#131) Dances with Wolves (1990)


#131) Dances with Wolves (1990)

OR “White Savior: The Motion Picture”

Directed by Kevin Costner

Written by Michael Blake. Based on his novel (which was based on his unsold screenplay).

Class of 2007

The Plot: Union Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) is transferred to Fort Hays, Kansas to see the frontier before it disappears. He finds the fort deserted and sets camp by himself. He eventually makes contact with a neighboring Dakota tribe, who want nothing to do with him except for holy man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) and Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman raised by the tribe. As Dunbar begins to assimilate the Lakota, the threat of the Pawnee (as well as the white man) looms.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s cinematography and score, as well as its more sympathetic and diverse portrayal of the Lakota Sioux. There’s an all-encompassing essay by Angela Aleiss, who knows a thing or two about Native American portrayals in film.

But Does It Really?: As much as I don’t care for Kevin Costner, he did direct and produce a wonderfully executed western epic. It doesn’t fall into too many trappings (except for the aforementioned “white savior” complex), and the whole film has a masterful scope without feeling bloated. While not without its controversy and mixed response within the Native American community, the film’s diverse portrayal of the Lakota is a step in the right direction. I don’t know if “Dances with Wolves” is Best Picture-good (more on that later) but it is definitely NFR-worthy.

Everybody Gets One: Everybody, most notably Kevin Costner**, Mary McDonnell, former “Murphy Brown” actor Robert Pastorelli, and infamous “SNL” player Charles Rocket. And special mention to Teddy and Buck, the two wolves who played Two Socks.

Wow, That’s Dated: The only major giveaway is right at the beginning when the logo for gone-but-not-forgotten Orion Studios appears.

Title Track: “Dances with Wolves” is Dunbar’s Lakota name and doesn’t come up until about 110 minutes into the film.

Seriously, Oscars?: A movie projected to flop so badly it was dubbed “Kevin’s Gate”, “Dances” surprised everyone, particularly Costner, with its critical, commercial, and Oscar success. The film led the 1990 Oscars with 12 nominations, winning seven; including Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Score. This is all well and good until you learn that they beat out “Goodfellas” in most major categories. The internet still won’t let the Academy live that one down.

Other notes

  • First off, I’ve always been a fan of John Barry’s work as a composer. He’s the man who gave us the James Bond theme, the score to “Out of Africa”, and perhaps the most epic music for an “Alice in Wonderland” adaptation ever.
  • No wonder the Confederacy lost the war; they can’t shoot for shit.
  • We all agree that Dunbar’s facial hair is fake, right?
  • This film is the answer to the trivia question: “Which Best Picture winner features Eldin from ‘Murphy Brown’ experiencing flatulence and being scalped alive?”
  • Ladies and Gentlemen, Kevin Costner’s butt! At least now we know how this film got financed.
  • As much as I enjoy John Barry’s score, every selection sounds like the music playing when they announce, “Winner of 13 Academy Awards”.
  • For a three-hour film, everything clips along at a good pace. I will grant the film that. I also applaud the film’s sparing use of dialogue. You are only told what is absolutely needed. Everything else is conveyed in the visuals.
  • That buffalo hunt scene is amazing, if just for the fact that there were still enough buffalo in 1989 to film it.
  • Dunbar dances just like 90% of all white men. Guilty as charged.
  • This is the second film I’ve covered on this blog that has some beef with a tribe of Pawnee. Turns out the Lakota weren’t as passive towards the Pawnee in real life.
  • How does one direct themselves in a sex scene?
  • The Lakota also call Dunbar “Busy Bee”, but that’s not as good a title.
  • Man, white people suck.
  • Stick around during the credits for such fun crew nicknames as “Sled”, “Dumbo”, “Living Legends”, and “BS”.


  • Kevin Costner’s directing career never really took off after this film. He instead focused on producing and acting (and allegedly a little back seat-directing every now and then). Costner’s only other credited films as director are “The Postman” and “Open Range”.
  • We got a wide range of films in the ‘90s starring and/or about Native Americans, from a remake of “Last of the Mohicans” to “Smoke Signals” to “Pocahontas”. After that, not so much.
  • The novel of “Dances with Wolves” received a sequel in 2001: “The Holy Road”. Attempts at turning this sequel into a film with Viggo Mortensen taking over the role of John Dunbar have stalled over the years.
  • Since 2010, there have also been stabs at a musical theater adaptation. Don’t get me wrong; with the right people involved you can make a good musical about anything. I just think the degree of difficulty’s a bit higher on this one.
  • The Sioux Nation adopted Kevin Costner as an honorary member, because someone had to.
  • Graham Greene poked fun at his own performance on an episode of “The Red and Green Show”.
  • And of course, the film’s wildly successful 2009 remake: “Avatar”.

Further Viewing: Two movies with enough parallels with “Dances” to warrant some major complaints from their filmmakers, 1957’s “Run of the Arrow” and 1970’s “A Man Called Horse”. What do YOU think?

**2017 Update: Costner now has “Field of Dreams” as well. If you build it, he will keep showing up on this list.

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