Dances With Wolves

Dances With Wolves (1990)
Image Entertainment
Cast: Kevin Costner, Graham Greene, Rodney Grant
Extras: Commentary Track

Civil wars are often the saddest points in history of any nation, as they are always a result of intolerance, disrespect, and greed. Writer Michael Blake and director/actor Kevin Costner took this sad scenario as the background for the story of "Dances With Wolves", a film that attempts to give people a clear and sobering look of the fate of the Native American tribes during those years. Costner and cinematographer Dean Semler created a strong visual language for this film that helped them communicate the scope of the devastation caused by the War and the destruction of the Indian culture, generally shying clear of the sentimentality so often associated with such endeavors. The film is never superficial in its efforts and makes a strong statement about American history. Image Entertainment have now released Costner’s most ambitious and acclaimed work on a DVD that is beautiful to behold, despite the void the events depicted in this film left in American society.

During the Civil War, John J. Dunbar is hospitalized in a field hospital with a serious foot injury. Suffering without anesthesia, he is half-delirious when he overhears the doctors discussing their plan to amputate his leg. Dunbar flees the hospital, desperate with pain, determined to keep himself from being just another handicapped veteran at war’s end. He decides to end his life by getting between the enemy lines of the war, hopeful to get shot in the senseless massacre. But instead of shooting the foolhardy soldier who rides toward their guns, the enemy soldiers begin cheering the daring soldier and Dunbar becomes a hero of the battlefield to both sides of the war until he drops from his horse, unconscious and near death. For his seemingly heroic deed, Dunbar is promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and receives the finest medical treatment possible, saving his wounded leg. He is even allowed to choose the place where he would like to be stationed. Dunbar loves nature, and decides that he wants to see the frontier before it is gone. He wants to see the true "wilds" and experience the freedom and peace of nature. North Dakota is the place of his choice.

Weeks later, he arrives at his new destination and meets with the sergeant there to take his orders. The sergeant immediately posts him to a frontier fort far out in the wilderness… too far out. Dunbar sets up his station in the abandoned fort, far away from civilization, and enjoys the peace and freedom he has in his remote hut, ignorant of the fate of his predecessors. What he does not know is that he is deep within Indian territory.

A short time after his arrival Dunbar befriends a wolf that visits the lone soldier every afternoon, and soon "Two Socks" becomes an important part in Dunbar’s live, his sensitive eyes and ears acting as an alarm for the white soldier. One day, while Dunbar is bathing, a visitor shows up at the fort. It is a Sioux warrior who searches the fort, unaware of Dunbar’s presence. He takes off running as soon as the soldier approaches him. Curiosity starts to build for both the Sioux tribe and the isolated soldier in his fort. While the Indians are unsure whether they should look upon the intruder as an enemy or a guest, Dunbar is genuinely and respectfully interested in them and their ways. Over the weeks and months to come, Dunbar befriends members of the Sioux tribe, and grows closer to them, learning that none of the White Men’s preformed images of Indians hold true. "Dances With Wolves" is one of the most honorable feature film attempts that deals with this dark period in America’s history, dealing with the slaughter of Indians in particular. It takes the matter extremely seriously, and carefully explores the different cultures. Without painting either side completely black or white, the film puts the finger where it hurts the most. It portrays the senseless violation of the Indian people when they were butchered in the Indian Wars. Hollywood is famous for its biased depiction of the "Wild West" and many people still want us to believe to this day that the Indians were uneducated and uncivilized people who should have no rights under the White Man’s laws. Sadly, the fact of the matter is that the same racism, ignorance, intolerance, and opportunism that fouls today’s society was the main reason for their pursuit and extermination. It is time that people understand that there is no such thing as a "good" war and that quietly ignoring them doesn’t solve the problems they create. Hardly anyone these days talks about the Indian Wars, hardly anyone touches upon the Holy Wars the Church led centuries ago, and people would just love to forget about the Vietnam War. As convenient as these solutions may seem, they do not solve the underlying problem. Without exploring the reasoning and understanding the mistakes that have been made, these disasters are likely to repeat themselves. It is for brave attempts like

"Dances With Wolves" to educate people about what really happened, about the beauty, the serenity, and the pride that has been destroyed by our insatiable thirst for materialistic possession. Costner’s educational attempt with this film is extremely laudable and honest. I especially like the "big" hyperbole of the story, showing how a supposedly wild predator, the wolf, turns friendly over time, given some effort, understanding and care. We can see exactly the same trust building over time when Dunbar befriends the Sioux based solely on those mutual virtues.

The film boasts a great cast and strong performances throughout. Kevin Costner directed this film and also plays the main character, John J. Dunbar. In my opinion, it is the strongest performance he has given in his entire career, and it shows what a talented actor and stylish director he is. Supported by the thoughtful Graham Greene as "Kicking Bird", the holy man of the Sioux, the two have a chemistry that makes the curious relationship between the characters work like a charm. Both men are sensitive to each other and share a mutual respect. Each is intrigued by the other and the admiration can be seen in their eyes and subtle gestures and mimicry. The film also contains a remarkable performance by Rodney Grant, who shines as "Wind In His Hair", the fierce, young Sioux warrior who takes a long time to build trust in the intruder, but finally gives in to his own admiration of Dunbar’s sincerity. There is not a single weak performance in this film, which creates an even more authentic atmosphere. All those performances clearly show how cultivated and proud a people the Indians were and how their knowledge allowed them to live in harmony with their environment. "Dances With Wolves" shows this depth and richness in their culture to excellent effect when we watch as Dunbar is slowly introduced to their ways.

Image Entertainment have done a great job on this disc. Watching it makes you think that this is what DVD was made for: great movies, great images, great sound and high quality releases. The <$RSDL,RSDL> disc contains the theatrical 181-minute cut of the film in its original 2.35:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio with a seamless layer switch during the fade-out of a scene. The <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer is drop-dead gorgeous and will mesmerize even the most experienced DVD viewer. The image quality is so breathtaking that it takes on a very strong, film-like quality. The colors are rich, well saturated and absolutely neutrally rendered. Even in the sunset scenes where everything takes on powerful hues, the image always appears faithful without any noise or unbalanced colors. The <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer is bursting with detail. You can see every single blade of grass on the prairie, every single hair on Two Socks’ coat and even the most elaborate detail on the Indian clothing and jewelry. There is not a single scratch mark or stain in the film transfer and the compression is fantastic, without artifacts of any sort. I would have never thought that home video could be taken to such heights.

The same is true for the film’s superb soundtrack. "Dances With Wolves" was originally released with a stereo soundtrack in theaters, but Image have been able to locate a 6-stem soundtrack of the film in England. They used these European audio elements for the film, and as a result are able to deliver this disc with both, a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> and a <$DS,Dolby Surround> soundtrack. The Dolby Digital <$5.1,5.1 channel> soundtrack on the disc recreates the lively outdoors with subtle, yet well-defined, ambient surround sound effects. When the going gets rougher and especially in the buffalo stampede scene the directional field is more aggressive, creating a true rampage in your living room with plenty of low ends. Since the <$5.1,5.1 channel> soundtrack is available for the theatrical, Award-winning version of the film only, Image Entertainment decided to release the film in that version, as opposed to the longer Director’s Cut.

The film was an exceedingly ambitious effort, and won an array of awards when it was originally released, and it has become a milestone in American film history. Featuring breathtaking images of all sorts, from well-designed close-ups all the way to the most magnificent panoramic shots, this film has a beautiful, strong visual approach, one that makes exploring the Indians’ culture and their lands even more appealing.

Another one of the disc’s highlights is the <$commentary,commentary track> by Kevin Costner and his producer Jim Wilson. Recently recorded in Kevin Costner’s own home theater, it is a <$commentary,commentary track> that brings many memories of the film’s creation to light. Since both Kevin and Jim have a certain, healthy distance from the film these days, they do not only explain finicky details about the immediate production, but instead also dwell in memories, stories, and anecdotes about the people working on the film and its creation per se. Despite its considerable length, this commentary is always interesting and exciting – a clear indication of the honest passion both have for the film and the material.

"Dances With Wolves" is a tremendous effort and tremendously good at what it does. It captures the viewer in the wild, beautiful world of the American frontier in the 19th century. The film exemplifies cinematic story-telling at its best, never shallow and never easy, always exciting and dramatic. It deals with a serious matter but does so in an intriguing and entertaining way, giving the viewer time and space to gradually explore the subject. It is a pleasure to see that Image have paid tribute to this ambitious film with this DVD release. It is clearly their best release to date and a must-have item in any DVD collection.