There’s no doubt that Kevin Costner’s name has been attached to some pretty crappy projects during his career – Waterworld, The Postman, and 3000 Miles to Graceland to name a few – and it’s unfortunate, because the aforementioned dirt loafs have tarnished the fine film that we’re here to discuss, Dances With Wolves. Heck, even I had horrid recollections of the film from viewing it years ago in theaters. However, this review forced me to check the film out again and I actually found myself…enjoying it – and enjoying it immensely. What was going on here? Time has definitely been kind to Dances With Wolves – it has aged like a fine wine. However, it seems that Costner’s later career choices had clouded my memories of the film, and thankfully, I was able to watch it again to find out how wrong I have been. It’s a good thing too, as I might have deprived myself of this film forever had it not been for this review.
For such a “bad” film, it actually racked up during the 1990 Academy Awards ceremony, as Dances With Wolves took home seven Oscars (Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Sound, Score, and Editing) and had a worldwide gross of over $300 million when it was all said and done. (Heck, $300 million is a load in today’s dollars.) For a debut director, who before was only thought of as a marginally decent actor, that’s not a bad way to start a career behind the camera.
The film stars Kevin Costner as Lieutenant John Dunbar, a soldier sent to protect an American outpost on the Western frontier from the Indians. While on the frontier, he befriends some Sioux Indians – the very people he’s supposed to keep away from the outpost. Over time, his friendship and understanding of them deepens and the Sioux come to accept Dunbar as one of their own. However, when the United States Army starts infringing on the Sioux nation, Dunbar is forced to make a difficult decision – and one that will change his life forever.
Dances With Wolves has actually gotten better with age, and while I admittedly wasn’t initially excited about having to review this title, I can say now that I’ve watched it again after all these years and I’m so glad I did. It’s not that I have an aversion to Costner or anything, it’s just I don’t recall enjoying the film that much when I saw it in theaters. However, my tune has changed, and it’s in no small part because MGM has been able to bring this epic beautifully now to Blu-ray. The transfers, both audio and video, are top-notch, and the supplements are outstanding. This new version of Dances With Wolves is a feather in MGM’s cap and worth every penny – even if you own the old Image version of the film. Pick it up. You won’t be sorry.
MGM had their hands full dealing with the almost 4-hour presentation of Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. This new 236-minute cut comes with an all-new high-definition transfer from MGM in an anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 22 mbps. The newly included footage looks as good as what was included in the original theatrical release, and it’s really hard to tell what was already there versus what was added. The film maintained a very tight and detailed presentation, with some really rich and vibrant hues – especially during some of the exterior shots showing off the gorgeous landscapes in the film. Fleshtones were accurate and natural throughout and black levels in the film were consistently solid and allowed for some very impressive shadow detail and delineation. Very smooth and very film-like in its presentation, Dances With Wolves simply looks great.
Flaws with the print were limited to some slight grain and print imperfections, as edge enhancement and compression artifacting were rarely noted. Cinematographer Dean Semler has created a visual masterpiece here and MGM has come out with a high-definition transfer that really puts it on display. Dances With Wolves simply looks epic, and fans won’t find much to complain about.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 is just as spectacular. The track does a marvelous job of enveloping the viewer, with excellent employment of discrete effects throughout the film. There’s a very pleasant environmental ambience maintained during Dances With Wolves, and surprisingly, there were a few times during the film where your surrounds got a fairly aggressive workout. While not on par with any recent blockbuster that I’ve run through my player recently, the impressive surround usage was still nice to hear. The track contained some rumbling lows, crisp highs, and quite an expansive soundstage to work in. There seemed to be some slight differences between the newly-added footage and the footage found in the original theatrical release, but it was minimal at best. Dialog was front, center, and easily understood.
There are a couple of Audio Commentaries featuring different participants. The first commentary contains comments from Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson, while the second commentary’s participants include cinematographer Dean Semler and editor Neil Travis. Between the two commentaries, no stone is left unturned, and almost every conceivable aspect of making the film is covered in some form or fashion. Each of the participants is interesting in their own right (heck, they’ve all won Oscars – that should tell you something), although the Costner and Wilson commentary is easily the better of the two provided here. Costner was especially humble during his commentary and does all he can to deflect praise and divvy out glory to those involved with his epic project. There are some great stories from behind the scenes – including how Costner kept his manhood “under wraps” while filming some of his nude scenes. There is some dead air across both commentaries, and it’s to be expected for a film that runs almost 4 hours, but each of the commentaries is definitely worth a listen for those of you enamored with the film.
This 2-disc Blu-ray release features the nearly 4 hour Director’s Cut on the first disc. The afore-mentioned commentary tracks can also be found here, as can 2 enhanced viewing modes:
Military Rank And Social Hierarchy Guide: This mode provides plenty of background information on the people, places and events of the historical period in which the film moves.
Real History Or Movie Make-Believe: There are hundreds of trivia questions that pop-up throughout the film or they can be jumped to at any time. You answer True or False by using your remote. At the end of the movie you’re given a rank.
A Day In The Life On The Western Frontier: (14:18) HD Historians, authors, and film participants offer an analysis of what life was like during these pioneer days.
The Creation of an Epic – A Retrospective (81:06) SD Broken up into seven individual selections (“The Creation of an Epic: Intro”, “Novel to Screen”, “Actor Becomes The Director”, “The Buffalo Hunt”, “The Look and Sound of Dances”, “The Art of Composition”, and “The Success of Dances”) and thankfully, MGM has provided a play-all selection so that we can watch all of these features back to back to back. The supplement was just recently created for MGM’s DVD and it brought back the majority of the main players from the film to talk about it 13 years after the fact, and it was nothing short of spectacular. There are interview snippets with the principals mixed in with clips from behind the scenes and clips from the film itself. It’s very in-depth and informative and shouldn’t be missed by anyone who even remotely considers themselves a fan of the film. This was a spectacular supplement and a joy to watch.
Second Wind: (5:18) SD A presentation reel put together to advance sell the film.
Confederate March And Music: (2:13) SD A recreation of a Confederate military march.
Getting The Point (3:38) SD and Burying The Hatchet (1:12) SD: Behind-the-scenes look at weapons, wounds, and the construction of those two scenes.
Animatronic Buffalo: (2:18) A look behind the scenes of the animatronic animal.
Dances Photo Montage with Introduction by Ben Glass (9:19) SD and here, we get a great set of stills from behind-the-scenes of Dances With Wolves from the still photographer from the set, Ben Glass. There are some really nice photos here – well over 100 of them – and they’re set to some great music from the film. A nice addition to the set and a really nice way to spice up what can normally be a rather dull extra.
Following are some more rather promotional extras in the form of a Poster Gallery (only four are included), some TV Spots (two included), the film’s Theatrical Trailer.
Dances With Wolves has always been a bit of a conundrum for me. The story is simply a beautiful one. The cinematography is often nothing short of breathtaking. What causes my trouble is when we get down to its star. Kevin Costner is horrible in this film. I’m not a Costner hater. Untouchables and JFK are two of his best films, and in each he delivered exactly what was required. I’m beginning to think, however, that the G-Man persona is all he is capable of delivering with any consistency. What exactly is my problem… I’m glad someone asked. Dunbar needs to be a very complex character. We find him at first a very loyal American soldier dedicated to his duty. His transformation under the Indian influence should be a dramatic one and pivotal to the essence of this tale. Costner doesn’t show us this change. The writers do in his words and actions, but Costner hasn’t changed the very soul of his character. Example: In The Godfather Al Pacino plays Michael, who is the son of a crime lord. He despises what his father stands for and has vowed never to be involved. When Michael makes the decision to lash out at his father’s attackers, you can see the change before he speaks a word. Pacino played a different man then. It’s obvious he understood this man was different not because of how he was now behaving, but rather that he had changed somewhere in the core of his being. His voice and speech changed, as did even the way he walked across a room. Where is the change Dunbar undergoes inside? It’s simply not there. Costner was also the director, and perhaps there lies the true flaw. Maybe if another perspective had been there to better guide the transformation, we might have been given that dramatic metamorphosis so desperately required for this film to work. There’s a reason why given the film’s many Oscar wins one was not for Best Actor.
MGM has provided a few clips from the release.
and Extended Scene
Parts of this review were written by David Williams & Gino Sassani