Directed by Kevin Costner
Screenplay by Michael Blake
Based on the novel by Michael Blake
Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Robert Pastorelli
John Dunbar (Costner) has earned the posting of his choice after his brave acts on the battlefield. His desire is to see the Western frontier, a place he fears will soon disappear. This request is granted when he’s assigned to a command at Fort Sedgwick. After arriving, Dunbar finds himself alone, and begins to settle into the abandoned fort. Soon he comes face to face with the Sioux Indians, making them his friends as they begin to learn about one another.
In the history of film making very few Westerns have ever risen to the levels of success found by Dances with Wolves. The film was a major financial success, grossing over $400 million dollars worldwide. The movie also became an immediate critical success, earning 12 Oscar nominations and winning seven. These wins included Best Picture and Best Director (Costner). The film was born from the novel by Michael Blake (Stacy’s Knights), which he also later adapted for the film. Blake’s work would earn him an Academy Award for Best Writing. In addition to starring in the movie, Kevin Costner (Field of Dreams) also directed the film and co-produced it. The movie features a wonderful cast that includes Mary McDonnell (Passion Fish), Graham Greene (The Green Mile), and Robert Pastorelli (Eraser). Costner, McDonnell and Greene all earned Oscar nominations for their performances in the film.
The story could have easily become a romanticized version of the Western frontier. Even the title suggests a sort of innocence and a romantic notion of the West. Thankfully, the film has so much more to offer. The story is an honest look at the West, and an attempt to personalize the Native American people so often marginalized in American films. The character of John Dunbar seems to evolve throughout the film, making him interesting and entirely believable. Additionally, the different Sioux characters all have unique personalities, and never seem to be lumped together.
The romance in the story between Costner and McDonnell’s characters is wonderfully written as well. The tragedy behind their characters seems to play a part in their relationship with one another. Finally, the film seems to make a strong statement about the evolution of the West. Without pushing any political agenda, the story points out some of the casualties of the movement to expand the Western territories of the United States.
A great story needs great actors as well, and this movie doesn’t disappoint. With the possible exception of Field of Dreams; this might be the best performance in Costner’s career. His performance is genuine and powerful, and it carries the entire film. Costner was also able to make the right adjustments as his character evolved throughout the story. Some of this is likely due to the fact that most of the film was shot in chronological order, allowing the actors to make adjustments without having to go back and forth. Mary McDonnell also gives a wonderful performance in this movie. Her character had to live between two worlds, and she displays this wonderfully. Graham Greene is another wonderful star in this film. His performance as the curious and wise elder Sioux holy man is incredible. It’s not a surprise that all three of these actors were nominated by the Academy for their excellence. In one of the better supporting roles, Robert Pastorelli was a great addition to the film. His supporting role as Timmons is one of my personal favorites in the movie. The cast features a wide range of talented actors who combined their efforts to bring this wonderful movie to life.
The epic nature of this film required visuals to match. Thankfully, cinematographer Dean Semler (Apocalypto) was up to the task. His work captured the true essence of the great plains in the West. The action sequences and the more thoughtful moments all seem to take full advantage of the sets and the natural beauty of the locations. Like the story, the visuals also seem to hold some sentimental or romantic quality within them. This is easily one of the most beautiful movies filmed in the last 25 years. Semler was also acknowledged by the Academy, winning an Oscar for Best Cinematography. Adding to the visual success of the film is the great work done in editing the movie. At over three hours, the film still has a great pace and never feels overlong. Neil Travis (Patriot Games) edited the film, winning an Oscar for his work.
Adding to the success of this movie is a powerful score, written by John Barry. The music in this movie is one of the best scores ever written for a Western. The power and emotion behind the music seems to push all the right buttons. This score ultimately earned Barry his fifth Oscar win in a career that has spanned over five decades. In addition to the music, the film was also recognized with an Academy Award for Best Sound.
In addition to all the wins and nominations mentioned above, the film was also nominated for Best Costumes and Best Set Decoration. The total number of nominations brought Dances with Wolves into rare company, sharing a spot as the third most nominated film of all-time. Every aspect of this movie seems to work, and the recognition has been clear from many different sources. In addition to the commercial success and the awards, the film was entered into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. One other interesting thing about this film, is that it was the first Western to win Best Picture since 1931’s Cimarron.
This is a wonderful movie, and one of my all-time favorites. The many aspects of this movie and the work done to create it come together wonderfully. I would recommend this movie to anyone who loves good films. The violence is very real and sometimes very gritty, but it never seems gratuitous. At times the film seems to question the reasons for the violence even as it is displayed. The acting is wonderful, so fans of the stars should make sure to see this one. I would also suggest it to fans of history, drama, or war movies. I give this one 5 out of 5 stars.