Dances With Wolves (1990)
Review by HTQ4

Written by Michael Blake, based on his novel
Original Score by John Barry
Directed by Kevin Costner
Starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant, Floyd Red Crow Westerman


Released by: MGM.
Rating: PG-13
Region: 1
Anamorphic: Yes.

My Advice: Own it.

John Dunbar (Costner) is an officer in the Union Army who decides he'd rather die than lose his foot to a bunch of In his attempt to do himself in, he winds up saving his unit and becoming a hero. He is given his choice of commands and he chooses a post on the far reaches of the American Western Frontier. However, when he arrives at his post, he discovers it to be abandoned rather mysteriously. There is evidence enough to suggest that there was some form of mutiny, but nothing definitive. Enter his neighbors; a tribe of Native Americans who are just as scared of him as he is of them. After several surprise visits to the fort by his neighbors, Dunbar decides to pay them a visit and unexpectedly runs across the woman (McDonnell) that will eventually help to bridge the vast culture gap that exists between Dunbar and his new friends. There is one other little problem: Dunbar will definitely not be the last white man to cross paths with these people. Can he help them to prepare for their mass arrival? Or, worse yet, is Dunbar shirking his duty to his country by providing them with information about its continuing westward expansion?

Okay, so how do you really sum up the plot of this movie? It's so well told that leaving out the smallest detail makes it seem trivial. Believe me, it is anything but. The 1990 release of this movie to cinemas was stunning in its own right, but there was much more of this story that simply had to be told. Costner was not satisfied to leave it at that so, in 1994, he released a director's cut on VHS that came in just a few minutes shy of four hours (the theatrical release coming in at just shy of three). To most fans of this film this has become the unofficial "official" version of the film. And, while this previously unseen footage "completed" the film, the limitations of the VHS format just didn't do the film justice. Enter the DVD.

The theatrical release cut of this movie has been available on DVD for several years, but its list of supplemental material just wasn't there. Finally, this latest Special Edition DVD from MGM is able to really do this film the justice it deserves. More on that in a moment.

If you can't already tell, I believe this to be one of the best movies in recent history. Costner was in his stride, not only as an actor, but as a director. It's really a shame that he has not done anything, either before or since, that equals the power of this endeavor. His vision of this story is one of a haunted man who unknowingly represents the thing that is haunting an entire nation of people. Costner simply tells the story beautifully; he just gets out of the way and allows it to happen.

If you have seen the theatrical release, but not this director's cut, you have no idea what you are missing. Let me see if I can pique your interest without giving anything away. First of all, the big mystery surrounding the abandonment of Fort Sedgwick is resolved. This was my one complaint about the theatrical release was that they set it up as a mystery, but never explored it. Also, there is much more time spent developing the characters of Dunbar, Kicking Bird, and Stands With A Fist (which was not necessarily lacking in the theatrical release, but is nice to have). That only begins to scratch the surface of what all you are missing.

The DVD would be worth owning for this version of the film alone without special features, but they do throw some other features into the mix. The first disc (which is a double-sider) contains two commentary tracks; one with director of photography Dean Semler and editor Neil Travis and the other with Costner and producer Jim Wilson. These commentaries span both sides of the disc since the film is presented in two parts. Regarding the commentary with Costner and Wilson: in a word, superb. This commentary is almost as good as any done by Ron Howard, and many of you know that he has set what I consider to be the standard by which all of these tracks should be measured. Costner and Wilson are obviously very close friends and share a deep passion for this film. It's just the right combination of the two swapping stories about the shoot and cool trivia tidbits about the movie to keep you interested throughout the entire four hours (and yes, they fill up almost the entire time). The other commentary is very sparse, and unless you have a real interest in how to light and layout a shot while making a movie, you will probably find most of the info really boring. However, it is worth watching at least once.

Also on side B this disc is the "original" making of featurette. It's pretty much the kind of fluffy featurette that they air on cable movie channels show between movies to fill the time. The other features in the set dig much deeper.

The second disc is where the remainder of the supplemental material resides. There is a retrospective look at the film with a majority of the cast and crew, but the most of the real meat of this documentary comes from novel and screenwriter Blake. He talks about his own personal journey and connection with the material. It is at this point that you realize why this movie is such a powerful piece of cinema. Everyone involved believed with all their being in this project. The other interesting point is the difficult journey that this film had in getting off the ground. The photo montage is one of the best I've ever seen on a DVD. All you have to do is sit back and watch the images float by while listening to the beautiful soundtrack by John Barry. Rounding out the special features are a look at film's posters, TV spots, and theatrical trailers.

They pretty much ran the gamut of standard DVD material with this set. Still, I get the feeling that they could have scrounged up some historical material about the Western Frontier to include. It really would have really made this DVD unbeatable. I'm not complaining, though (at least not loudly)--as it stands it should not be passed up by any DVD afficionado.

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