In his directorial debut, Kevin Costner brings a rare degree of grace and feeling to this elegiac tale of a hero’s adventure of discovery among the Sioux Indians on the pristine Dakota plains of the 1860s.
Costner stars as Lt John Dunbar, a Union officer in the Civil War invited to choose his own post after an act of heroism. Opting for the farthest reaches of the frontier because he ‘wants to see it before it disappears’, he transplants himself from a weary and cynical war culture to the windswept clarity of the Dakota plains.
His only company as he passes the days are his horse, a gangling wolf who keeps a nervous distance, and finally, a Sioux Indian who tries to steal the horse and is frightened off by Dunbar.
He discovers a culture so deeply refreshing to his spirit, compared with the detritus he’s left behind, that, by the time the US Army bothers to look for him, he has become a Sioux and his name is Dances With Wolves.
Lensed on location in South Dakota over 17 weeks, pic is infused with the natural grandeur of the plains and sky. Score by John Barry makes a major contribution, varying from the elegiac tone of the main theme to the heart-racing primal rhythms of the buffalo and scalp dances.
From its three-hour length, which amazingly does not become tiresome, to its bold use of subtitled Lakota language (the Sioux tongue) for at least a third of the dialog, it’s clear the filmmakers were proceeding without regard for the rules.
Mary McDonnell is impressive as Stands With A Fist, an emotionally traumatized white woman adopted by the Sioux who helps Dunbar communicate with them.
[In December 1991, a 232-min. ‘extended version’ world preemed in the UK, and was later released on homevideo.]
1990: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Sound, Original Score, Editing
Nominations: Best Actor (Kevin Costner), Supp. Actor (Grahame Green), Supp. Actress (Mary McDonnell), Art Direction, Costume Design