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Dances with Wolves - Special Edition

Reviewed by: David Litton
Genre: Western
Video: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Language: English
Subtitle: English, French, Spanish
Length: 236 min
Rating: PG-13
Release Date: 05/20/2003
Studio: MGM Home Entertainment
Commentary: Feature commentary with director Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson, feature commentary with editor Neil Travis and cinematographer Dean Semler
Documentaries: "The Creation of an Epic" documentary
Featurettes: None
Filmography/Biography: None
Interviews: None
Trailers/TV Spots: Theatrical trailer, TV spots
Alternate/Deleted Scenes: None
Music Video: None
Other: Photo montage with introduction by Ben Glass, poster gallery
Cast and Crew: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant, Floyd 'Red Crow' Westerman, Robert Pastorelli
Written By: Michael Blake
Produced by: Jim Wilson, Kevin Costner
Directed By: Kevin Costner
Music: John Barry
The Review:

Show me a routine shoot-'em-up Western with cowboys, saddles, spurs and gun-slinging, and I'll show you Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves." Not only does this engrossing film rank as one of the best Western genre films of all time, but it also singlehandedly manages to make a name for itself as one of cinema's most humane and character-driven tales. As the film's director, Costner would take a great deal of flack during the production, and just as "Titanic" was panned even before it hit the silver screen, "Wolves" was the subject of critical speculation concerning just how bad it would be. ***

And look at what time has done for the grand epic: a whopping $400+ million in worldwide ticket sales, multiple Academy Awards including the prestigious Best Picture Oscar for 1990, and acclaim from both critics and audiences around the globe. The film would redefine moviemaking as we know it, paving the road for such classics as "The Last of the Mohicans," while simultaneously developing a following that has remained ever-faithful throughout the years. To this day, it remains as timeless and incredible as it ever was, a painstaking testament to the passion with which Costner crafted his definitive masterpiece. ***

Revisiting the film for the first time in nearly three years, nothing has changed for me. The story of Lieutenant John G. Dunbar (Costner) and his journey into the frontier remains as powerful and fully developed as the first time I saw it. "I want to see it before it all disappears," he tells his superior before heading out to Fort Sedgewick, which has long since been abandoned by those posted before him. Opting to stay and live in solitude with only his horse for company, Dunbar makes a home for himself in this quiet, sandy plain, getting in touch with the nature surrounding him, and enjoying the vast emptiness away from all the harshness of the Civil War. ***

Helming both the leading role and the director's chair can be a challenging task, but it worked for Mel Gibson in "Braveheart," and this earlier film is no exception. Before he would go on to make the box-office bombs "Waterworld" and "The Postman," Costner had the exceptional talent to both bring a character to life, and envision the world in which he would reside. Employing the wide-open vistas and breathtaking imagery of Dean Semler's cinematography, and incorporating a tremendously impacting John Barry score, the first-time director created a vision of the frontier like nothing else before it, setting a new standard for epic moviemaking while raising the bar for involving protagonists on celluloid. Despite the fact that the narration of Dunbar's diary by Costner sounds somewhat dry, the words are as real as his emotionally adept onscreen performance, and as a result, Dunbar becomes a character with whom we can identify as he witnesses changes, both enlightening and tragic, throughout the course of his time in the West. ***

It is only after meeting the local Sioux tribe for the first time that Dunbar begins to develop a fully-fledged respect and love for his surroundings as well as his new comrades. At first hesitant, the anger-driven warrior named Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) wants nothing more than to rid his land of this white-skinned intruder; the learned Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), however, is not as quick to judge on the basis of appearance. "I believe that he has a good heart," he tells his fellow tribesmen. Thus begins a simple yet very complex human adventure of discovery and brotherhood, all threatened by the shadow of the Manifest Destiny that would ultimately remove many thousands of Indians from their homeland and force them into submission. ***

I think the thing that "Dances with Wolves" benefits from the most is that it doesn't rely on a sense of lurking doom to keep its audience hooked by the story. We know what's coming in the end, with the talks of the impending invasion of the white man; it's only a question of how the filmmakers handle this event. Instead of resorting to cheap plot tactics, writer Michael Blake, who penned the screenplay from his own novel, keeps a tightly-knit focus on the character development and human interaction, leaving the foreshadowed arrival for the very final moments. ***

While most people were worried about the exceptionally lengthy running time of "Dances with Wolves," the film certainly merits its enormity, as its examinations of its characters requires a great abundance of detail. In order for us to embrace the characters, both white and Native American, we must see them as human beings, and the task is certainly risky, a tightrope walk during which one fatal mistake of one-sidedness could bring it all down. But Costner and Blake have familiarized themselves with the ebb and flow of the material, have reached into the beating heart of the source, and crafted each and every character with a finesse that shines brighter than the afternoon sun. ***

So involved do we become with these people that we forget many times about the outside world of the film and remain engrossed by the Sioux tribe and their unique and absorbing customs and rituals. Many character relationships are developed: we see a spiritual growth in the bond between Dunbar, later named Dances with Wolves, and Kicking Bird, both of whom have much to teach and learn from one another. There is a very touching moment of acceptance on the part of Wind in His Hair, who reveals the source of his initial resentment to be little more than an internal emptiness over the loss of a friend. ***

The most involving and fully-realized of these relationships is that of Dunbar and Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), herself a white woman who was picked up by the Sioux as a little girl after an ambush by the notorious Pawnee tribe on her family. Having been brought up with some knowledge of the English language before turning to the native Lakota tongue, Stands With a Fist becomes the primary conduit through which Dunbar and Kicking Bird will be able to communicate, before Dunbar himself learns to speak their language. From the start, it's a given that these two people will fall in love with one another, but the end results are so touching and humanistic that you hardly care about the slightly predictable nature of the romance. McDonnell and Costner fashion their characters with expert craftsmanship, embodying them with all the passionate fervor and devotion that have come to constitute the concept of soulmates. When in a moment of tenderness, Stands With a Fist tells Dunbar, "My place is with you," everything about their love is consumated in a single instant. ***

It is precisely these character bonds that give "Dances with Wolves" its humanistic appeal. We could have all the gorgeous photography, majestic music, and looming intentions that the filmmakers could muster up, but without a connection to the emotional core of the film, it would be nothing. Epics are big in size, but the truly great epics are those that move us in ways beyond simple awe-inspiring grandiosity and vision. This film achieves this complicated step, and as a result makes a name for itself as one of the most harrowing and engrossing films to ever wow an audience.

Image and Sound

For anyone who thought that would be impossible to one-up an already-brilliant picture transfer, this new transfer for "Dances with Wolves" is every bit as good as the previous Image release, perhaps even better. The most noticeable difference between the two transfers is the overall lack of enhancement halos, once intrusive, now virtually gone from the presentation. The colors look as good as ever, wonderfully saturated and accurate throughout. Contrast is excellent, with great shadow detail and rich, deep blacks. If anything, this transfer is much more film-like in appearance than its predecessor. Good job! ***

And now we have the sound mix, mastered in Dolby Digital 5.1; while it sounds great, I couldn't help but prefer the Image release to this one. There's nothing really wrong with this mix, outside of the fact that it isn't quite as aggressive as the previous 5.1 experience. As it stands, however, this one provides some good ambiance through John Barry's well-recorded score, and the sound effects are equally enveloping and imaged quite well. Dynamic range is very good, and the low end sounds clean, with some nice .1 LFE enhancement. Dialogue sounds natural throughout, although the several snippets of Costner's narration sound a bit too confined to the center channel, whereas in the Image track, it expanded into the front channels for fuller effect. ***

Also, I'm a bit stumped as to why MGM has chosen not to include a DTS track with this film. It's been done on the Image edition, and received kudos from Widescreen Review as well as other DVD critics, so why not here? Why not give the film two platters instead of one and allow for the DTS experience?

The Extras

MGM has never really been one to overload their DVDs with countless special features that you couldn't even count on your fingers and toes combined. Unlike Peter Jackson's extended edition of his "Fellowship on the Ring" and the forthcoming "Two Towers," the producers of the new special edition of "Dances with Wolves" have emphasized quality over quantity, and while the two can almost certainly go hand-in-hand in some cases, it's nice to see a disc that doesn't overdo itself. ***

For this new edition we have the extended version of the film, lengthened to nearly four hours of running time, and providing some more instances of character development and interaction for those secondary characters who didn't receive as much screen time as others. In the liner notes of the slipcase, Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson inform us that in the wake of several letters from around the globe inquiring about a sequel (thanks, guys, for not giving in to these requests), they "opted to produce an extended version... for several reasons... [because] every character is richer." That may be so, but I do wish that the original theatrical cut would have been included here. It's not that I don't mind what Costner and Wilson have done here; in fact, much of what has been added in works quite well with the overall movie. But I have a certain vision of "Dances with Wolves" in my mind from previous viewings, and I've grown quite accustomed to it. ***

Disc Two houses the bulk of the special features, beginning with the new piece "The Creation of an Epic: A Retrospective Documentary." Divided into six parts (oddly enough, each one has its own opening montage and closing credits), this puppy features a wealth of interviews with almost everyone involved in the production. We hear from many of the cast members including Mary McDonnell and Graham Greene, as well as many of the filmmakers including Costner, Wilson, novelist Michael Blake, costume designer Elsa Zamparelli, production designer Jeffrey Beecroft, composer John Barry, and so many more. Nearly every aspect of the filmmaking process is covered, complete with archival footage and video from behind-the-scenes to show us both the serious and more lighthearted sides to Costner during the production. We hear about the initial idea and conception in "Novel to Screen," while "Actor Becomes the Director" features praise and recollections of working with Costner both on and off the screen. "The Buffalo Hunt" reveals that a privately-owned buffalo herd was used in that intense sequence, and that Costner actually rode along with the animals for authenticity reasons. "The Look and Sound of Dances" covers the production and costume design; "The Art of Composition" dives into the process of composing the scenes, editing them, and scoring them; and "The Success of Dances" reflects on the Oscar buzz and worldwide acceptance of the film through the eyes of the filmmakers, who were surprised by its success. ***

From here, we move on to a photo gallery with an introduction by still photographer Ben Glass and his guest, Sage, the wolf from the film. The photos play in montage style, with Barry's score to accompany them. Then we have a poster gallery with four prints, most of which are related to the Oscar winnings, two television spots, and the original theatrical trailer.

Commentary Accompanying the director's cut on Disc One are two audio commentaries, the first of which features Costner and Wilson, carried over from the previous Image release with some new insertions in regards to the newly-added footage. As before, the conversation is very interesting and never boring, a pleasant surprise for a four-hour movie. They never run out of things to talk about, be it the production, the cast, the costume design, the sets and location shooting, and the story itself. New to this DVD is the second commentary with editor Neil Travis and cinematographer Dean Semler, who also manage to engage the listener throughout the film's entire with a truckload of comments on a variety of subjects, including the cover-up of Costner's unspeakables in his birthday suit scene. Both commentaries definitely merit a listen, and for those concerned about the length of time, it's very well worth it.
Final Words: While it's not exactly an expansive edition, this new release of "Dances with Wolves" offers us a unique glimpse into the making of one of cinema's most profoundly moving motion pictures. You won't be disappointed.

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May 4, 2003