Dances with Wolves

For the novel by Michael Blake, see Dances with Wolves (novel). For the song by Mount Eerie, see Mount Eerie Dances with Wolves.
Dances with Wolves

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Kevin Costner
Produced by
Screenplay by Michael Blake
Based on Dances with Wolves
by Michael Blake
Music by John Barry
Cinematography Dean Semler
Edited by Neil Travis
Distributed by Orion Pictures
Release dates
  • October 19, 1990 (1990-10-19) (Uptown Theater)
  • November 9, 1990 (1990-11-09) (United States)
Running time
180 minutes[1]
Country United States
Budget $22 million[2]
Box office $424.2 million[2]

Dances with Wolves is a 1990 American epic Western film directed by, 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 with an initial budget of $15 million. Dances with Wolves had high production values[3] 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".[4]


In 1864, First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar is wounded in battle at St. David's Field in Tennessee. Choosing suicide in battle over amputation of his leg, he takes a horse and rides up to and along the Confederate front lines. Despite numerous pot shots, the Confederates fail to shoot him, and while they are distracted, the Union Army successfully attack the line. Dunbar survives, receives a citation for bravery, and proper medical care. He recovers fully and is awarded Cisco, the horse who carried him, and his choice of posting. Dunbar requests a transfer to the western frontier so he can see it before it disappears. Dunbar is transferred to Fort Hays, a large fort presided over by a mentally ill and suicidal major who despises Dunbar's enthusiasm, but agrees to post him to the furthest outpost they have, Fort Sedgewick, and kills himself shortly afterwards. Dunbar travels with Timmons, a mule wagon provisioner; they arrive to find the fort deserted and in poor condition. Despite the threat of nearby Indian tribes, Dunbar 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. Timmons is killed by Pawnee Indians on the journey back to Ft. Hays; his death, together with that of the major who had sent them there, prevents other soldiers from knowing of Dunbar's assignment to Ft. Sedgewick, and no other soldiers arrive to reinforce the post.

Dunbar initially encounters his Sioux neighbors when attempts are made to steal his horse and intimidate him. Deciding that being a target is a poor prospect, he decides to seek out the Sioux camp himself and attempt dialogue, rather than wait. On his way he comes across Stands With A Fist, the white adopted daughter of the tribe's medicine man Kicking Bird, who is ritually mutilating herself while mourning for her husband. Dunbar brings her back to the Sioux to recover, and some of the tribe begin to respect him. Eventually, Dunbar establishes a rapport with Kicking Bird and the warrior Wind In His Hair, initially visiting each other's camps. The language barrier frustrates them, and Stands With A Fist acts as interpreter, although with difficulty; she only remembers English from her early childhood before the rest of her family was killed during a Pawnee raid.

Dunbar finds that the stories he had heard about the tribe were untrue, and he develops a growing respect and appreciation for their lifestyle and culture. Learning their language, he is accepted as an honored guest by the Sioux after he tells them of a migrating herd of buffalo and participates in the hunt. When at Fort Sedgewick, Dunbar also befriends a wolf he dubs "Two Socks" for its white forepaws. Observing Dunbar and Two Socks chasing each other, the Sioux give him the name "Dances With Wolves." During this time, Dunbar also forges a romantic relationship with Stands With A Fist and helps defend the village from an attack by the rival Pawnee tribe. Dunbar eventually wins Kicking Bird's approval to marry Stands With A Fist, and abandons Fort Sedgewick.

Because of the growing Pawnee and white threat, Chief Ten Bears decides to move the tribe to its winter camp. Dunbar decides to accompany them but must first retrieve his diary from Fort Sedgewick as he realizes that it would provide the army with the means to find the tribe. However, when he arrives he finds the fort reoccupied by the 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. They assert that they do not see him as a white man, but as a Sioux warrior called Dances With Wolves. But, at the winter camp, Dunbar decides to leave with Stands With A Fist because his continuing presence would endanger the tribe. As they leave, Wind In His Hair shouts to Dunbar, reminding him that he is Dunbar's friend, a contrast to their original meeting where he shouted at Dunbar in hostility. 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 Great 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 was rejected by numerous publishers but finally published in paperback in 1988. 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 Sedgewick scenes, the set being constructed on the property.[5]


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.[6] As of 2015, the film holds a positive review score of 82% on Rotten Tomatoes.[7] CinemaScore reported that audiences gave the film a rare "A+" grade. Because of the film's popularity and lasting impact on the image of Native Americans, the Sioux Nation adopted Costner as an honorary member.[8] 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.[4]

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."[9] 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."[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]

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."[13]

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".[14]

Awards and honors

In addition to becoming the first Western film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture since 1931's Cimarron,[15] Dances with Wolves won the following additional awards, thereby being established as one of the most honored films of 1990:[16]

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.[22] 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.[23] 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.[24] As of October 2016, according to IMDb, The Holy Road is a TV mini-series still under development.

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."[25]

Fort Sedgwick,[note 2] Colorado was erected as Camp Rankin and renamed for General John Sedgwick (1813–64). 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 (1819–64). 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.[26] It is unclear whether the name "John Dunbar" was chosen as a corollary to the real historical figure.[27]

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 1836–72, 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.[28]

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.[29]

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 1863–65.

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, 1890–91, 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.[30] 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 titled 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.[31]

In a letter to British film reviewers, director Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson addressed their reasons for presenting a longer version of the film:[32]
Upon the release of the four-hour Dances With Wolves, the question naturally arises: why? Why add another hour to a film that by most standards pushes the time limit of conventional movie making? We opted to produce an extended version of Dances With Wolves for several reasons. The 52 additional minutes that represent this "new" version were difficult to cut in the first place...the opportunity to introduce them to audiences is compelling.

We have received countless letters from people worldwide asking when or if a sequel would be made, so it seemed like a logical step to enhance our film with existing footage. Virtually every character is richer, from the teamster, Timmons, to the tribal chief, Ten Bears.

Making an extended version is by no means to imply that the original
Dances With Wolves was unfinished or incomplete; rather, it creates an opportunity for those who fell in love with the characters and the spectacle of the film to experience more of both. We hope you enjoy it.

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:

While the small screen has come to serve as a second chance for filmmakers who can't seem to let their babies go, Kevin Costner and his producing partner, Jim Wilson, hope that their newly completed version will hit theater screens first:[33]
"I spent seven months working on it," Wilson says of the expanded Wolves. He's quick to defend the Oscar-winning version as "the best picture we had in us at the time," yet Wilson also says he's "ecstatic" over the recut. "It's a brand-new picture," he insists. "There's now more of a relationship between Kevin and Stands With a Fist, more with the wolf, more with the Indians — stuff that's integral all through the story."
Of course, exhibitors may not want a longer version of an already widely seen movie, but Wilson remains optimistic. "I don't think the time is now," he acknowledges, "but ideally, there is a point at which it would come out with an intermission, booked into the very best venues in America." A premiere in the form of a two-night network miniseries (à la The Godfather Saga) is also a possibility. For now, however, the four-hour Wolves remains a private dancer.

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.[34]


See also



  1. 1 2 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". British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved July 29, 2015.
  2. 1 2 "Dances with Wolves (1990)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved July 29, 2015.
  3. "Dances with Wolves: Overview" (plot/stars/gross, related films), allmovie, 2007, webpage: amovie12092
  4. 1 2 2007 list of films inducted into the National Film Registry
  5. "Dances with Wolves" -
  6. Commercial statistics for "Dances with Wolves" at
  7. "Dances with Wolves". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2014-02-18.
  8. Svetkey, Benjamin (1991-03-08). "Little big movie". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2008-03-13.
  9. "Russell Means Interview with Dan Skye of High Times". Russell Means Freedom. Retrieved 2011-03-02.
  10. Aleiss, Angela (2005). Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, Conn./London: Praeger. p. 146. ISBN 027598396X.
  11. "Discussion about the use of Lakota language in Dances With Wolves on the Lakota Language Forum:".
  12. Aleiss, Angela (2005). Making the White Man's Indian : Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, Conn./London: Praeger. p. 165. ISBN 027598396X.
  13. Sirota, David (February 21, 2013). "Oscar loves a white savior". Salon. Retrieved July 11, 2013.
  14. Hype In Wolves` Clothing: The Deification Of Costner`s `Dances` Richard Grenier, The Chicago Tribune. March 29, 1991. Retrieved May 24 2014.
  15. Angela Errigo (2008). Steven Jay Schneider, ed. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. 5th Anniversary Edition. London: Quintessence. p. 786. ISBN 0-7641-6151-2.
  16. "The 63rd Academy Awards (1991) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-10-20.
  17. AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains Nominees
  18. AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees
  19. AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) Ballot
  20. AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot
  21. "Berlinale: 1991 Prize Winners". Retrieved 2011-03-22.
  22. Blake, Michael (2001). The Holy Road, Random House. ISBN 0-375-76040-7
  23. Blake, Michael. "The official website of Michael Blake". Retrieved 2008-03-13.
  24. "Viggo Mortensen Leading the Charge for 'Dances with Wolves' Sequel". 2008-05-09. Retrieved 2008-05-11.
  25. Judith A. Boughter (2004). "The Pawnee Nation: An Annotated Research Bibliography". Scarecrow Press. p.105. ISBN 0810849909
  26. Waldo R. Wedel, The Dunbar Allis Letters on the Pawnee (New York: Garland Press, 1985).
  27. "Fiction, history intersect in a name..." The Day, April 17, 1991
  28. US Army Institute of Heraldry - History of Officer Rank Insignia
  29. Aleiss, Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies, p. 145.
  30. Summary of releases gives US release date as January 11, 2011; version with English, French, Spanish Languages dated March 13, 2007 at
  31. Dances with Wolves (Comparison: Theatrical vs. Extended Version).
  32. Gritten, David. "Dances with Wolves - The Really Long Version", Los Angeles Times, 20 December 1991.
  33. Daly, Steven. "Last Dance?", Entertainment Weekly, 30 August 1991.
  34. Willman, Chris. "True Western", Entertainment Weekly, 23 January 2004.

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