BluRay/DVD Reviews

DANCES WITH WOLVES

By • Feb 7th, 2011 •

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I saw the film when it opened. I no longer remember, seeing it again now, where the extra hour fits in. But one thing is certain, it makes the third act much more painful, since we get to know the Indian characters even more fully, and they are so remarkably sympathetic, I could barely stand to watch the final hour.

Where the film falters is in its first act, when Kevin Costner’s character exits the Civil War and is assigned to an outpost on the Western frontier. On the way he meets a Fort commander played by Maury Chaykin, who gives a ludicrous performance, as a man unsuited for authority and facing mental collapse, possibly out of mental illness, possibly out of PTSD. While I imagine that this, and a few other grotesque portrayals early on, are meant to contrast with the Indians’ nobility, I feel that Chaykin did not understand what he was supposed to be doing, and Costner as director couldn’t help him solve the problem. The performance is pretty bad, as is that of a buckboard driver who Costner accompanies out to the abandoned fort. But all that’s in the writing. I don’t think anyone ever really got those words and characterizations to work on paper, and so they failed on film.

On the first commentary track, Costner recalls that at first he wanted an older man for the role – Strother Martin he says. Then he considered Marlon Brando, but was worried, not knowing Brando, if he would be prepared, and they only had two days to get the scene on film. Why he thought Brando might want to do a five minute sequence eludes me. Then he decided on a younger person, and Chaykin fit the bill. He admits that Chaykin chewed the scenery. I wish that his purpose was made clear.

The rest of this long, epic film is, in varying degrees, successful – and there are no more failed attempts at characterization. If anyone needed a better demonstration of why casting is essential to a film’s success, this is it. The Indian actors – Graham Greene, Wes Studi, Rodney A. Grant – are great. The casting, in fact, in the final three-and-a-half hours, is the film’s crowning achievement. You care so much for these people, and the script, costumes, hair styles, music, and editing serve them very well.

Released theatrically at 181 minutes, two other, subsequent versions are an ‘extended cut’ of 224 minutes, and the ‘director’s cut’ of 236 minutes. Yet this one, on the BluRay box, claims to be 234 minutes, so which is it – yet another version?

On the commentary track, Costner mentions that he was currently scouting for a new Western, and though his search was in Calgary (Canada was financially cheaper then), he began musing about the Dakotas while watching DANCES WITH WOLVES again. The new film was to be OPEN RANGE, a smaller film, but just as deeply felt, and better shot.

On the second disc, there is a feature documentary on the making of the film. It’s an informative tour of the production, but most effecting is the reaction of the film in preview and premiere. In parts of the country where native American populations sat in the premiere mall screenings alongside white audience members, the effect was therapeutic. In this light, it was quite an accomplishment for Costner. I confess, I like WATERWORLD, I like OPEN RANGE very much, and I even like THE POSTMAN. But I can see that Costner never hooked into anything quite this culturally important again. Thankfully, he did it this one time.

And may I take this opportunity to voice a minor complaint: to gather the specs for this BluRay release, I had to use a 10X loupe to read the information on the back of the box. As the medium of delivery grows smaller and smaller – the better to stack your shelves with – my ability to decipher the writing on the back covers grows more and more frustrating. Soon I’m expecting it to be the equivalent of a micro-chip.

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