Dances with Wolves is a 1990 American epic Western film starring, directed and produced by Kevin Costner in his feature directorial debut.
It is a film adaptation of the 1988 book of the same name by Michael Blake that tells the story of Union Army lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Costner) who travels to the American frontier to find a military post and of his dealings with a group of Lakota.
In 1863, First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar is wounded in battle at St. David’s Field in Tennessee. Choosing death in battle over amputation of his leg, he takes a horse and rides up to and along the Confederate lines. Confederate forces fire repeatedly at him and miss, and the Union Army takes advantage of the distraction to mount a successful attack. Dunbar survives and receives both a citation for bravery and medical care that allows him to keep his leg. He is subsequently awarded Cisco, the horse that carried him during his suicide attempt, 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 commanded by Major Fambrough, an unhinged officer who despises Dunbar’s enthusiasm. He agrees to post Dunbar to the furthest outpost under his jurisdiction, Fort Sedgwick, and kills himself shortly afterwards. Dunbar travels with Timmons, a mule wagon provisioner. They arrive to find the fort deserted. Despite the threat of nearby native tribes, Dunbar elects to stay and man the post himself.
He begins rebuilding and restocking the fort, and prefers the solitude, recording many of his observations in his diary. Timmons is killed by Pawnee people on the journey back to Fort Hays. The deaths of both Timmons and Fambrough prevent other soldiers from knowing of Dunbar’s assignment, and no other soldiers arrive to reinforce the post.
Dunbar initially encounters his Sioux neighbours 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 and attempt dialogue. 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, the warrior Wind In His Hair and the youth Smiles A Lot, initially visiting each other’s camps. The language barrier frustrates them, and Stands with a Fist acts as an 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 discovers 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 honoured guest by the Sioux after he tells them of a migrating herd of buffalo and participates in the hunt. When at Fort Sedgwick, 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 Sedgwick.
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 Sedgwick as he realises that it would provide the army with the means to find the tribe. When he arrives he finds the fort reoccupied by the US Army. Because of his Sioux clothing, the soldiers open fire, killing Cisco and capturing Dunbar, arresting him as a traitor.
Two officers interrogate him, but Dunbar cannot prove his story, as a corporal has found his diary and kept it for himself. 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. At the winter camp, Dunbar decides to leave with Stands with a Fist because his continuing presence would endanger the tribe. As they leave, Smiles A Lot returns the diary, which he recovered during Dunbar’s liberation, and 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.
US troops are seen searching the mountains, but are unable to locate them, while a lone wolf howls in the distance. An epilogue 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.
- Kevin Costner as Lt. John J. Dunbar/Dances with Wolves (Lakota: Šuŋgmánitu Tȟáŋka Ób Wačhí).
- Mary McDonnell as Stands with a Fist (Napépȟeča Nážiŋ Wiŋ).
- Graham Greene as Kicking Bird (Ziŋtká Nagwáka).
- Rodney A. Grant as Wind In His Hair (Pȟehíŋ Otȟáte).
- Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Chief Ten Bears (Matȟó Wikčémna).
- Tantoo Cardinal as Black Shawl (Šiná Sápa Wiŋ).
- Jimmy Herman as Stone Calf (Íŋyaŋ Ptehíŋčala).
- Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse as Smiles A Lot (Iȟá S’a).
- Michael Spears as Otter (Ptáŋ).
- Jason R. Lone Hill as Worm (Waglúla).
- Charles Rocket as Lt. Elgin.
- Robert Pastorelli as Timmons.
- Tony Pierce as Spivey.
- Larry Joshua as Bauer.
- Kirk Baltz as Edwards.
- Tom Everett as Sergeant Pepper.
- Maury Chaykin as Major Fambrough.
- Wes Studi as Toughest Pawnee.
- Wayne Grace as The Major.
- Michael Horton as Captain Cargill (Extended version).
- Doris Leader Charge as Pretty Shield, Chief Ten Bears’ wife.
- Donald Hotton as General Tide.
- Frank P. Costanza as Tucker.
- Annie Costner as Christine Gunther child.
- Justin as Cisco.
- Teddy and Buck as Two Socks.
- Jim Wilson as Doctor (uncredited).
- Costner developed the film with an initial budget of $15 million.
- Much of the dialogue is spoken in Lakota with English subtitles.
- It was shot from July to November 1989 in South Dakota and Wyoming, and translated by Albert White Hat, the chair of the Lakota Studies Department at Sinte Gleska University.
- 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.
- The film earned favourable reviews from critics and audiences, who praised Costner’s directing, the performances, screenplay, and production values.
- The film was a massive box office hit, grossing $424.2 million worldwide, making it the fourth highest-grossing film of 1990, and is the highest-grossing film for Orion Pictures.
- The film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards at the 63rd Academy Awards and won seven including Best Picture, Best Director for Costner, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Sound Mixing.
- The film also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama.
- The film is credited as a leading influence for the revitalisation 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”.
- The Holy Road, a sequel novel by Michael Blake, the author of both the original Dances with Wolves novel and the movie screenplay, was published in 2001.
- 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.
- Costner, who has refused to do sequels to any of his films, including The Untouchables, stated he would not take part in this production.
- A third book titled The Great Mystery was planned, but Blake died in 2015.
- One year after the original theatrical release of Dances with Wolves, a four-hour version of the film opened at select theatres 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.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Kevin Costner.
- Producer(s): Jim Wilson and Kevin Costner.
- Writer(s): Michael Blake.
- Music: John Barry.
- Cinematography: Dean Semler.
- Editor(s): Neil Travis.
- Production: Tig Productions.
- Distributor(s): Orion Pictures.
- Release Date: 19 October 1990 (Uptown Theatre) and 09 November 1990 (US general release).
- Running time: 181 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English, Lakota, and Pawnee.