, to numerous publishers, all of whom had passed on his manuscript. Finally, after more than 30 rejections, a small book publisher called Fawcett accepted it and published it in paperback in 1988. Once Costner was interested in making a film of it, he bought the rights to make it a feature film.

After deciding to go ahead with the project, Costner gave the script to three prominent directors (which he still refuses to name names), hoping that one of them would be a good fit. But each of them had parts they wanted to cut that Costner who was attached as the star considered crucial. Costner said “Some wanted to get rid of the opening Civil War sequence. Some thought it was too long. Somebody thought it shouldn’t be a white love interest, that that would be cliché”. So he decided to step in and do the job himself.

“Dances With Wolves” was turned down by studio after studio and after the project languished at both Nelson Entertainment and Island Pictures due to budget reasons. Costner enlisted producer Jake Eberts to manage foreign rights in several countries for Costner to retain the final cut rights to the movie. With only a fraction of the movie’s $15 million budget secured, he began filming. Costner then made a deal with Orion Pictures, who stepped throwing in $10 million toward the budget. “Dances with Wolves” had ended up going more than $3 million over their budget, which Costner covered out of his own pocket.

More than a quarter of Blake’s script had to be translated into the Sioux Lakota dialect. Although only few people could speak Lakota, much less translate it. Costner had heard about a teacher at South Dakota’s Sinte Gleska University named Doris Leader Charge, who taught the Lakota language and culture. He sent the script to her and got it back three weeks later, fully translated.

“I’d never even seen a script before then”, the then-60-year-old teacher said. Since none of the actors spoke Lakota, Costner brought Leader Charge onto the set for further guidance and even offered her a speaking role. Leader Charge initially declined, saying she needed to return to work. So Costner called up the president of the college and got her stay on set extended.  

Actual production lasted from July 18 to November 23rd, 1989. Most of the movie was filmed on location in South Dakota, mainly on private ranches near Pierre and Rapid City, with a few scenes filmed in Wyoming. Specific locations included the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, and the Belle Fourche River area.

The bison hunt had used 3,500 bison, 20 wranglers, 24 bareback Native American stunt riders and 150 extras, took three weeks to film (with seven cameras) at the Triple U Buffalo Ranch outside Fort Pierre, South Dakota.

Costner who did 95 percent of his own riding, shooting, fighting and wolf-dancing in the film. All of which was impressive, but also kept the crew on edge. During the aforementioned buffalo hunt sequence, a rider veered in front of Costner’s horse, throwing the star from his mount. “I was in the copter and all I heard was ‘Kevin’s down, Kevin’s down’”, producer Jim Wilson recounted. While the crew held their breath, the star got up, dusted himself off, and hopped on his stunt double’s horse to finish the scene.

Filming required a few domesticated buffalo for close-up shots. So the crew turned to singer Neil Young, who loaned them two of his Buffalo and a South Dakota meat manufacturer, whose mascot “Cody” was in a scene that required the Buffalo to walk to a certain point. In order to get Cody to run at the camera, his handler enticed him with his favorite treat: Oreos. “You could be 100 yards away, pull out an Oreo, and he’d take off like a bullet straight for you”.

“Dances With Wolves” contains no trick shots or CGI wizardry behind the film’s centerpiece: That really is a herd of 3500 buffalo storming across the prairie. The crew only had one shot at filming the stampede each day, since the animals had to be rounded up each day and once they started running, they would go for miles before stopping. “The trucks began herding the buffalo at five o’clock in the morning in hopes that they would be in position by 11”, producer Jim Wilson told Entertainment Weekly. Capturing the sequence took eight days and involved 20 wranglers, a helicopter and 10 pickup trucks with mounted cameras.

The crew also employed two wolves named Buck and Teddy to play Two Socks (the wolf that Costner’s Dunbar befriends). But even with trainers and so called “trained” wolves, they are still notoriously temperamental. Lots of patience and meat scraps were required to get Buck and Teddy to cooperate. The filmmakers weren’t above humiliating themselves to get the shots they needed, either. Such as behind the scenes footage that shows producer Jim Wilson and Costner trying to get the wolves to howl by belting out their own calls of the wild.

With budget headaches and complications with the weather, which ranged from 20 degrees to over 100 degrees across the July to November shoot, it’s a wonder the film got made at all. In fact because of it’s troubled production, it earned the nicknames: “Costner’s Last Stand”, while others dubbed it “Kevin’s Gate” in reference to Michael Cimino’s wildly over-budget Western flop “Heaven’s Gate”.

Part of the success of “Dances With Wolves” was due to its appeal to both male and female moviegoers. To inject interest, Orion Pictures took a unique step at the time by cutting separate trailers and print ads that played up different aspects of the film. The female-focused marketing played up the movie’s love story, while the male-focused campaign emphasized the gun-slinging and Wild West elements of the film.

Orion Pictures that distributed “RoboCop”, “Platoon”, and “Caddyshack”rolled out a string of poor performers in the late 1980s. By the time “Dances With Wolves” came to theaters, Orion’s stock was down 50 percent and the company was $500 million in debt. “We needed a hit,” David Forbes, Orion’s president of marketing and distribution, told Entertainment Weekly. Unfortunately, not even the combined success of big Oscar winners “Dances with Wolves” and “Silence of the Lambs” (which came out the following year) was enough to recoup Orion’s losses. A year later, the company filed for bankruptcy, emerging briefly in the mid-1990s before MGM bought it. In the past three years Orion Pictures has found new life, in a comeback with several films released under the label. 

By allowing the Sioux to speak in their own tongue, by entering their villages and observing their ways, we see them as people, not as savages in the sights of an Army rifle. Which is probably why the Sioux were pleased with the portrayal that focused on their peaceful, day to day life of their tribe. So they honored Costner with official membership. The induction ceremony included tying an eagle feather in his hair and giving him a hand-woven quilt. A few years later, though, Costner lost some of those good vibes when he bought several hundred acres in South Dakota’s Black Hills, a land considered sacred by the Sioux and announced plans to build a resort. Development proved difficult, however and Costner finally abandoned the plan in 2013.

A sequel to the book was published in 2001, once again written by Michael Blake and titled “The Holy Road”. The novel continues the story of John Dunbar, who is now a full-fledged Sioux warrior, as he tries to protect his tribe from encroachment by white settlers. Critics praised the novel for the ways it portrayed westward expansion and the plight of Native Americans without coming off heavy-handed. There have been rumblings about a possible miniseries, but nothing ever came of it. But in 2007, Blake was said to be writing a film adaptation. Costner, who has refused to do sequels to any of his films, including “The Untouchables”, stated he would not take part in the films production of it ever happened. A third book titled “The Great Mystery” was planned, but Blake died in 2015.

One year after the original theatrical release of “Dances with Wolves”, a four hour version of the film opened at select theaters in London. This longer cut was titled “Dances with Wolves: The Special Edition” and it restored nearly an hour’s worth of scenes that had been removed to keep the original film’s running time under 3 hours. In a letter to British film reviewers, director Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson addressed their reasons for presenting a longer version of the film:

“Why add another hour to a film that by most standards pushes the time limit of conventional movie making? The 52 additional minutes that represent this “new” version were difficult to cut in the first place, and…the opportunity to introduce them to audiences is compelling. We have received countless letters from people worldwide asking when or if a sequel would be made, so it seemed like a logical step to enhance our film with existing footage…making an extended version is by no means to imply that the original ‘Dances with Wolves’ was unfinished or incomplete; rather, it creates an opportunity for those who fell in love with the characters and the spectacle of the film to experience more of both”.

The genesis of the 4-hour version of the film was further explained in an article for Entertainment Weekly that appeared 10 months after the premiere of the original film. “While the small screen has come to serve as a second chance for filmmakers who can’t seem to let their babies go, Kevin Costner and his producing partner, Jim Wilson, hope that their newly completed version will hit theater screens first”. 

“I spent seven months working on it,” Wilson says of the expanded Wolves. He’s quick to defend the Oscar-winning version as “the best picture we had in us at the time,” yet Wilson also says he’s “ecstatic” over the recut. “It’s a brand-new picture,” he insists. “There’s now more of a relationship between Kevin and Stands with a Fist, more with the wolf, more with the Indians—stuff that’s integral all through the story.” Of course, exhibitors may not want a longer version of an already widely seen movie, but Wilson remains optimistic. “I don’t think the time is now,” he acknowledges, “but ideally, there is a point at which it would come out with an intermission, booked into the very best venues in America”. Costner later claimed that he did not work on the creation of the 4-hour cut at all.

Leading home video company Shout Factory has released “Dances With Wolves” in a three disc collector’s edition. It features the three hour theatrical cut, the four hour extended cut and hours of bonus material on the third disc of the set.

“Dances With Wolves” doesn’t feel that long, even with its three-hour running time. As film critic Roger Ebert said “Good movies are never too long; but bad ones can’t be short enough”. Ever since the commercial failure of the three hour “The Right Stuff”, there was a belief in Hollywood that a three hour film can’t be successful at the box office because it has one less performance each night as opposed to a two hour film. But “Dances With Wolves” changed that.

“Dances With Wolves” has a simple story, that is magnificently told. It has the epic sweep and clarity of a western directed by John Ford (“The Searchers”, “Stagecoach”) and recalls the sweep of a David Lean (“Lawrence Of Arabia”, “Doctor Zhivago”) epic. It’s as genuine an artistic triumph as they come; a spellbinding American classic that is all done with an eye to detail and a respect for tradition. A colossal journey of self discovery, exploration and education, rounded out with all of the elements of influential storytelling.

It’s an engrossing tale, that Costner directs with the confidence of a Hollywood veteran, filming panoramic vistas that serve as a reminder of the potential of big screen entertainment. This is a western in the grand tradition, smoothly directed with a clear-eyed vision by Kevin Costner, who also gives a sensitive performance in the leading role.

“Dances With Wolves” has the kind of vision and ambition that is rare in movies. It’s a thoughtful, carefully observed story that asks for our imagination and sympathy. It is a personal triumph for Kevin Costner, who showed a command of story and of visual structure that is startling. His movie moves so confidently and looks so good it seems incredible that it’s was a directorial debut. Seeing how Kevin Costner has become one of our greatest actors and filmmakers it really is no surprise that “Dances With Wolves”, was such a marvel and masterpiece from beginning to end when it premiered in 1990 and still is 30 years later. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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