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Dances with Wolves

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Title: Dances with Wolves  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Jim Wilson (producer), Kevin Costner, 48th Golden Globe Awards, National Board of Review Awards 1990, Neil Travis
Collection: 1990 Films, 1990S Drama Films, 1990S Western (Genre) Films, American Civil War Films, American Drama Films, American Epic Films, American Films, Best Drama Picture Golden Globe Winners, Best Picture Academy Award Winners, Directorial Debut Films, English-Language Films, Film Scores by John Barry (Composer), Films About Native Americans, Films Based on Western (Genre) Novels, Films Directed by Kevin Costner, Films Set in South Dakota, Films Set in the 1840S, Films Set in the 1860S, Films Shot in Kansas, Films Shot in South Dakota, Films Shot in Wyoming, Films That Won the Best Original Score Academy Award, Films That Won the Best Sound Mixing Academy Award, Films Whose Cinematographer Won the Best Cinematography Academy Award, Films Whose Director Won the Best Director Academy Award, Films Whose Director Won the Best Director Golden Globe, Films Whose Editor Won the Best Film Editing Academy Award, Films Whose Writer Won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award, Lakota-Language Films, Orion Pictures Films, United States National Film Registry Films
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Dances with Wolves

Dances with Wolves
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Kevin Costner
Produced by Kevin Costner
Jim Wilson
Screenplay by Michael Blake
Based on Dances with Wolves 
by Michael Blake
Starring Kevin Costner
Mary McDonnell
Graham Greene
Rodney A. Grant
Music by John Barry
Cinematography Dean Semler
Edited by Neil Travis
Tig Productions
Distributed by Orion Pictures
Release dates
  • October 19, 1990 (1990-10-19) (Washington, D.C. premiere)
  • November 9, 1990 (1990-11-09) (United States, limited)
Running time 180 minutes
236 minutes (Director's cut)
Country United States
Language English
Budget $22 million
Box office $424,208,848

Dances with Wolves is a 1990 American epic western film directed, produced by, and starring Kevin Costner. It is a film adaptation of the 1988 book of the same name by Michael Blake and tells the story of a Union Army lieutenant who travels to the American frontier to find a military post, and his dealings with a group of Lakota Indians.

Costner developed the film over a period of 5 years, with an initial budget of $15 million. Dances with Wolves had high production values[1] and won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama. Much of the dialogue is spoken in Lakota with English subtitles. It was shot in South Dakota and Wyoming, and translated by Albert White Hat, the chair of the Lakota Studies Department at Sinte Gleska University.

The film is credited as a leading influence for the revitalization of the Western genre of filmmaking in Hollywood. 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."[2]


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Production 3
  • Reception 4
  • Awards and honors 5
  • Sequel 6
  • Historical references 7
  • Home video editions 8
  • Alternate versions 9
  • Soundtrack 10
  • See also 11
  • Bibliography 12
  • Notes 13
  • References 14
  • External links 15


In 1863, First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar is wounded in the American Civil War. Choosing suicide over having his leg amputated, he takes a horse and rides up to the Confederate front lines, distracting them in the process. The roused Union army then attacks and the battle ends in a Confederate rout. Dunbar survives, is allowed to recover properly, receives a citation for bravery, and is awarded Cisco, the horse who carried him, as well as his choice of posting. Dunbar requests a transfer to the western frontier so he can see its vast terrain before it disappears. Dunbar arrives at his new post, Fort Sedgwick, but finds it abandoned and in disrepair. Despite the threat of nearby Indian tribes, he elects to stay and man the post himself. He begins rebuilding and restocking the fort and prefers the solitude afforded him, recording many of his observations in his diary.

Meanwhile, Timmons, the wagon driver who transported Dunbar to Fort Sedgwick, is killed and scalped by Pawnee Indians on his way back to Fort Hays. Timmons' death and the suicide of Major Fambrough, who had sent them there, prevents other soldiers from knowing of Dunbar's assignment to the post, effectively isolating him. Dunbar notes in his diary how strange it is that no other soldiers join him at the post.

Dunbar initially encounters his Sioux neighbors when several attempts are made to steal his horse and intimidate him. In response, Dunbar decides to seek out the Sioux camp in an attempt to establish a dialogue. On his way he comes across Stands With A Fist, who is attempting suicide in mourning her deceased husband. She is the white, adopted daughter of the tribe's medicine man Kicking Bird, her original family having been killed by the aggressive Pawnee tribe when she was young. Dunbar returns her to the Sioux to be treated, which changes their attitude toward him. Eventually, Dunbar establishes a rapport with Kicking Bird and warrior Wind In His Hair who equally wish to communicate. Initially the language barrier frustrates them, so Stands With A Fist, though with difficulty remembering her English, acts as translator.

Dunbar finds himself drawn to the lifestyle and customs of the tribe and begins spending most of his time with them. Learning their language, he is accepted as an honored guest by the Sioux after he locates a migrating herd of U.S. Army. Because of his Sioux clothing, the soldiers open fire, killing Cisco and capturing Dunbar, arresting him as a traitor. Senior officers interrogate him, but Dunbar cannot prove his story, as a corporal has found and discarded his diary. Having refused to serve as an interpreter to the tribes, Dunbar is charged with desertion and transported back east as a prisoner. Soldiers of the escort shoot Two Socks when the wolf attempts to follow Dunbar, despite Dunbar's attempts to intervene.

Eventually, the Sioux track the convoy, killing the soldiers and freeing Dunbar. At the winter camp, Dunbar decides to leave with Stands With A Fist, since his continuing presence will put the tribe in danger. As they leave, Wind In His Hair shouts to Dunbar, reminding him of their friendship. U.S. troops are seen searching the mountains but are unable to locate them, while a lone wolf howls in the distance. An epilogue[note 1] states that thirteen years later the last remnants of the free Sioux were subjugated to the American government, ending the conquest of the Western frontier states and the livelihoods of the tribes on the plains.



Originally written as a spec script by Michael Blake, it went unsold in the mid-1980s. However, Kevin Costner had starred in Blake's only previous film, Stacy's Knights (1983), and encouraged Blake in early 1986 to turn the Western screenplay into a novel to improve its chances of being produced. The novel version 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 on directing it. Actual production lasted for four months, from July 18 to November 23, 1989. Most of the movie was filmed on location in South Dakota, mainly on private ranches near Pierre and Rapid City, with a few scenes filmed in Wyoming. Specific locations included the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, and the Belle Fourche River area. The bison hunt scenes were filmed at the Triple U Buffalo Ranch outside Fort Pierre, South Dakota, as were the Fort Sedgwick scenes, the set being constructed on the property.[3]

Production delays were numerous, because of South Dakota's unpredictable weather, the difficulty of "directing" barely trainable wolves, and the complexity of the Indian battle scenes. Particularly arduous was the film's centerpiece bison hunt sequence: this elaborate chase was filmed over three weeks using 100 Indian stunt riders and an actual stampeding herd of several thousand bison. During one shot, Costner (who did almost all of his own horseback riding) was "T-boned" by another rider and knocked off his horse, nearly breaking his back. The accident is captured in The Creation of an Epic, the behind-the-scenes documentary on the Dances with Wolves Special Edition DVD and Blu-ray.

According to the documentary, none of the bison were computer animated (CGI was then in its infancy) and only a few were animatronic or otherwise fabricated. In fact, Costner and crew employed the largest domestically owned bison ranch, with two of the tame bison being borrowed from Neil Young; this was the herd used for the bison hunt sequence.

Budget overruns were inevitable, owing to Costner's breaking several unspoken Hollywood "rules" for first-time directors: traditionally, they avoid both shooting outside and working with children and animals as much as possible. As a result, late in the production Costner was forced to add $3 million personally in out-of-pocket money to the film's original $15 million budget. Referring to the infamous fiasco of Michael Cimino's 1980 Heaven's Gate, considered the most mismanaged Western in film history, Costner's project was satirically dubbed "Kevin's Gate" by Hollywood critics and pundits skeptical of a three-hour, partially subtitled Western by a novice filmmaker.

The film changed the novel's Comanche Indians to Sioux, because of the larger number of Sioux speakers. 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.

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.


Defying expectation, Dances with Wolves proved instantly popular, eventually earning great critical acclaim, and making $184 million in U.S. box office sales and $424 million in total sales worldwide.[4] As of 2014, the film holds a positive review score of 81% on Rotten Tomatoes.[5] Because of the film's popular and lasting impact on the image of Native Americans, the Sioux Nation adopted Costner as an honorary member.[6] At the 63rd Academy Awards ceremony in 1991, Dances with Wolves earned twelve Academy Award nominations and won seven, including Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay (Michael Blake), Best Director (Kevin Costner), and Best Picture of the Year. In 2007, the Library of Congress selected Dances with Wolves for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.[2]

Native American activist and actor Russell Means was less kind about some aspects of the film's technical accuracy. In 2009, he said "Remember Lawrence of Arabia? That was Lawrence of the Plains. The odd thing about making that movie is that they had a woman teaching the actors the Lakota language, but Lakota has a male-gendered language and a female-gendered language. Some of the Indians and Kevin Costner were speaking in the feminine way. When I went to see it with a bunch of Lakota guys, we were laughing."[7] Other Native Americans like Michael Smith (Sioux), Director of San Francisco's long-running annual American Indian Film Festival, said, "There's a lot of good feeling about the film in the Indian community, especially among the tribes. I think it's going to be very hard to top this one."[8]

According to other sources the gender-specific Lakota words were used correctly in the movie. Some of the criticism was inspired by the fact that the pronunciation is not authentic since only one of the movie's actors was a native speaker of the language. The movie's dialogues in the native language have been lauded as a remarkable achievement.[9] However, other writers have noted that earlier otherwise English-language films, such as Eskimo (1933), Wagon Master (1950) and The White Dawn (1974), had also incorporated Native dialogue.[10]

David Sirota of Salon referred to Dances with Wolves as a “white savior” film, as Dunbar “fully embeds himself in the Sioux tribe and quickly becomes its primary protector”. He argued that its use of the “noble savage” character type “preemptively blunts criticism of the underlying White Savior story. The idea is that a film like Dances With Wolves cannot be bigoted or overly white-centric if it at least shows [characters such as] Kicking Bird and Chief Ten Bears as special and exceptional. This, even though the whole story is about a white guy who saves the day.”[11]

Conservative writer Richard Grenier was strongly critical of the film. Grenier accused Costner of misrepresenting the Sioux as peaceful, claiming that the film's "portrait of the Sioux, the most bloodthirsty of all Plains Indian tribes and neither pacifists nor environmentalists, is false in every respect".[12]

Awards and honors

In addition to becoming the first Western film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture since 1931's Cimarron,[13] Dances with Wolves won the following additional awards, thereby being established as one of the most honored films of 1990:[14]

Award Date of ceremony Category Recipients and nominees Result
Academy Awards March 25, 1991 Best Picture Jim Wilson and Kevin Costner Won
Best Director Kevin Costner
Best Actor in a Leading Role Nominated
Best Actor in a Supporting Role Graham Greene
Best Actress in a Supporting Role Mary McDonnell
Best Adapted Screenplay Michael Blake Won
Best Cinematography Dean Semler
Best Art Direction Jeffrey Beecroft (Production Design) and Lisa Dean (Set Decoration) Nominated
Best Costume Design Elsa Zamparelli
Best Sound Russell Williams II, Jeffrey Perkins, Bill W. Benton, and Gregory H. Watkins Won
Best Film Editing Neil Travis
Best Original Score John Barry
Golden Globe Awards January 19, 1991 Best Motion Picture – Drama
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Kevin Costner Nominated
Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture Mary McDonnell
Best Director – Motion Picture Kevin Costner Won
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Michael Blake
Best Original Score – Motion Picture John Barry Nominated

American Film Institute recognition:

Other accolades:


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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22]

Historical references

Judith A. Boughter wrote: "The problem with Costner's approach is that all of the Sioux are heroic, while the Pawnees are portrayed as stereotypical villains. Most accounts of Sioux-Pawnee relations see the Pawnees as victims of the more powerful Sioux."[23]

St. David's Field, Tennessee does not exist, nor did it in 1863. As the opening battle is a minor portion of the film, it was considered undesirable to name an actual historical battle, which might result in knowledgeable viewers taking exception to fictional events.

Fort Sedgwick,[note 2] Colorado was erected as Camp Rankin and renamed for General John Sedgwick (1813–1864). Sedgwick was killed May 9, 1864, at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. Fort Sedgwick served as an army post from July 1864 to May 1871. John Sedgwick did erect a fort in Kansas in 1860.

Fort Hays, Kansas was named for General Alexander Hays (1819–1864). Hays was killed May 5, 1864, in the Battle of the Wilderness, Virginia. Fort Hays served as an army post from October 11, 1865, to November 8, 1889.

There was a real John Dunbar who worked as a missionary for the Pawnee in the 1830s–40s, and sided with the Indians in a dispute with government farmers and a local Indian agent.[24] It is unclear whether the name "John Dunbar" was chosen as a corollary to the real historical figure.[25]

The fictional Lieutenant John Dunbar of 1863 is correctly shown in the film wearing a gold bar on his officer shoulder straps, indicating his rank as a First Lieutenant. From 1836 to 1872, the rank of First Lieutenant was indicated by a gold bar; after 1872, the rank was indicated by a silver bar. Similarly, Captain Cargill is correctly depicted wearing a pair of gold bars, indicating the rank of Captain at that time.[26]

In an interview, author and screenwriter Michael Blake said that Stands With a Fist, the white captive woman who marries Dunbar, was actually based upon the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, the white girl captured by Comanches and mother of Quanah Parker.[27]

Ten Bears's account of his grandfather's grandfathers driving out the Spanish conquistadors and later the war on Mexico and then Texas is more the history of the novel's southern Great Plains Comanche tribe (Comanche-Spanish wars, Comanche–Mexico Wars, Texas–Indian wars). In the northern Great Plains, the eastern Sioux had already lost the Dakota War of 1862 with the United States and were driven out of Minnesota to Nebraska and South Dakota. The Sioux were more successful during the Colorado War of 1863-1865.

The epilogue[note 1] is correct; 13 years after the film is set, after the Great Sioux War of 1876, the last band of free Sioux surrendered at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, and the dominance and prevalence of the Plains Indians was over. The last conflict was the Ghost Dance War 1890-1891 which involved the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Home video editions

The first Laserdisc release of Dances with Wolves was on November 15, 1991, by Orion Home Video in a two-disc extended play set.

The first Dances with Wolves VHS version was released in 1991. It was subsequently issued in several further VHS versions. The limited collector's edition set comes with two VHS tapes, six high gloss 14-by-11-inch (36 cm × 28 cm) lobby photos, Dances with Wolves: The Illustrated Story of the Epic Film book, and an organized collector's 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 featuring the Extended Edition; and the fourth was released on May 25, 2004, as a single disc in full frame.

Dances with Wolves was released on Blu-ray in Germany on December 5, 2008, in France on 15 April 2009, in the United Kingdom on 26 October 2009, and in the United States on January 11, 2011. The German, French, and American releases feature the Extended Edition, while the British release features the theatrical cut.

Alternate versions

One year after the original theatrical release of Dances with Wolves, a 4-hour version of the film opened at select theaters in London. This longer cut was dubbed Dances with Wolves: The Special Edition, and it restored nearly an hour's worth of scenes that had been removed to keep the original film's running time under 3 hours.[28]

The genesis of the 4-hour version of the film was further explained in an article for Entertainment Weekly that appeared only 10 months after the premiere of the original film:

This Special Edition was eventually broadcast in 1993 for the American network television premiere at ABC. For the DVD release, the Special Edition was dubbed an Extended Cut. For Blu-ray, the same cut was renamed Director's Cut.

Director Kevin Costner would later claim that he did not work on the creation of the 4-hour cut at all.[31]


  • John Barry composed the Oscar-winning score. It was issued in 1990 initially and again in 1995 with bonus tracks and in 2004 with the score "in its entirety" (although, in reality, approximately 25 minutes of the score is still missing from the 2004 release).
  • Peter Buffett scored the "Fire Dance" scene.

See also


  • Blake, Michael. Dances with Wolves.  
  • Blake, Michael. The Holy Road.  


  1. ^ a b Thirteen years later, their homes destroyed, their buffalo gone, the last band of free Sioux submitted to white authority at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The great horse culture of the plains was gone and the American frontier was soon to pass into history.
  2. ^ In both the novel and film, Sedgwick is spelled Sedgewick.


  1. ^ "Dances with Wolves: Overview" (plot/stars/gross, related films), allmovie, 2007, webpage: amovie12092
  2. ^ a b 2007 list of films inducted into the National Film Registry
  3. ^ "Dances with Wolves" -
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Dances with Wolves". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2014-02-18. 
  6. ^ Svetkey, Benjamin (1991-03-08). "Little big movie".  
  7. ^ "High Times"Russell Means Interview with Dan Skye of . Russell Means Freedom. Retrieved 2011-03-02. 
  8. ^ Aleiss, Angela (2005). Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, Conn./London: Praeger. p. 146.  
  9. ^ "Discussion about the use of Lakota language in Dances With Wolves on the Lakota Language Forum:". 
  10. ^ Aleiss, Angela (2005). Making the White Man's Indian : Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, Conn./London: Praeger. p. 165.  
  11. ^ Sirota, David (February 21, 2013). "Oscar loves a white savior". Salon. Retrieved July 11, 2013.
  12. ^ Hype In Wolves` Clothing: The Deification Of Costner`s `Dances` Richard Grenier, The Chicago Tribune. March 29, 1991. Retrieved May 24 2014.
  13. ^ Angela Errigo (2008). Steven Jay Schneider, ed.  
  14. ^ "The 63rd Academy Awards (1991) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-10-20. 
  15. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains Nominees
  16. ^ AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees
  17. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) Ballot
  18. ^ AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot
  19. ^ "Berlinale: 1991 Prize Winners". Retrieved 2011-03-22. 
  20. ^ Blake, Michael (2001). The Holy Road, Random House. ISBN 0-375-76040-7
  21. ^ Blake, Michael. "The official website of Michael Blake". Retrieved 2008-03-13. 
  22. ^ "Viggo Mortensen Leading the Charge for 'Dances with Wolves' Sequel".  
  23. ^ Judith A. Boughter (2004). "The Pawnee Nation: An Annotated Research Bibliography". Scarecrow Press. p.105. ISBN 0810849909
  24. ^ Waldo R. Wedel, The Dunbar Allis Letters on the Pawnee (New York: Garland Press, 1985).
  25. ^ "Fiction, history intersect in a name..." The Day, April 17, 1991
  26. ^ US Army Institute of Heraldry - History of Officer Rank Insignia
  27. ^ Aleiss, Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies, p. 145.
  28. ^ Dances with Wolves (Comparison: Theatrical vs. Extended Version).
  29. ^ Gritten, David. Long Version"Really"Dances with Wolves - The , Los Angeles Times, 20 December 1991.
  30. ^ Daly, Steven. "Last Dance?", Entertainment Weekly, 30 August 1991.
  31. ^ Willman, Chris. "True Western", Entertainment Weekly, 23 January 2004.

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