In the rush to canonize Martin Scorsese over the years many films and directors have been unfairly tarnished due to this particular auteur having been denied Oscar glory a handful of times. In hindsight we always wonder why films like Goodfellas and Raging Bull lost out to what are perceived to be inferior work because Scorsese is in that rare handful of directors one could classify as the best of the modern American era of film-making. It’s a bit disarming because he lost to a number of other similarly great films, most notably Dances with Wolves. In the process of glorifying Scorsese many great films have been torn down merely for daring to be great in the same year as the venerated director.
The directorial debut of Kevin Costner, the film follows Army Lieutenant John Dunbar (Costner) as he explores the plains of the old West. Based off the novel of the same name by Michael Blake (who adapted the material himself), Dunbar finds himself at a post that has long been deserted and surrounded by Lakota Indians. Learning their language, Dunbar eventually winds up torn between two worlds: that of his own ways and those of the Lakota. If it sounds familiar it’s because the film’s plot has been one that’s been done any number of times, including 2009’s box office blockbuster Avatar, and this is no different. Dunbar finds out that the path of what was supposed to be his enemy is much more akin to his spiritual path than the one he came, switching sides at a crucial juncture as his former allies turn out to be bigger villains than the Lakota had been made out to be. But it’s not in the film’s predictable plot that we find the brilliance of the film; it’s in the film’s execution.
The film’s plot is epic, matching the film, but does so on a smaller scale. Costner is essentially telling a story from the Indian perspective about the West. Using an outsider to give us an insight into that world that makes it accessible, this is perhaps the strongest of the revisionist westerns that have since dominated their heyday several decades ago that isn’t named Unforgiven. This is about Eastern aggression in the same way a Civil War story told nearly exclusively from a Confederate family would sound like. If a modern Lakota had family that went through these events and told the story, including the parts they didn’t know, it would be reasonable to think this is how their story would sound. It’s akin to 300 being a war story enhanced before battle, i.e. a fantasy story told to inspire as opposed to inform about the historical facts of a situation.
One of only three films Costner directed, the last one being Open Range, Dances with Wolves earned him an Oscar and rightfully so. This is an epic Western, which is a very tough genre to pull off exceptionally well. Costner has a steady (if inexperienced) hand behind the camera, working well with Costner the actor to craft Dunbar as a bit more than an empty vessel with which the audience is to explore this new world with. Dunbar is a man who wants to see the West as it is, before the East settles in, and is much deeper than the superficial world he lives in. This is a deeply spiritual man who made his mark in a field that doesn’t quiet reward that aspect of the human spirit and it’s in this part of the world where he truly finds his purpose in life. Costner the actor is impressive in the role. His better known roles might be in Fields of Dreams and Bull Durham but it’s hard to argue that his finest work wasn’t in this picture. That argument gets more difficult because Costner didn’t have a veteran director guiding his performance.
It’s always interesting to see an actor direct himself, if only to see how much an actor will indulge given the power of a director’s chair, and Costner the director knows exactly how far to push Costner the actor. It’s one of those rare moments where an actor and director are one and the same, yet also happen to be on the exact same page, and it works out magically. Costner would never have that sort of chemistry with himself as a director again as both Open Range and The Postman never found that same vibe that Dances with Wolves does. This is Costner playing to his strengths, brooding in a way, as opposed to his usual jovial manner. It’s a bit darker and deeper than normal and Costner the director allows Costner the actor to get this far in without going too far. He knows his strengths as an actor aren’t a dark and fractured soul, but having a slightly illuminated and fixable soul are in the his acting wheelhouse and Costner knows this as a director and as an actor. Costner the director reels in Costner the actor from going too far.
Dances with Wolves gets a bum rap as a film because it beat out a film many consider to be the best of its decade in Goodfellas in the same way Rocky does with Taxi Driver and Ordinary People does with Raging Bull. All three were genuine masterpieces of cinema in a year that happened to feature Scorsese at his best, amongst others, and it’s easy to overlook them when Scorsese’s films have a legacy that has grown with time. But film aficionados shouldn’t throw out this particular baby with the bath water because while Kevin Costner hasn’t reached the heights of this film as a director, or an actor, since Dances with Wolves it stands as his singular finest three hours.
The film has been cleaned up a bit for its release onto Blu-ray but this isn’t a massive upgrade from the original DVD release. Presented in a widescreen format with a Dolby digital surround, the film has a significant upgrade in the audio department but not nearly as much in the visual. There are some films that translate better visually and this film doesn’t. It looks better but this isn’t as big a step up as one would think given the better medium.
The film’s Extended Cut adds back in almost an hour of new material that doesn’t add anything into the film that wasn’t already there or take away anything, either. It keeps the film’s quality exactly the same ala a similar film starring Costner that won a handful of Oscars in JFK. It also contains a new Commentary Track with Costner and one of the film’s producers.
Military Rank and Social Hierarchy Guide and Real History or Movie Make-Believe? are two features that you can turn on during the feature that provide some additional information about the film.
A Day in the life of the Western Frontier is a quick piece on how tough it was to live on the frontier and the sort of character it took to survive on the frontier. It gives some insight into the life that the characters in the film were getting themselves into.
The original“Making of” piece from the first release on DVD of Dances with Wolves is included.
The Creation of an Epic: A Retrospective Documentary is a similar piece to the “Making of” piece from its original release but with a bit more candor and a lot more historical perspective. It’s genuinely interesting to hear Costner discuss how he had no idea what he was doing and relied on a crew of professionals to carry him during the moments he wasn’t sure. There’s genuine reflection about making the film throughout, mixed with some EPK material, including discussion of the film’s sheer volume of Oscar nominations and the eventual surprising wins (which seemed to be a surprise to all involved). There’s a comic moment when Graham Greene discusses how he thought Bruce Davison of Longtime Companion was going to win, and how eventual winner Joe Pesci of Goodfellas thought Greene was going to win, that when Pesci was announced it was a shock to all involved.
The film’s original Theatrical Trailer is included and it’s fascinating to see how far trailers have come since the film’s original release.
Dances Photo Montage comes complete with an introduction by photographer Bill Glass
History has seemingly turned the legacy of Dances with Wolves as being the work of an actor in the right time, at the right moment, to direct his first film into something unworthy of praise because it dare take away an Oscar from Martin Scorsese. Dances with Wolves is a brilliant film in its own right.
MGM presents Dances with Wolves (20th Anniversary Edition). Directed by Kevin Costner. Starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonald, Graham Greene. Written by Michael Blake based off his novel “Dances with Wolves” Running time: 236 minutes. Rated PG-13. Released on Blu-ray: January 11, 2011.
Tags: Goodfellas, Kevin Costner, Martin Scorsese