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DANCES WITH WOLVES
Special Edition

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars: Kevin Costner, Mary McDowell, Graham Greene, Rodney Grant
Director:  Kevin Costner
Subtitles:  English
Sound:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Color, Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features:  See Review
Studio:  MGM
Length:  236 Minutes
Release Date:  May 20, 2003

Film ****

Many great movies are difficult to describe.  You love them but you are not sure why.  They generate a visceral reaction in you but you cannot accurately describe the movie to someone else, they have to see it for themselves.   For instance, when Forrest Gump was first described to me it sounded like the dimmest, dumbest movie ever, but of course like so many fans I loved it from the first viewing.  Dances With Wolves is great for many subtle reasons, too.  It was originally billed as a love story, as was the novel upon which it was based, but the love story is not really between a man and a woman at all.  The love is between the native Americans and their land, and each other, and in this case, an understanding member of the white race. 

Kevin Costner's epic is revolves around his character John Dunbar, a wounded civil war veteran, who attempts suicide to help his comrades rather than face amputation of his leg.  He ends up surviving a ride into enemy fire in a Christ-like pose, and requests that he be transferred to the frontier "before it is gone."   When he gets there, he discovers that no one is there.  This extended version shows a bit about the original occupants, which does make the story work better as promised.   Dunbar befriends the Sioux, and eventually falls in love with one of their women (Mary McDonnell, in a stunningly believable performance) and lives with them.  Since the U.S. Army seems to have abandoned the post, he leaves it.  Will the U.S. Army ever find out what is going on? 

Some have charged that the movie is one-sided in its portrayal of the evil of the white race versus the good of the Native Americans.  Actually, some of the natives are truly barbarous, and while the soldiers are depicted as examples of morally bankrupt and inept soldiers (except for Dunbar, of course), anyone who really thinks the native Americans did not get royally screwed over needs to brush up on their history.   The fact remains that free Sioux tribes are no more.

The obvious strength of the movie is that for the first time, native Americans are portrayed in a beautiful, human way.  The contrast between the bloody American civil war and the peaceful Sioux is stark.  The soundtrack is one of John Barry's finest moments, almost becoming a character in itself.

I learned from the commentary track that the opening civil war battle scenes were actually filmed in South Dakota.  I recently visited some civil war battlefields in Tennessee and somehow Costner and company made South Dakota look just like Tennessee, right down to the wooden fences and rolling hills. 

Video ****

The cinematography is breathtaking and presented in a flawless anamorphic widescreen transfer.  Images are sharp and beautifully rendered throughout with consistent coloring and detail.  No grain or compression appears to mar the presentation, even in the lower lit scenes.  This presentation doesn't exhibit some of the usual dimness seen in other films from the era.  Highest marks.

Audio ***

The orchestra seems to be right there on the plain with the characters.  My one big complaint is that the sound of the movie itself and the dialogue in particular is so quiet.  The commentary tracks and introductory music will burst your speakers, then you have to crank it up just to hear the often mumbled dialogue.  This is a shame since one of the seven Oscars he film won was for Sound!  The 5.1 is more than serviceable, but I was surprised at the uneven levels.

Features ***

The behind the scenes featurettes are interesting but only minimally since they are short and repeat themselves.  Learning how they shot fake buffalo is interesting.  The commentary track with Costner and producer Jim Wilson is very good, and while Wilson says how wonderful Costner is so many times that it would make milk curdle, the accolades are well-deserved.  Interestingly, Costner is much more animated in the commentary than he ever was in the film, but I suppose that is intentional.  The commentary track with the editor and director of photography left me a bit bored but it does contain good tidbits about why and how certain scenes were shot. 

Other features include a poster gallery, the original theatrical trailer, two TV spots, and an excellent photo montage. The two-disc set is presented in a handsome case with a Velcro tab.

Summary:

There are many movies every young person should see to give them a sense of history such as Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and Dances with Wolves. The breathtaking cinematography alone is worth the price, and it is easy to see why Teddy Roosevelt fell in love with the Dakota territory as it was called then.   This is a fairly simple story told in a gutsy, authentic, organic way that is so rare in Hollywood.  Winner of seven Oscars, this rare modern epic is finally presented in an extended DVD package worthy of the material.