Our review of Dances With Wolves (Blu-Ray), published January 11th, 2011, is also available.
I was just thinking that of all the trails in this life there is one that matters most: it is the trail of a true human being. I think you are on this trail and it is good to see.
I remember seeing Dances with Wolves in the Parma Theater way back in 1991. To the best of my recollection, it was the first "buzz movie" I saw. With so much word-of-mouth going around about the greatness of this film, I decided that even though it wasn't my usual kind of movie, I'd give it a shot. The good old Parma Theater, long changed in the ever-expanding renovation of theaters—and actually perhaps no longer in existence—was practically empty that night. I don't have the best memory for such things, so I am surprised to be able to recall so many details from that day over twelve years ago. Most important of all those memories is my sense of awe and wonder. Truly, this was the first "epic" film I had seen. It was a type of movie that I hadn't encountered in my younger days, and I was astonished and captivated by the story that unfolded before me during the previous three hours. Three hours! At that point, that was the longest movie I had ever seen, and for me to sit still that long was quite a feat!
Dances with Wolves is an amazing movie on so many levels. Not everyone agrees, and some even like to call this work Kevin Costner's "Vanity Trip." I am at a loss to discover that point of view, and I am confident in my statement that this film is far more than just a simple ego trip and absolutely worthy of its Oscar for Best Picture.
Facts of the Case
The strangeness of this life cannot be measured. In trying to produce my own death, I was elevated to the status of a living hero.
It is 1864 and Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Field of Dreams) has been wounded in battle during the American Civil War. The doctors are about to amputate his right leg, but they are exhausted and need to take a break. As Dunbar awakens to find himself on the field table, he knows that he cannot live without both legs. Hence, he decides to commit suicide by charging towards the Confederate troops. In the ensuing attempt, Dunbar survives and rallies the Union troops to win the battle. By strange measure, his attempt to take his life turns him into a hero where he is given his choice of post.
Wanting to see the Western frontier before it is gone, Dunbar asks for assignment at Fort Hays. There, Major Fambrough (Maury Chaykin, Mystery, Alaska, Entrapment, Wargames), a mentally unstable individual, assigns Dunbar to the most remote Western posting of the Union: Fort Sedgewick. As Dunbar begins his journey, Fambrough kills himself, thus making Dunbar's posting to Sedgewick unknown to the Army.
Dunbar arrives to find Fort Sedgewick completely deserted and in disarray. Though alone in a strange yet beautiful land, Dunbar actively mans his post in readiness for arriving troops. As days pass into weeks, Dunbar begins to believe that no one will be coming to join him at the fort. Day after day, Dunbar is alone yet content in this vast and open land. His sole concern is the possibility of an attack by the depraved Indians in the area. Though he hasn't seen any, he knows they are nearby. To his dismay, the first sign of life he sees turns out to be a lone Indian warrior who walks confidently into camp. Dunbar is able to startle the sole Indian away, but he is now certain that the vicious Indians will attack him. With mounting despair, he makes plans to repel the inevitable onslaught.
But as time passes, there is no attack. That lone visitor was Kicking Bird (Graham Greene, Die Hard with a Vengeance, The Green Mile), medicine man from the nearby Sioux tribe. He senses something different about the man at the old soldier fort, and he convinces his tribe to talk first. Over time, mutual trust is established between Dunbar and the Sioux. Dunbar realizes that the Indians are a remarkable people, who are at one with the land and the earth, and concludes that he was lied to regarding these people of the West. He'd been told that they are thieves, savages, and barbarians. But they are not the animals as described, but a noble and intelligent people who have lived in that country for many, many years. After much effort between himself and the Indians, Dunbar becomes a friend and eventual member of the Tribe. He has found his place in life, and he is content and at peace.
But there is a danger lurking in the background. Dunbar knows that the Indians' land is not safe with the inevitable approach of the white man, and his happiness may be lost when man will eventually come and overrun this picturesque country.
Dunbar, not Dumb Bear.
For days now I have been thinking about ways to describe why I find this movie to be so great. I have failed. I am simply unable to adequately come up with words to convey the beauty and magnificence of this film. In every conceivable way, this movie is a success and nothing is flawed in its presentation. I adore every second of the film: the acting, the direction, the cinematography, the costumes, the simple sets, the portrayal of Native Americans, and the story of discovery and fulfillment. It's a remarkable piece of cinema that is simply deserving of all the accolades that it received. If for no other reason, this movie is a fitting tribute to Native Americans, for its refreshing and remarkable depiction of the Sioux people. Back in the 19th century, I could only wish that we exhibited more of the tolerance that we profess today. For after watching Dances with Wolves, I am deeply saddened as I'm reminded of what we did to the Native Americans. What a different country this would be if we had found a way to peaceably coexist.
Dances with Wolves has seen various incarnations in the disc world, both on DVD and on the older laserdisc. There were two DVD versions released back in 1998; the only distinction between the two was that one had a DTS track and the other did not. I owned the non-DTS disc and thoroughly enjoyed it. When I learned that there was this new Special Edition coming, I had no qualms about making a double-dip on this one. This new Special Edition expands upon the original release in many ways, most notably in the length of the film and the breadth of bonus materials. For the first time, the 236-minute cut of the film would come to DVD, as it had previously done on laserdisc. Unfortunately, the longer film, coupled with the bonus features, would necessitate the omission of the available DTS track.
Let's talk about this "new" four-hour cut of the movie. The insertion of this new footage does not make any significant alterations to the film. It's the same story with pretty much all of the same characters going about along the same path as we've seen before. What this new footage does is to expand the interactions of all the characters, add some more background, and develop the path more fully. The scenes are spliced in throughout the presentation, so you will not come across many entirely new scenes, though a few do exist, but not of great length. The only true new characters you see in this cut are the original soldiers stationed at Fort Sedgewick. You get a brief glimpse of the commander and his men, but not a lot is told about them. It doesn't fully explain the caves or the mess, but it does offer some new possibilities. For all of the other scenes, they're a pleasant addition to the film. I enjoyed the chance to learn more about these characters and how they interacted in this sweeping tale.
With the new footage, there are some subtle changes to the feel of the film as well. During the second hour, the additional footage creates a slight change of focus in the narrative. This film is a tale told from the point of view of Lt. Dunbar, yet in this hour, the new footage alters that viewpoint to that of the Sioux tribe. For the most part, many might not even realize the change, nor is it even a problem. As you slip into the third hour, you'll suddenly realize that the focus has shifted back to Dunbar's point-of-view. And, notoriously known for being a slow-paced film, believe it or not, the fourth hour actually feels a bit rushed now in this cut. For three hours, the story moves along at a very steady pace, detailing the journey of John Dunbar. Then once Dunbar makes his final trip to Sedgewick, everything happens quite quickly. Events unfold at a brisk pace unlike the rest of the tale, and you get a feeling that more could have been done if the pacing had stayed the same. As there was little, if any, additional footage inserted into this section, that must have been Costner's obvious intent.
With such a significant change to the film, how does it look? All in all, this is a solid video transfer that holds together very well. Foremost, the new scenes do not detract from the rest of the film at all, and aside from knowing it's a new scene, you'd not be able to tell from the video. I found no transfer errors in the film, or at least none jumped out as I watched it. I saw no artifacting, pixelization, or edge enhancement—though I wouldn't be surprised if there was some and I missed it, as I didn't sit completely still for four hours watching the movie. The colors are well represented and accurate, blacks are well defined, and sharpness and contrast are precise. My only disappointment is that the colors are a touch softer than I'd like. With so many majestic shots and brilliant cinematography, I wanted more depth and dimensionality from the transfer. It is good, but I think the new cut isn't quite as sharp as its predecessor. As this cut is quite long, the movie is spread out over both sides of one disc, with the flip occurring at about two hours and fifteen minutes. While I would have preferred the movie spread over two discs instead of flipping, I understand MGM's approach and not wanting this to be a three-disc set.
For the audio, your only choice is a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. There are a few more "flaws" here than with the video transfer. In comparing this track to the previous one I owned (by memory), it doesn't conjure up the same fond reminiscences. I remember watching Dances and loving the sweeping score and the nice use of aural cues from all around. When watching it this time, I had some trouble with the dialogue. Many times, it was weak compared to the music and surrounding cues, and I had some difficulty understanding it; thus, I kept turning the volume up and down to compensate. Additionally, the audio would sometimes get "hollow" during the insertion of some of the new scenes. As such, the audio is a touch of a disappointment in the overall presentation. It still does have the sweeping score and occasional nice aural cues, but this audio track isn't as solid as its predecessor either.
While the original DVD release of Dances contained only the barest of bonus materials, this Special Edition certainly compensates for any shortcomings from the first. There are ten hours of bonus materials for you to watch, which should come close to quenching your thirst for all things related to the movie. Note that the following bonus features are scattered throughout both discs:
• Audio Commentary with Kevin Costner and Producer Jim Wilson: This audio track confuses me greatly. I know that the majority of this track, roughly three hours worth, is an exact copy of the commentary from the original release. In that, it is perhaps one of the finest—if not the finest—commentaries I've ever heard. These two are quite humble and relate a wealth of information regarding every conceivable facet of the movie. You will not be disappointed. However, my confusion arises during the other hour of the commentary, or what is spoken during the new footage. I'm not sure how it was done, but there are two possibilities: (1) as the four-hour cut was previously released on laserdisc, then perhaps there was an accompanying four-hour commentary or (2) new commentary was recorded for the new scenes. I don't know which it is. Regardless, this is an excellent track, but do not be fooled by anyone who tells you that this commentary is "all new."
• Audio Commentary with Cinematographer Dean Semper and Editor Neil Travis: This is truly an all new commentary for the film, and while it does start off a bit slowly with some large silences, these two do get into the flow of the film and relate even more information on the film. Of course, most of what they say corresponds to their jobs, but that is thoroughly welcome. I've always found the cinematography in this film to be gorgeous, and I was pleased that Semper was given a chance to speak about his work. I am pleased to say that unlike most DVDs, both of the commentaries included on this Special Edition are worthy of a listen.
• The Creation of an Epic—A Retrospective Documentary (81 minutes): Broken down into six thematic segments, this documentary offers fresh interviews and insights into the lasting popularity of this film. While it does repeat some information you've already heard on the disc, there still is more than enough to talk about with this film. And even though there may be a touch too much "appreciation" ladled on Mr. Costner, it's fair to state that everyone is very sincere in his or her gratitude for being a part of this remarkable film. This is an excellent companion piece, and I would have enjoyed more. I have a tiny quibble with the design of this feature in that at the end of each segment/chapter, it brings up the end credits. While you can easily skip past them, it is an exceptionally stupid design.
• The Original Making of Dances with Wolves (21 minutes): This featurette looks to have been produced sometime around the release of the film, yet it is something I have never seen before. Though it's almost comparable to today's HBO featurettes, fortunately this one goes far more in-depth into examining the making of the film. There's a very nice mix of behind-the-scenes footage and old interviews to make it enjoyable and not completely overshadowed by the new "epic" feature.
• Photo Montage (9.5 minutes): I am not a fan of photo galleries, yet I so enjoyed this film that I found myself watching this extra material. Ben Glass, who was hired by Costner to document the making of the film, took the photos. Many of those photos are shown here, and follow the outline of the film. These behind-the-scenes photos offer yet another intriguing look into the making of the film. The montage is presented with score music by John Barry.
• Original Music Video Featuring Music by John Barry (4 minutes): This is the worst feature on the disc as you're asked to watch a music video with a terrible remix of John Barry's fabulous theme to the film. Instead of allowing you to enjoy the natural symphonic presentation of his music, you get some awful '80s-synth revamp. It's a complete slap in the face to Barry's magical composition.
• Poster Gallery: Wow! Look at five, yes five!, whole posters from the film!
• TV Spots: Two of the dullest TV spots you'll ever come across can be found here.
• Theatrical Trailer: While the movie is too long to be ruined by a trailer, this trailer certainly does the film no justice in distilling the true essence of the film to potential moviegoers. Thank goodness for word of mouth.
• And, there are five Easter Eggs to be found: Civil War Re-enactors, Timmon's Death, Animatronic Buffalo, Death by Tomahawk, and Neil Travis's "Second Wind."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The great vanity project of Kevin Costner continues to grow and grow and grow. Not content with the undeserved accolades from the Academy, Costner continues to milk his biggest cash cow. This plodding, wandering, disconnected story pulls out every melodramatic stop to tug at your heartstrings. Look at how wonderful Dunbar and the Indians are! Look at how mean and evil the white man is! There is no grace or subtlety to be found: everything is black and white, color-by-numbers simple. Perhaps if Costner's ego could have been held in check and hours of footage excised from this bloated monstrosity, then this film could have been bearable. Stop trying to drive home a simple message with a sledgehammer.
Dances With Wolves! I am Wind In His Hair! Do you see that I am your friend? Can you see that you will always be my friend?
The question of most import is whether or not to double dip on this film. I give a wholehearted yes. All of the bonus materials, combined with the inclusion of the hour of film footage, make this an irresistible package. My only concern is how likely will someone be to watch this four-hour opus in one sitting? I know it was tough for me (not to mention that I had to watch this thing three times in one week!) to do it, so many fans may be less than inclined to randomly pull Dances off their shelves just to watch it. This is now a movie that requires some advance planning to view and will require one to ask, "Do I have four hours?" If you do, then you cannot go wrong with this movie. Of course, if you are doing a double-dip, you may want to consider keeping the original three-hour cut as well—especially if you own the DTS track version.
I realize that I have not gone into great detail about my affection for this film, nor have I done the usual dissertation on some interesting fact related to the film. Though at a loss for words, if necessary, I could easily type for pages about each amazing facet of the film and how it all came together so remarkably well. In this instance, I think that the film speaks for itself far better than anything I could try and state. This film is honestly remarkable on every count, and it is very hard for me to find any fault in this film. Everything works, and when a film does that for you, you heartily recommend it to everyone. And that is what I shall do here. To one and all, go out and buy Dances with Wolves Special Edition. It will make an excellent addition to your collection.
All charges are summarily dismissed. Dance with Wolves is a modern masterpiece and worthy of the Special Edition treatment.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Kevin Costner and Producer Jim Wilson
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