What initially began as a film with incredibly low expectations and harsh, critical skepticism long before its theatrical release, comparing it with Michael Cimino's 'Heaven's Gate,' quickly grew into a box-office smash and eventually became a seven-time Academy Award winner. Today, 'Dances with Wolves' is a highly-regarded motion picture with immense beauty and amazing power that features an original and captivating story about self-discovery — a surprising accomplishment by then first-time director Kevin Costner. After two decades, it endures as a classic of American cinema, having recently been accepted (2007 to be precise) for preservation by the Library of Congress. Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Blake, it remains a masterpiece of the Western genre.
Already a popular actor at the time, Costner displays amazing skill and talent behind the camera as well as in front of it. The opening scene of an unnamed soldier struggling to push his damage foot into a leather boot is not only squeamishly painful to watch, but it immediately draws viewers into the drama and his dilemma. And the character has yet to utter a single word. Although we know little about the man, we are oddly attracted to him, fascinated by how he handles his growing fear of losing a leg while in the heated trenches of the Civil War. Then, in one of the most moving and inspiring moments of the film, the soldier gallops on horseback within a few feet of the enemy line, arms outstretched, and survives with only a minor bump on his head.
Costner's performance is crucial in these opening moments and into the first hour of the movie because he could very easily lose our interest in seeing him for two more grueling hours. But surprisingly, he's excellent in every minute of it. From his ride to Fort Sedgewick and making friends with a lanky wolf to his first naked encounter with a Native American and his leisurely integration into the Sioux culture, Costner's Lt. John Dunbar serves as a terrific companion on this journey through the pristine, unpolluted wilds of the open country. By the time we come to his realization of the sort of damage, abuse, and ruin so-called civilization would bring to the land, we are on his side completely and convinced by the disheartening betrayal he feels.
Aiding Dunbar's learning of the customs and lifestyle of the Sioux clan is Graham Greene's equally memorable performance as Kicking Bird. He plays the tribe's medicine man with grace and authenticity. He's an individual sincerely interested in establishing a friendship with the lieutenant in spite of their obvious differences and language barriers. And by the time we come to their final, heartfelt conversation, their bond and camaraderie is never doubted. The same goes for Mary McDonnell's unforgettable role as Kicking Bird's white adopted daughter, Stands with a Fist. She has the tricky responsibility of appearing both fragile and unafraid, of being inwardly distraught as an outsider but brave enough to speak for herself while working as Dunbar's translator.
As a novice filmmaker, Costner reveals he's a patient storyteller, allowing the narrative to unfold at a natural pace. Events occur as if by chance, making characters seem warranted in their decisions and actions. We see the moment when Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) comes around to accepting the lieutenant, and the romance between Dunbar and Stands with a Fist isn't rushed,giving ample time to develop. Assisted by the gorgeous cinematography of Dean Semler, the film is ultimately an eloquent, thoughtful study about discovering one's true self by living on the edge of civilization, which for John J. Dunbar is a post at the western frontier. "Before it's gone."
'Dances with Wolves' is a sweeping and engrossing epic that, much like Costner's naïve lieutenant, leads its viewers into this foreign world of innate, untouched beauty. We become so fascinated by this harmonious existence that we don't ever want to leave. Even when clocking in at just shy of four hours (the theatrical version is under three hours), the ending feels like it comes far too soon, and it's difficult to say goodbye after spending so much time with the Sioux people. Although his popularity has dwindled somewhat after the 'Waterworld' and 'Postman' fiascos — or at least, he's not seen with the same level of recognition since then — Kevin Costner will be remembered for his directorial achievement in this ambitious and endearing masterpiece.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox and MGM Home Entertainment bring Kevin Costner's 'Dances with Wolves' to Blu-ray as a two-disc 20th Anniversary Edition. The first is a Region Locked, BD50 with the movie, two commentary tracks and two interactive features exclusive to the format. The second disc is a Region Locked, BD25 containing all the special features.
They are housed in a blue eco-case on opposing panels with an attractive slipcover that appears somewhat similar to the Collector's Edition of 2003, meaning they're meant to look like leather-bound journals. When placed inside the Blu-ray player, the disc goes straight to the main menu with the standard selection option, full motion clips and John Barry's musical score playing in the background.
Kevin Costner's 'Dances with Wolves' hits Blu-ray with an often rewarding video presentation. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1) has many excellent moments of HD goodness, showing wonderful definition and detail in daylight scenes. The cinematography by Dean Semler ('Apocalypto,' 'Secretariat') is without a doubt a highlight of the film, and the transfer displays the amazing landscape photography with gorgeous clarity. It seems like some light noise reduction has been applied, but it's not enough to distract from enjoying the many beautiful sequences in and around South Dakota's and Wyoming's countryside.
Contrast levels are terrifically balanced with brilliant whites, providing the scenery with splendid visibility into the far distance. The color palette is nicely saturated and cleanly rendered, with primaries looking particularly vibrant. Skin tones can look a bit wanting in a few scenes, but facial complexions, for the most part, appear natural and revealing, especially in close-ups. There are few moments when resolution weakens somewhat and the image suddenly softens. Much of this is related to the age of the source and not necessarily a limitation or fault in the transfer. Blacks, too, are not always perfect or consistent, losing a good deal of luster and causing shadow delineation to suffer in such cases. Overall, it's a minor issue which does little to take away from a four-hour movie's stronger aspects. All things considered, this western epic looks quite good on Blu-ray.
On another side note, a large portion of the film is subtitled because actors speak in the original Lakota language. Thankfully, the subtitles accompanying the narrative are contained within the image proper in large, canary-yellow fonts. As a result, the movie is safe for viewing on Constant Image Height projection screens.
The audio fares a bit better than the video, with an impressive DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, which brings the lovely wilds of South Dakota and Wyoming alive. The discrete effects of the wind blowing through the fields, birds flying about, and other different wildlife fill the surrounds, generating subtle and striking ambience. John Barry's original score spreads across the entire screen and into the background, creating a gratifying and engrossing soundfield that pulls viewers into the poignant drama and action.
During action sequences, rifles and pistols resonate throughout the system as stampeding buffalos and galloping horses move between channels convincingly. An adequately deep low end adds credible, persuasive weight to these moments, and the higher frequencies remain audibly sharp and expansive, providing a wonderfully engaging front soundstage with a great deal of warmth and rich clarity. The character-driven film also features clear, intelligible dialogue reproduction even in the most intimate whispered conversations. All in all, this lossless mix is the best 'Dance with Wolves' has ever sounded, making this Blu-ray presentation a real treat for fans.
Fox and MGM port over the same collection of bonus features from the two-disc Special Edition DVD of 'Dances with Wolves' from a few years ago. It's a strong assortment, and the studios also add some new material just for the Blu-ray.
Kevin Costner made his directorial debut with this western epic about life on the frontier, the customs of Native Americans, and self-discovery in an untamed land. 'Dances with Wolves' was initially scrutinized before its theatrical release for its grand scale and ambition from a first-time filmmaker. Today, the award-winning picture is praised as an grand achievement of American cinema and a masterpiece of its genre. This new Blu-ray edition of a western classic features a strong video presentation that displays Dean Semler's stunning photography adequately and a high-res soundtrack that beautifully draws viewers into the drama and action. Many of the supplements are the same seen in previous DVD releases, but the studio also throws in a nice set of new material exclusive to the format. Overall, this Blu-ray is a rewarding package that comes highly recommended for fans of both the film and the western genre.