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Dances with Wolves

Dances with Wolves is a 1990 epic film which tells the story of a United States Lieutenant who travels to the American Frontier to find a military post. He eventually befriends a local Sioux tribe. Developed by director/star Kevin Costner over 5 years, the film (released November 9, 1990) has high production values and won 7 Academy Awards (1990) and the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Drama. Much of the dialogue is in the Lakota language with English subtitles, unusual for a film at the time of its release. It was shot in South Dakota and Wyoming.

In 2007, Dances with Wolves was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


The film opens during a US Civil War battle. Union Army Officer Lieutenant John J. Dunbar learns that his injured leg is to be amputated. Seeing the plight of fellow soldiers with amputated legs, Dunbar attempts suicide by riding a horse across the line of fire between the opposing Union and Confederate positions. His action has the unexpected effect of rallying his comrades, who storm the Confederate positions and win the battle. After the ensuing battle, an experienced general's surgeon saves Dunbar's leg. The commanding officer names Dunbar a hero, awards him Cisco, the horse who carried him in battle, and offers Dunbar his choice of posting.

Dunbar requests a transfer to the western frontier. After meeting with Major Fambrough, (Maury Chaykin) who has slipped into delusions of grandeur (apparently believing he is a king and Dunbar a medieval knight), he is paired with a drayage teamster named Timmons (Robert Pastorelli), who conveys Dunbar to his post. After the departure of Timmons and Dunbar, Fambrough commits suicide with his own pistol.

After a scenic journey, Dunbar and Timmons arrive with fresh supplies at the desolate Fort Sedgwick, finding it deserted except for a lone wolf that Dunbar befriends and dubs Two Socks from the coloring of its front legs. Dunbar, while waiting for reinforcements to arrive, sets in order the deserted post, left in complete disarray by its previous occupants. Meanwhile, Timmons, while returning to their point of departure, is ambushed by Pawnee Indians and scalped. Timmons' death and the suicide of the major who sent them there prevents Union officers from knowing of Dunbar's assignment to the post, effectively isolating Dunbar. Dunbar remains unaware of the full situation and its implications. He notes in his journal how strange it is that no more soldiers join him at the post.

Dunbar initially encounters Sioux neighbors when the tribe's medicine man, Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), happens upon the fort while Dunbar bathes out of sight, and assuming it abandoned, attempts to capture Cisco. After he is scared off by Dunbar, he is confronted by an aggressive warrior named Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant), who declares that he is not scared of the white man. Eventually, he manages to establish a rapport with Kicking Bird, but the language barrier frustrates them. Upon one visit to the tribe's camp, he interrupts the suicide of Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman captured by the tribe as a child and recently widowed, who recovers and acts as a translator. Dunbar finds himself drawn to the lifestyle and customs of the tribe, and becomes a hero among the Sioux and accepted as an honorary member of the tribe after he helps them locate a migrating herd of buffalo, which they depend upon as a source of food, material, and clothing.

Dunbar further helps defend the settlement against a Pawnee raiding party, providing the Sioux warriors with surplus rifles and ammunition from the fort. He eventually is accepted as a full member of the tribe, and is named Šuŋgmánitu Tȟaŋka Ob'wačhi (the eponymous "Dances with Wolves". Šuŋgmánitu Tȟaŋka literally large coyote, Lakota for wolf), after the scouts witnessed him frolicking with Two Socks. He falls in love with Stands With A Fist, a relationship forbidden by the recent death of her husband in battle and consummated in secret; the two eventually win the approval of Kicking Bird, who acts as her father, and marry. Dunbar subsequently spends more time communing with the tribe than manning his post at Fort Sedgwick. Wind In His Hair, his last rival, acknowledges him as a friend.

Dunbar's idyll ends when he tells Kicking Bird that white men will continue to invade their land in "numbers like the stars." They tell Chief Ten Bears (Floyd Red Crow Westerman), who decides it is time to move the village to its winter camp. As the packing finishes, Dunbar realizes that his journal, left behind at the deserted fort, is a blueprint for finding the tribe, revealing that he knows far too much about their ways. He returns to retrieve it, but finds Fort Sedgwick is re-occupied by reinforcing Army troops, who kill Cisco and arrest Dunbar as a deserter.

In an abusive interrogation, Dunbar explains to Lt. Elgin (whom Dunbar met earlier in Maj. Fambrough's office) that he had a journal with orders about his posting to Fort Sedgwick. One of the soldiers that first arrived at the fort, Spivey, denies the existance of the journal, but actually carries the journal in his pocket. After Dunbar declares in the Lakota language that he is now Dances With Wolves, Army officers and troops set off to deliver Dunbar from Sedgwick to Fort Hayes for execution. When they happen upon Two Socks, they shoot at the wolf, who refuses to leave Dunbar alone out of loyalty. Despite his attempts to intervene, Two Socks is fatally wounded, and the convoy moves off.

Soon after, Wind In His Hair and other warriors from the tribe attack the column of men, rescuing Dunbar. Smiles A Lot (Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse) retrieves Dunbar's journal floating in a stream. After returning to the winter camp, Dunbar realizes that as a deserter and fugitive, he will continue to draw the unwelcome attention of the Army and endanger the welfare of the tribe if he stays with the Sioux. Under the protests of his Sioux friends, Dunbar decides that he must leave the tribe, saying he must speak to those who would listen. His wife decides to accompany him.

As Dances With Wolves and Stands With A Fist leave the camp, Wind In His Hair cries out that Dances with Wolves will always be his friend, a parody of thier first confrontation. Shortly, a column of cavalry and Pawnee army scouts arrive to find their former camp site empty.



Originally written as a spec script by Michael Blake, it went unsold in the mid-1980s. It was Kevin Costner who, in early 1986 (when he was relatively unknown), encouraged Blake to turn the screenplay into a novel, to improve its chances of being adapted into a film. The novel manuscript of Dances with Wolves was rejected by numerous publishers but finally published in paperback in 1988. As a novel, the rights were purchased by Costner, with an eye to his directing it. Actual filming lasted from July 18 to November 23, 1989. Most of the movie was filmed on location in South Dakota, but a few scenes were filmed in Wyoming. Filming locations included the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, and the Belle Fourche River area. The buffalo hunt scenes were filmed at the Triple U Buffalo Ranch near Pierre, South Dakota, as were the fort Sedgwick scenes, the set being constructed on the property.

Because of budget overruns and production delays, and the general perception, after the fiasco of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, then considered one of the most mismanaged Westerns in film history, Costner's project was satirically dubbed "Kevin's Gate" by Hollywood critics and skeptics during the months prior to its release.

The language spoken in the film is a fairly accurate, although simplified , version of the actual Lakota language. Lakota Sioux language instructor Doris Leader Charge (1931--2001) was the on-set Lakota dialogue coach and also portrayed Pretty Shield, wife of Chief Ten Bears, portrayed by Floyd Red Crow Westerman.

According to the "Making Of" documentary on the Special Edition Dances With Wolves DVD, not all of the buffalo were computer animated and/or puppets. In fact, Costner and crew employed the largest domestically owned buffalo ranch, with two of the domesticated buffalo being borrowed from Neil Young, and used the herd for the hunting scene. The hunt chase was filmed live and Costner did his own stunts for the shots. The only computer animation and puppetry special effects that were used were for the shots of the buffalo falling.

Despite portraying the adopted daughter of Graham Greene's character Kicking Bird, Mary McDonnell, then 37, was actually two months older than Greene, and less than two years younger than Tantoo Cardinal, the actress playing her adoptive mother. In addition, McDonnell was extremely nervous about shooting her sex scene with Kevin Costner, requesting it be toned down to a more modest version than what was scripted.

Possible inspiration

Lt. John Dunbar's career trajectory, including his Frontier posting as reward for accidental heroism in the American Civil War, is nearly identical to Captain Wilton Parmenter's (Ken Berry) in the 1960s TV show F Troop. Both enjoyed unusually chummy relationships with the local tribes.


Dances with Wolves was extremely popular, garnering $184 million in U.S. box office sales, and $424 million in total box office sales worldwide. The film is often praised for its humanistic portrayal of Native Americans, because it went beyond the typical Hollywood portrayal of either the "noble" or the "blood-thirsty savage." Because of the film, the Sioux nation adopted Costner as an honorary member. In 2007, the Library of Congress selected Dances with Wolves for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.




American Film Institute recognition


The Holy Road, a well-received sequel novel by Michael Blake, the author of both the original Dances With Wolves novel and the movie screenplay, was published in 2001. It picks up eleven years after "Dances With Wolves." John Dunbar is still married to Stands With A Fist and they have three children. Stands With A Fist and one of the children are kidnapped by a party of white rangers and Dances With Wolves must mount a rescue mission. As of 2007, Blake was writing a film adaptation, although Kevin Costner was not yet attached to the project. In the end, however, Costner stated he would not take part in this production.. Viggo Mortensen has been rumored to be attached to the project, playing Dunbar


The first Dances with Wolves VHS version was released in 1991.


Dances with Wolves has been released to several VHS versions.

Limited Collector's Edition Version

This set comes with two VHS tapes, six high gloss 14" x 11" Lobby Photos, Dances With Wolves The Illustrated Story Of The Epic Film book, and an organized collectors edition storage case.


Dances with Wolves has been released to DVD on four occasions. The first on November 17, 1998 on a single disc. The second on February 16, 1999 as a two disc set with a DTS Soundtrack. The third was released on May 20, 2003 as a two disc set (Special Extended Edition). The fourth was released on May 25, 2004 as a single disc in full frame. There is also the definitive director's cut three disc set with a 236 minute version on two discs and special features on the third, including a lengthy making-of-documentary.

1998 Release (1 disc)

Disc 1: Movie

  • Format: anamorphic, closed-captioned, color, THX, wide screen, NTSC
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
  • Run Time: 181 minutes
  • Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround)

1999 Release (1 disc) (DTS)

Disc 1 & 2: Movie

  • Format: anamorphic, closed-captioned, color, wide screen, NTSC
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
  • Run Time: 181 minutes
  • Audio Tracks: English (DTS), English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround)
  • Commentary by: director Kevin Costner and Jim Wilson

2003 Release (2 discs) (Special Extended Edition)

Disc 1: (2 sided) Movie
Disc 2: Special Features

  • Format: anamorphic, closed-captioned, color, THX, wide screen, NTSC
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
  • Run Time: 236 minutes
  • Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround)
  • Commentary by: Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson, director of photography Dean Semler and editor Neil Travis
  • New extended version with never-before-seen additional scenes (236 minutes)
  • New "The Creation of an Epic" retrospective documentary
  • Original making-of featurette
  • Original music video
  • New Dances photo montage with introduction by Ben Glass
  • New Poster gallery

2004 Release (1 disc)

Disc 1: Movie

  • Format: closed-captioned, color, NTSC
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Run Time: 181 minutes
  • Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround)

2004 Release (3 discs) (Special Edition - Director's Cut)

Disc 1 & 2: Movie
Disc 3: Special Features

  • Run Time: 236 minutes
  • Audio Tracks: English/Lakota
  • Commentary by the Director (Costner)
  • New "The Creation of an Epic" retrospective documentary
  • Original making-of featurette
  • Original music video
  • New Dances photo montage with introduction by Ben Glass
  • New Poster gallery


''For more information: Dances with Wolves (soundtrack).
John Barry composed the Award-winning score, which became a very popular film score. Pope John Paul II once referred to it as among his favorite pieces of music. It was issued in 1990 initially and again in 1995 with bonus tracks and in 2004 with the score "in its entirety."




  • Blake, Michael. Dances with Wolves, Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-449-00075-3.
  • Blake, Michael. The Holy Road, Random House. ISBN 0-375-76040-7.
  • Desobrie, Jean. "Rencontre avec des films remarquables" (Film Analysis - In French), Roger. ISBN 2-903880-03-4.

External links


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