It’s easy to hate Dances with Wolves for its overabundant acclaim and undeserved stature within the American film landscape of the ’90s. It certainly doesn’t help matters that the film edged out Martin Scorsese’s modern masterpiece Goodfellas in nearly every category it was nominated in at the 1991 Oscars (picture, director, screenplay, editing), further confirming the Academy’s love for middlebrow, sentimental films.
But looking past all that and thinking about Dances with Wolves solely on its own terms, the film holds up as a competent, occasionally quite moving ode to friendship in the developing land of America. Any subtext the film possesses about racial conflict, frontier violence or the checkered history of America’s westward expansion (and there’s not much) is either hopelessly naïve or woefully underdeveloped, but the film does succeed on less cerebral merits.
Dances with Wolves exemplifies Hollywood oversimplification, but it’s the best kind of brainless entertainment — one with a genuine emotional core and a strong narrative pull. The film may not be thoughtful in its subject matter but it is in its visual strategy, and Dean Semler’s photography captures the essence of the American west in a number of serene, contemplative moments. Costner’s direction is somewhat marred by the added hour of the extended version that’s presented here (it’s the only option available, unfortunately), but it remains an admirable debut effort.
Costner also stars as John Dunbar, a Union lieutenant in the Civil War who unwittingly helps win a battle in a suicide attempt, and is given his choice of posts. He selects Ft. Sedgwick on the edge of the American frontier, but finds the outpost deserted when he arrives. He embraces the solitude, writing down his experiences in a journal, which we hear Costner read in a series of somnolent voiceovers that is one of the film’s most grating conventions.
But Dunbar is not alone in the territory, as he discovers in a series of encounters with a wolf and more importantly, with a nearby Sioux tribe. The tribe’s medicine man, Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), sees Dunbar’s presence as an opportunity to learn about the encroaching white man, and reaches out to him. The two cross the language barrier with the aid of Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman raised by the Indian tribe.
Eventually, Dunbar becomes like a member of the tribe, earning the moniker Dances With Wolves and the love of Stands With A Fist. But the threats of the rival Pawnee tribe and the white soldiers (who are unfailingly portrayed as uncouth barbarians) ensure that the Sioux way of life will never be the same.
Dances with Wolves succeeds mostly in its interactions between Dunbar and Kicking Bird, who earn one another’s mutual respect and friendship despite their vast cultural differences. Less believable is the romance between Dunbar and Stands With A Fist, which almost feels like it comes to be because they’re the only two white people around.
Ultimately, Dances with Wolves pushes all the right emotional buttons during its sweeping Western tale. It’s overlong, especially in this extended incarnation, but even the more superfluous moments are competently executed. It’s the perfect vehicle for Costner’s talent (or one might say his lack of), but make no mistake — it’s no classic.
The Blu-ray Disc
Dances with Wolves is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The upgrade offered here is a significant one, and the transfer here looks fresh, lacking any signs of age or damage. Considering how high of a profile title this is for MGM and Fox, that’s not too surprising, but welcome nonetheless. The brown and green tones of the frontier’s landscape have a warm, rich appearance, and the photography’s golden hues look impressive here. Blacks are generally deep and well-rendered although there is some minor softness apparent in low-light scenes. Overall, it’s an excellent high-def presentation, with a stable film grain structure and no noticeable effects of digital manipulation.
Audio is presented in an ultra-immersive 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that constantly impresses with rumbling bass in scenes such as the buffalo hunt, crisp and clean dialogue in the fronts, superb clarity in John Barry’s lush, romantic score, and active use of the surrounds audible with a variety of natural sounds.
This 20th Anniversary Edition is a two-disc set, which features mostly older extras. Disc one includes the extended cut of the film, and it’s frustrating the studio chose not to include the theatrical version via seamless branching. Also on disc one are two commentary tracks — one with Costner and producer Jim Wilson and another with Semler and editor Neil Travis. New to this edition are two in-feature extras — one that features information on military rank and another that features a quiz about what is fact and what is fiction.
Disc two features all recycled material, save for a 15-minute featurette that has historians talking about real life on the frontier. From previous editions, we get a seven-part retrospective documentary, a shorter making-of, a John Barry music video, a collection of behind-the-scenes outtakes, trailers and several photo galleries. Aside from the new featurette and the theatrical trailer, everything on here is in standard def, and some of it looks really rough.
The Bottom Line
Dances with Wolves has received a solid upgrade here, although fans of the theatrical version should probably wait for the likely eventual Blu-ray release of it.