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Dances with Wolves(1990)
Assigned to an abandoned army post, Civil War hero, Lieutenant John Dunbar finds himself alone and beyond civilization. Only a wolf and some roving Sioux Indians provide distractions. Curiosity and survival force Dunbar into the Indian camp where he develops a unique relationship with the Sioux. But as the military ruthlessly push west, the Indian's existence is threatened and Dunbar finds himself torn between two cultures.
For more about Dances with Wolves and the Dances with Wolves Blu-ray release, see Dances with Wolves Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on January 10, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Rodney Grant, Floyd 'Red Crow' Westerman, Wes Studi, Tantoo Cardinal
Director: Kevin Costner
» See full cast & crew
Dances with Wolves Blu-ray Review
Kevin Costner’s Americana epic sweeps magnificently onto Blu-ray.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, January 10, 2011
Both are three hour-plus epics, both contain action and capital-R-Romance in equal measure, and both are about a white American soldier "going native" and betraying his own race for the sake of justice, rightness, freedom, and love. So, why is it that James Cameron's Avatar feels like a plasticine platitude, while Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves—even 20 years after its release—still seems genuine and wide-eyed, an honest statement about a regrettable period in U.S. history? I think it all comes down to ambition. Cameron's film toted itself as a landmark leap forward in motion capture and the near-seamless blending of live-action cinematography and CGI—which it was and is—but its story is severely underwritten and overprocessed, cobbled together piecemeal from various anti-imperialist parables, including Dancing with Wolves. Compared to the years of research and development devoted to the film's technological innovations, its script feels like an afterthought, an unfortunate necessity. Costner's intent, on the other hand, was to tell a simple story simply, and Dances with Wolves definitely succeeds—it's moving and grand, an American story writ large on the sweeping canvas of the Dakotas. The film is no work of cinematic genius—its flaws are more apparent in retrospect, and it's nowhere near the David Lean-meets-John Ford masterpiece that some critics initially claimed it to be—but Kevin Costner's directorial debut is more than competently told.
The film begins on a scene of Stephen Crane-ish Civil War grisliness, as First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Costner) is prepped to lose his foot to a surgeon's saw in a blood-spattered operating tent. When the medics slip out for coffee, Dunbar—prepared to die in a suicidal blaze of glory—steals a horse and rides across the battlefield toward the Confederate lines, inadvertently leading a charge that breaks the stalemate and wins the battle for the North. His supposed heroism nets him a medal and an even greater boon—a station at any Army outpost of his choosing. He picks Fort Sedgwick, an isolated post at the far edge of the western frontier—which Dunbar wants to see "before it's gone"—but when he arrives, the fort is utterly deserted. Instead of turning back—which any sane 19th century person would do—Dunbar decides to make this dilapidated camp his hermitage. We know next to nothing about his past, but this is clearly a man who has had his share of civilization and found it lacking. Alone, but not lonely, he documents his time in a diary—which Costner reads in a somewhat stolid voiceover narration—befriends a wolf, and keeps a wary but curious watch on the Sioux tribesmen who obviously drove out his predecessors.
They're eyeing him suspiciously as well. What's a white guy doing all alone way out in the middle of nowhere? Is he crazy? Is he some sort of medicine man? Is he a threat? Fierce warrior Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) wants to ride in and fill Dunbar full of arrows, but holy man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene)—the clear-eyed old soul of the film—sees an opportunity to learn more about this peculiar white man and, by extension, all white men. In a series of cautious encounters, they attempt to communicate—their mutual good intentions made clear through some good old fashioned reciprocal gift giving—and soon enough Dunbar is spending most of his time at the Sioux encampment, learning their ways, tentatively speaking their language, and aiding them in their hunt for buffalo, scarce now that fur traders are slaughtering the noble beasts for their pelts and leaving their carcasses to rot out on the plains by the thousands. Of course, it's unavoidable that Dunbar will fall in love with Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who was captured as a child during a raiding party and raised as a Sioux. Other inevitabilities also present themselves—a battle with the neighboring Pawnee tribe, a skirmish with the military, and Dunbar earning his honorary Sioux name, yes, Dances With Wolves.
By Hollywood logic, the film shouldn't have been a seven-Academy-Award-winning success. It was directed by a young actor—and, come on, Kevin Costner is no Orson Welles—and it dared to be a three-hour long Western at a time when the genre was on the rocks. Not only that, but much of the dialogue is spoken in the Lakota dialect and subtitled in English, which, let's face it, is a test of patience for an American moviegoing populace whose collective attitude is "if I wanted to read, I'd pick up a book." Dances with Wolves works, however, precisely because, at the time, it's not what you would've expected from an American epic. Even today, it stands outside the canon of supposedly stirring, cheesily patriotic dude films in which it's usually lumped—Braveheart, The Patriot, etc.—for the sheer restraint and uncommon specificity that it shows. John Dunbar is no uber-masculine, nation-loving hero; like the film itself, he's quiet, warm-hearted, and a little naïve—traits that Kevin Costner exemplifies well. The actor-turned-director has had his share of misses in the intervening years—we need not mention Waterworld —but here he shows visual acuity for the landscape of the West and a strong grasp of what makes a story resonate with an audience.
In this case, it's pretty simple. Costner gives us well-developed characters that we can care about, and he casts their actions in a meaningful historical context. The film harkens back to the old Romantic notion that man is at his best when he's at one with the natural world—although it's less hippy-ish than the almost comically New Age-y Avatar—but it's also honest about the realities of human nature, specifically man's capacity for violence as a knee-jerk response to the fear of the unknown. While the movie is in some sense a revisionist western, sympathizing with the plight of the Native Americans, it shows both "sides," if you will, the Sioux and the encroaching white civilization, as inherently afraid of—and brutal towards—one another. Dunbar and Kicking Bird, then, are presented as almost idealized human beings, capable of seeing past their respective cultures' ingrained prejudices. Their relationship—not the romance between Dunbar and Stands With A Fist, which I've always felt is the movie's weakest link—is the real backbone of the film.
This Blu-ray release of Dances with Wolves contains only the Director's Cut, which runs six minutes shy of four hours long. It's unfortunate that the shorter—and better—theatrical cut couldn't also have been included via seamless branching, as the 55 minutes of added material slows down the picture dramatically and heightens some of the film's flaws, like Costner's tendency to linger unnecessarily on shots of wagons passing through the barren countryside or the script's good-natured but occasionally cornball sentimentality. Still, this extended version does give the director opportunity to immerse us in Dunbar's isolation and—when our protagonist finally finds a home amongst the Sioux—give us the sense that we're making this journey into the wild with him.
Dances with Wolves Blu-ray, Video Quality
I've not seen the editions of Dances with Wolves that appeared on Blu-ray in Germany, France, and the U.K. in 2008 and 2009—so I can't make any direct comparisons—but I can say that MGM's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of the film is thoroughly impressive and well worth the upgrade from DVD. Of course, with four hours of material on a 50 GB disc, there are instances where light compression noise can be spotted amid the natural film grain—this is most apparent in darker interior scenes—but never to the point of distraction. On the whole, the film is beautifully resolved in high definition, with a surplus of textures that appear almost tactile, from the shaggy coarseness of buffalo wool and nubby softness of suede to the sharp patterns of tree bark and the weather-beaten faces of the Native American actors. Softness intrudes occasionally—once again, usually in darker indoor scenes—but you really wouldn't notice unless you were going out of your way to look for it. Color is stable and warm, with a preponderance of pale sky blues, rich neutral tones, and bright autumnal hues, and while black levels can sometimes appear deep grayish or crush shadow detail—yes, during those dark indoor scenes—contrast is otherwise perfect. Best of all, there's been no digital tampering here—no DNR, excess edge enhancement, boosting, or grading. Dances with Wolves is one of MGM's top-tier, tent-pole films, and the studio has given it the Blu-ray treatment that it deserves.
Dances with Wolves Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Just as impressive is the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track that MGM has freshly whipped up for this 20th Anniversary release. With skirmishes, shootouts, and buffalo stampedes, the mix has plenty of opportunities to put the 7.1 presentation to immersive use. Bullets crack through the rears, horses bolt between channels, and the "tatanka" hunt is graced with an appropriately meaty low-end rumble as the buffalo move en masse over the plains. These action elements, however, constitute only a brief portion of the film. During the quieter, drama-driven scenes, the soundscape is just as astute, with bird song and insect noises filling the air, wind moving through tall grass, and rain pouring down all around. The only oddity I noticed is that you'll occasionally see something happening in front of you—in the "virtual" space, that is—but you'll also hear it behind you. Aside from these few anomalies, however, the mix is directionally accurate and consistently full of detail. Of course, some mention should be made of John Barry's now-iconic orchestral Americana score, which sounds as rich and dynamic here as you'd hope. Dialogue is clean and perfectly prioritized throughout, and do note that along with optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles—which appear in white—lines spoken in the Sioux language are always translated in bright yellow lettering inside the 2.36:1-framed image.
Dances with Wolves Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Spread across two Blu-ray discs, the bulk of Dances with Wolves' special features has been recycled from previous DVD iterations, but there are a few new additions exclusive to this release, including two pop-up trivia/quiz modes and a featurette about life on the frontier.
Dances with Wolves Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
While I'd argue that the film probably didn't deserve to practically sweep the Academy Awards in 1990—it totally robbed GoodFellas and Martin Scorsese for Best Picture and Director—Dances with Wolves is undeniably one of the most lavish and loved films of its decade. I would've appreciated a disc that featured both the theatrical and director's cuts of the film, but MGM has nevertheless put together a fine Blu-ray package for this release, with a gorgeous high definition transfer, 7.1 lossless audio, and a variety of decent—albeit mostly recycled—extras. Recommended!
Dances with Wolves: Other Editions
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