skip navigation
Race & Hollywood: Native American Images On Film
Remind Me

Dances With Wolves

Leading man Kevin Costner made his directorial debut in 1990 with Dances with Wolves, the fictional tale of a despondent white man who regains his sense of purpose with a tribe of American Indians against the backdrop of the western frontier. The film was a hard sell: Westerns were not in vogue at the time, not to mention that Costner was insistent on keeping the running time at a potentially-lethal three hours as well as relying on the heavy use of subtitles. Accordingly, he was unable to secure any funding for the project through typical US channels, ultimately getting aid from a British investor and paying the rest out of his own pocket. The critics were kind but ultimately panned the offering as an exercise in self-indulgence: one remarked that Costner's Indian name would have been more accurate as "Obsesses with People Silhouetted Against Horizons." Concerns grew as budgets began to overflow and the shooting schedule continued to be extended; industry insiders tagged the project as "Kevin's Gate", referring to the infamous production catastrophe of Heaven's Gate (1980) ten years before. Despite all the ominous signs, Dances with Wolves opened to enthusiastic audiences, eventually grossing over 400 million in worldwide box office receipts. The film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and won seven, including Best Picture and Best Director for Costner, beating out the critics' darling Goodfellas (1990) and its director, Martin Scorsese.

The roots of Dances with Wolves were seeded 8 years earlier, with Costner's first screen credit, a largely forgettable offering titled Stacy's Knights (1983). The film's greatest contribution was the initial collaboration between Costner, the film's director, Jim Wilson, and the scriptwriter Michael Blake. In subsequent years, Wilson and Costner would create a production company and make seven films together, including Dances with Wilson in the producer's seat. Their continued friendship with Blake provided for an evening the writer spent at the Costner house several years later in which he first described the idea for Dances with Wolves in preparation for developing it as a screenplay. According to Blake from a 1990 Rolling Stone article, Costner was instantly attracted to the project but strongly urged the writer to write the story as a novel first versus a script. Blake obliged, producing a tome which thoroughly engaged Wilson and helped him visualize the story. Costner soon agreed, deeming the book, "the clearest idea of a movie I'd ever read." Although Blake always saw Costner in the director's chair, he had another actor in mind when writing the story: Viggo Mortensen, most recently of The Lord of the Rings trilogy fame. Blake explained, "I said, 'Kev, I don't know if anyone is going to really believe in you [in this part] after seeing your other movies.' And he said, 'Don't worry about it.' One thing I've learned about Kevin is that you do not bet against him, no matter what he's going to do. As it turns out, I think he's done some of his best acting work in this movie."

As a first-time director, Costner impressed many not only with the ambitiousness of the epic project but his ability to handily pull it off: the project spanned a five-month shoot schedule on location in South Dakota with over 700 cast members and extras with temperatures ranging from a boiling 115 in the height of the summer months down to 20 degrees as the chilliness of Autumn set in. In a marked departure from a typical shoot, almost every scene (save the opening Civil War ones) were filmed in sequence. This was done in order to ensure weather realism from scene to scene, since so much of the action takes place outdoors. A tremendous amount of time and resources were allocated to the learning and delivery of the Lakota Sioux dialect, making Dances the first major feature film to use authentic Indian language onscreen with subtitles. Costner defended his atypical decisions with passion: "You've got to want to do it because you believe in your story. People don't go into directing for power. They go in for the completion of something they want to see. Dances needed a tone. Somebody else might not have done subtitles. I wanted to see it in the Native American language. Somebody else might have made it shorter, because they don't think people can sit with this movie. I think they can." Despite his independent streak, Costner still knew when to ask for help: friend and director Kevin Reynolds helped him film the difficult buffalo hunt scene. Reynolds, who gave Costner one of his first breaks with Fandango (1985) would direct him again in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), as well as the disastrous Waterworld (1995).

Some little known buffalo facts: 3500 were used in the production, with two of the tamed ones belonging to rocker Neil Young. And how do you get a buffalo to charge on film? Tempt him with Oreo cookies.

While Costner was inarguably the star of the show both in front and behind the camera, the supporting cast of Dances with Wolves are not to be overlooked: Mary McDonnell played his love interest, Stands With A Fist. Bringing a 20-year stage history to the production, McDonnell gained celluloid notice with the film, spurring her breakthrough performance a few years later with John Sayles' Passion Fish (1992). She earned Oscar® nominations for both roles. Graham Greene as holy man Kicking Bird had memorable roles later with Val Kilmer in Thunderheart (1992) and Mel Gibson in Maverick (1994). Character actors Robert Pastorelli and Maury Chaykin also contribute to the solid featured cast, with Pastorelli best remembered as Murphy Brown's housepainter on the long-running television series, and Chaykin portraying detective Nero Wolfe on the popular series of television films. Costner's own daughter Annie, then six years old, makes a brief appearance in a flashback sequence. SNL diehards might spot Charles Rocket in a small part; the actor was featured on the sketch comedy show for one season. And Wes Studi, who plays the villainous Pawnee Indian in Dances later played the cunning, malevolent Huron Indian in the 1992 remake of The Last of the Mohicans.

Producer: Bonnie Arnold, Kevin Costner, Jake Eberts, Derek Kavanagh, Jim Wilson
Director: Kevin Costner
Screenplay: Michael Blake
Cinematography: Dean Semler
Film Editing: William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Stephen Potter, Neil Travis
Art Direction: William Ladd Skinner
Music: John Barry, Peter Buffett
Cast: Kevin Costner (Lt. John Dunbar), Mary McDonnell (Stands With A Fist), Graham Greene (Kicking Bird), Rodney A. Grant (Wind In His Hair), Floyd 'Red Crow' Westerman (Ten Bears), Tantoo Cardinal (Black Shawl).
C-181m. Letterboxed.

by Eleanor Quin



Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Classic Horror - Tuesdays in October
34 Movies

Get into the Halloween spirit with a month-long festival of scary movies that run the gamut from Universal classics like Bride of...more

TCM Shopping
  • Dances with Wolves
  • Dances With Wolves Celebrating the 25th... more info
  • $7.46
  • Regularly $9.98
  • Add to cart
  • One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
  • The first film in over 40 years to win all... more info
  • $7.46
  • Regularly $5.98
  • Add to cart
  • A Man Called Horse
  • When an English lord is captured by a Sioux... more info
  • $11.21
  • Regularly $14.98
  • Add to cart