If anyone ever stages a “biggest surprise hit of all-time” contest, Dances With Wolves has to make the list. I won’t attempt to rate it amongst other entries, but when one considers the negative press experienced by the film prior to its November 1990 release, it definitely should land high on that chart.
Factor one: Wolves was a western. Prior to 1990, there were some attempts to revive the genre, but these weren’t terribly successful. Oh, 1985’s Silverado did decently at the box office, but it didn’t inspire a rush of imitators.
Factor two: Wolves ran 181 minutes. Long running times aren’t the commercial kiss of death some believe them to be. Many of the biggest hits of all-time went 170-plus minutes, and though most of these came out in the mid-Sixties or earlier, 1997’s Titanic proved that a 194-minute flick can rule at the box office. However, the idea that a 181-minute western would attract audiences in droves seemed extremely unlikely.
Factor three: although Kevin Costner had become a star through flicks like Bull Durham and The Untouchables, he had never worked behind the camera prior to Wolves. Here we found an inexperienced director who tried to corral an expansive take on a nearly dead genre. Gotta flop, right?
Wrong. Though many smart-asses dubbed the film “Kevin’s Gate” - a play on the Michael Cimino’s notorious 1980 bomb Heaven’s Gate - the movie could scarcely have been more successful. Wolves nabbed a terrific 12 Oscar nominations and went home with seven of those, a tally that included Best Picture and also Best Director for Costner. In addition, the film that was supposed to scare off moviegoers found a wide audience; it scored a fantastic $184 million at the box office.
Initially, I was one who felt very positively about Wolves. Sentimentally, I rooted for the underdog. Costner overcame so much criticism to bring his film to the screen that I was pleased to see him succeed. I also enjoyed the movie during my initial screening in the fall of 1990, as I thought it was a moving and exciting piece of work.
And then I saw it a second time. Sometimes I’ll see a movie and be swept up by so many of it superficial charms that I don’t notice its flaws. That was definitely the case with Wolves. From the lush scenery to the emotional depiction of the final frontier, I bought into the grandeur and drama of the piece. However, once I knew better what to expect, I found myself less enchanted with Costner’s world.
In Wolves, Costner plays Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, a Civil War participant whose leg becomes gravely injured during battle. Rather than lose the limb, he chooses to die; he straps himself to his horse and rides across an enemy encampment. However, by some divine intervention, the fire of the Confederates doesn’t hit him. Inspired by this feat, the Northern troops rally and take their skirmish.
The irony of the situation isn’t lost on Dunbar; his act of total selfishness is seen as a deed of perfect nobility for the troops, and he impresses his superiors enough to warrant special attention. He gets a better surgeon who saves his leg, and he also receives permission to be stationed anywhere he’d like. To the disbelief of many, Dunbar chooses a quiet western outpost where virtually nothing happens; he states that he wants to see the frontier before it disappears.
Thus Dunbar ends up along in the wilderness, with only his horse to keep him company. However, some visitors eventually appear, starting with a surprisingly friendly wolf. This critter frequently pops up around Dunbar’s camp, and the lieutenant names him “Two Socks” due to some distinctive markings on the wolf’s legs.
Before too long, Dunbar receives additional contact, this time from an apparently more ominous force. Local Indian tribes seem to threaten him, mainly because they think he threatens them. After a slow “getting to know you” period, the two sides become friends. Dunbar’s main compatriots include the stable and kind Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) and the wild but loyal Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant).
The two camps grow closer and closer, and another member of the Sioux tribe becomes active during their interactions. That would be Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), the oddest member of the tribe since she’s a white woman. She came to live with them as a child, and she now acts as interpreter between the English and Lakota languages. Inevitably, a romance develops between the two white folks as well.
All would be well and good were it not for the rest of the Army. Eventually, they come looking for Dunbar, who has essentially abandoned his post and “gone native”. This brings severe repercussions, and the final act of the film examines those concerns.
If nothing else, Costner’s heart was in the right place. Few would deny that Native Americans have received horribly poor treatment from the US as a collective, and the movie showed the terrible dehumanization brought upon them by folks in the 19th century. In that way, the film opened the eyes of people who were ignorant to this legacy.
However, Costner portrayed the entire package in such a self-righteous and condescending manner that some of the impact became diluted. Without question, Wolves could be a moving experience, but for each positive moment, Costner sullied the film with heavy-handed images that caused me to roll my eyes. Except for Dunbar, virtually all the white people depicted in the film are ignorant and evil, and they behave in totally brainless and cruel ways. Never did the movie try to show their point of view; while I can’t justify their actions, the film made it look at though the other whites acted out of pure maliciousness and stupidity without any attempts to illustrate why they felt as they did.
Just as the whites were made out to be too horrible, the Indians became excessively noble and good. The film offered almost no negative depictions of anyone in the Lakota tribe, all the better to shame the mortified whites in the audience; how could our ancestors have treated these fine, upstanding people so terribly? (Not my ancestors, though; no one in my past arrived in the US until the early 20th century, so I’m off the hook!)
Because of this, the portraits lacked depth. Sure, the Sioux received differentiating characteristics, but they stayed stuck as somewhat one-dimensional figures. The actors did their best to flesh out the personalities, but the roles remained more ideological than believable; they existed to demonstrate Costner’s mortification, not to provide realistic, well-rounded characters.
Speaking of the Indians, I must admit that it was cool that Costner included so much of their native speech in the film. I’m sure studio bigwigs pressured him not to do so, for all of this foreign dialogue meant that the movie used many subtitles. However, it added a level of authenticity to the flick and obviously didn’t harm its box office receipts.
Ultimately, I thought that Dances With Wolves was an earnest, well-meaning, and occasionally effective flick that suffered mainly because of the condescending and ham-fisted manner in which it was told. The film offered gorgeous scenery and some emotional moments, but the characters remained thin and the story’s aggressively heavy-handed moments made it hard to take at times.
Dances With Wolves appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although much of Wolves looked terrific, a few concerns marred the overall presentation.
Sharpness generally seemed excellent, as much of the movie appeared very crisp and detailed. No significant instances of softness cropped up, but some other issues affected this area. During some parts of the film, I saw excessive examples of moiré effects and jagged edges. These problems decreased as the movie progressed, but they still made many shots look harsher than they should. As for print flaws, I detected some speckles and a nick or two, but most of the movie appeared clean and fresh.
As one might expect, Wolves provided a rather natural palette, and the DVD usually replicated these tones nicely. The colors often seemed to be somewhat subdued within that range, but they always looked accurate and rich. Especially positive were the many sun-dappled sequences, which seemed extremely lush and lovely. Black levels also appeared deep and dense, and shadow detail generally came across as appropriately heavy but not excessively thick. Some low-light shots - such as interiors or campfires - could be a little opaque, but these were rarely a concern. Ultimately, only a few problems kept Dances With Wolves from being a truly outstanding picture, and even with the concerns, it remained a solid effort.
Also very strong was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Dances With Wolves. The soundfield showed a forward emphasis but it offered a pretty well-rounded affair in any case. The front spectrum provided a nicely broad and engaging display. Sounds were placed accurately in the environment, and they moved cleanly and smoothly across channels. The score also featured very good stereo separation.
The surrounds mainly reinforced the forward spectrum. John Barry’s score was the prime beneficiary of this, as his music poured nicely from the rears. Some effects also came from the surrounds, though these instances were more limited. Nonetheless, the movie’s louder sequences demonstrated an involving and active presence from all five channels, and they helped bring those scenes to life.
Audio quality also appeared to be positive. Dialogue consistently sounded warm and natural, and I discerned no concerns related to intelligibility or edginess. The music showed terrific fidelity. Highs seemed to be clear and bright, while the bass response appeared deep and rich. Barry’s score provided a very fine representation here, as the track made the music even more involving than it might have been. Effects also benefited from excellent dynamics. They came across as clean and realistic, and other than a little distortion that involved gunfire, these elements showed no concerns. Overall, I found the soundtrack of Dances With Wolves to provide a very satisfying and exciting affair.
Only one substantial supplement appears on the Dances With Wolves DVD. In addition to a listing of cast and crew filmographies, we get a running audio commentary from director/actor Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson. Both men were recorded together for this screen-specific affair. Though I lack enthusiasm for the film itself, I really enjoyed this commentary.
Not surprisingly, Costner dominates the track as he provides a wealth of excellent information about the film. We learn scads of notes about the reasons for many of his decisions as both an actor and as a director, and he even manages to relate some problems experienced on the set. Costner chimes in with quite a few entertaining and illuminating anecdotes as well, and he proves to be a charming and compelling presence; if only someone would tell him that the movie’s not called Dances With Wuffs. As for Wilson, he also provides some good notes throughout the track, and he interacts nicely with Costner, but it’s really Kevin’s show. In any case, I thought this was a fine commentary that merits a listen even for folks who didn’t much care for DWW.
Since I largely remain in that camp, I can’t fully recommend the DVD of Dances With Wolves, though this quality production makes me more willing to do so. I feel that the movie is too politically correct for its own good, as it hammers the viewer with its message. The film includes some good moments, but these often become smothered beneath the filmmakers’ points. As for the DVD, it provides very good picture and sound, and though it only features one significant supplement, that piece is quite compelling. Fans of Wolves will undoubtedly be very pleased with this package and should definitely pick up a copy. Others may want to rent it first; the movie has enough going for it that I can’t reject it out of hand, but I think it’s questionable enough that I can’t endorse anything stronger than a rental.