Movie #71: Dances with Wolves (1990)

Director: Kevin Costner

Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Green, Rodney A Grant, and Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman

Academy Awards (1991)

Best Picture: Jim Wilson, Kevin Costner

Best Director: Kevin Costner

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Michael Blake

Best Cinematography: Dean Semler

Best Sound: Russell Williams

Best Film Editing: Neil Travis

Best Music, Original Score: John Barry

Academy Award Nominations

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Kevin Costner

Best Art Direction-Set Decoration: Lisa Dean, Jeffrey Beecroft

Best Costume Design: Elsa Zamparelli

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Graham Greene

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Mary McDonnell


Union soldier Lt. John Dunbar (Costner) requests a post on the American Frontier at Fort Sedgwick on the Great Plains.  He goes there to see the frontier, as he says, before it’s gone.  Though paranoid at first, he befriends the local Sioux Indian tribe and a wolf that always seems to watch him that he eventually names “Two Socks.”  Working through a clear language barrier with the Sioux, Dunbar learns the tribe has raised Stands With A Fist (McDonnell), a white orphan who does a lot of the interpreting.  Dunbar eventually falls in love with and marries her.

Transitioning from a Union soldier, Dunbar becomes known as Dances with Wolves by the tribe, and after his marriage to Stands With A Fist, spends all of his time with the tribe.  As the tribe plans to migrate, Dances returns to his fort to retrieve a diary he has kept telling of his experiences, only to find out more soldiers have arrived at the fort.  Their intent is to overtake the local tribes given the intelligence Dunbar had been sent out to gather.  Dances is conflicted and experiences the abuse of the gun-happy Union soldiers and has to decide whether he is an American or a Sioux.


This film has a lot of things that appeal to my interests: American frontier history, Native American culture, romance, etc.  The story itself is very well done, and has a good balance of historical accuracy, though some liberties were taken.  There was a Fort Sedgwick in Colorado, Fort Hays, the place where Dunbar departs from at the beginning of the film, is in Kansas.  On the other hand, the film depicts the Sioux as peaceful and the Pawnee as the aggressors, though historically it was the other way around.

The story also does a good job of portraying the difficulty in overcoming the language barrier between the Native Americans and the Union soldiers.  Graham Greene does a great job as the Sioux Medicine Man ‘Ten Bears’, and he, Costner, and McDonnell all deserved the Academy Award nominations they received.  It was interesting to contrast Greene’s ‘Ten Bears’ character who was more inquisitive and demonstrated wisdom and patience, with Grant’s ‘Wind in His Hair’ who was more the aggressive warrior type.

Dunbar’s relationship with Stands With A Fist was very touching throughout the film.  McDonnell did a great job of portraying the conflicted woman who had to face her past prior to her being adopted by the Sioux.  Though guarded at first, she opens up and embraces her origins and overcomes the loss of her husband and falls in love with Dances with Wolves.


The cinematography, given the scope and scale of some of the scenes, is top-notch.  Very little CGI was used in this film, as CGI was still in its infancy.  It makes scenes like the buffalo hunt all the more impressive.  They ended up using several thousand buffalo and shooting the scene over three weeks time.  Largely shot in South Dakota and Wyoming, Dances with Wolves has a lot of great scenery shots, which I think adds just the right touch to the film.

This was Kevin Costner’s first film to direct.  He broke two cardinal rules of new directors: filming with animals, and filming with children.  Though there was a lot of speculation on how well this film would do, it grossed over $400 million worldwide, and about $180 million in the U.S.  It cost about $22 million to make.

I think Costner had a real winner here.



Dances with Wolves does a great job of telling a piece of America’s past.  Though it’s a fictionalized version or historical events, this film does a great job of communicating the plight of the Native American as he was kicked off his land and forced into submission by an outside invader.  For directing the film, its message, and the lasting impact on the image of the Native Americans, the Sioux Nation adopted Costner as an honorary member.


I was incredibly disgusted with the trigger-happy Union soldiers who went straight to their guns when they saw Dunbar dressed as a Sioux Indian and their juvenile killing of Two Socks.  While I’m not a fan of killing, I was a little satisfied when the soldiers got their due for their arrogance.

To step into the political spectrum briefly, I think we as a country would have a far different attitude on the wars we enter into if we would just take the time to see things from the other point of view.  Perhaps we are hated because we’re trying to impose our way of life on others.  A film like Dances with Wolves makes me ask questions and have thoughts about these sorts of things.


I would highly recommend this film, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, cinematography, and acting throughout.  It’s one I’ll probably revisit on a semi-regular basis.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.


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