Dances with Wolves

Dances with Wolves is a 1990 American epic Western film starring, directed and produced by Kevin Costner. It is a film adaptation of the 1988 book of the same name by Michael Blake that tells the story of Union Army lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Costner) who travels to the American frontier to find a military post and of his dealings with a group of Lakota.

Dances with Wolves
Theatrical release poster
Directed byKevin Costner
Produced by
Screenplay byMichael Blake
Based onDances with Wolves
by Michael Blake
Music byJohn Barry
CinematographyDean Semler
Edited byNeil Travis
  • Tig Productions
Distributed byOrion Pictures
Release date
  • October 19, 1990 (1990-10-19) (Uptown Theater)
  • November 9, 1990 (1990-11-09) (United States)
Running time
181 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$22 million[2]
Box office$424.2 million[2]

Costner developed the film with an initial budget of $15 million. Dances with Wolves had high production values.[3] Much of the dialogue is spoken in Lakota with English subtitles. It was shot from July to November 1989 in South Dakota and Wyoming, and translated by Albert White Hat, the chair of the Lakota Studies Department at Sinte Gleska University.

The film earned favorable reviews from critics and audiences, who praised Costner's directing, the performances, screenplay, and production values. The film was a massive box office hit, grossing $424.2 million worldwide, making it the fourth highest-grossing film of 1990, and is the highest-grossing film for Orion Pictures. The film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards at the 63rd Academy Awards and won seven including Best Picture, Best Director for Costner, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Sound Mixing. The film also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama.

The film is credited as a leading influence for the revitalization of the Western genre of filmmaking in Hollywood. In 2007, Dances with Wolves was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[4]


In 1863, First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar is wounded in battle at St. David's Field in Tennessee. Choosing death in battle over amputation of his leg, he takes a horse and rides up to and along the Confederate lines. Despite numerous pot shots, the Confederates fail to hit him, and while they are distracted, the Union Army successfully attacks the line. Dunbar survives, receives a citation for bravery, and proper medical care. He recovers fully and is awarded Cisco, the horse who carried him during his suicide attempt, and his choice of posting. Dunbar requests a transfer to the western frontier, so he can see it before it disappears.

Dunbar is transferred to Fort Hays, a large fort presided over by Major Fambrough, an unhinged officer who despises Dunbar's enthusiasm. He agrees to post him to the furthest outpost they have, Fort Sedgwick, and kills himself shortly afterwards. Dunbar travels with Timmons, a mule wagon provisioner. They arrive to find the fort deserted. Despite the threat of nearby native tribes, Dunbar elects to stay and man the post himself.

He begins rebuilding and restocking the fort, and prefers the solitude, recording many of his observations in his diary. Timmons is killed by Pawnee people on the journey back to Ft. Hays. His death, together with that of the major who had sent them there, prevents other soldiers from knowing of Dunbar's assignment, and no other soldiers arrive to reinforce the post.

Dunbar initially encounters his Sioux neighbors when attempts are made to steal his horse and intimidate him. Deciding that being a target is a poor prospect, he decides to seek out the Sioux camp and attempt dialogue. On his way, he comes across Stands With A Fist, the White adopted daughter of the tribe's medicine man Kicking Bird, who is ritually mutilating herself while mourning for her husband. Dunbar brings her back to the Sioux to recover, and some of the tribe begin to respect him.

Eventually, Dunbar establishes a rapport with Kicking Bird, the warrior Wind In His Hair and the youth Smiles A Lot, initially visiting each other's camps. The language barrier frustrates them, and Stands With A Fist acts as an interpreter, although with difficulty. She only remembers English from her early childhood before the rest of her family was killed during a Pawnee raid.

Dunbar discovers that the stories he had heard about the tribe were untrue, and he develops a growing respect and appreciation for their lifestyle and culture. Learning their language, he is accepted as an honored guest by the Sioux after he tells them of a migrating herd of buffalo and participates in the hunt. When at Fort Sedgewick, Dunbar also befriends a wolf he dubs "Two Socks" for its white forepaws. Observing Dunbar and Two Socks chasing each other, the Sioux give him the name "Dances With Wolves." During this time, Dunbar also forges a romantic relationship with Stands With A Fist and helps defend the village from an attack by the rival Pawnee tribe. Dunbar eventually wins Kicking Bird's approval to marry Stands With A Fist and abandons Fort Sedgwick.

Because of the growing Pawnee and White threat, Chief Ten Bears decides to move the tribe to its winter camp. Dunbar decides to accompany them but must first retrieve his diary from Fort Sedgwick as he realizes that it would provide the army with the means to find the tribe. When he arrives he finds the fort reoccupied by the U.S. Army. Because of his Sioux clothing, the soldiers open fire, killing Cisco and capturing Dunbar, arresting him as a traitor.

Two officers interrogate him, but Dunbar cannot prove his story, as a corporal has found his diary and kept it for himself. Having refused to serve as an interpreter to the tribes, Dunbar is charged with desertion and transported back east as a prisoner. Soldiers of the escort shoot Two Socks when the wolf attempts to follow Dunbar, despite Dunbar's attempts to intervene.

Eventually, the Sioux track the convoy, killing the soldiers, and freeing Dunbar. They assert that they do not see him as a White man, but as a Sioux warrior called Dances With Wolves. At the winter camp, Dunbar decides to leave with Stands With A Fist because his continuing presence would endanger the tribe. As they leave, Smiles A Lot returns the diary, which he recovered during Dunbar's liberation, and Wind In His Hair shouts to Dunbar, reminding him that he is Dunbar's friend, a contrast to their original meeting where he shouted at Dunbar in hostility.

U.S. troops are seen searching the mountains, but are unable to locate them, while a lone wolf howls in the distance. An epilogue states that thirteen years later the last remnants of the free Sioux were subjugated to the American government, ending the conquest of the Western Frontier states and the livelihoods of the tribes on the plains.



Originally written as a spec script by Michael Blake, it went unsold in the mid-1980s. However, Kevin Costner had starred in Blake's only previous film, Stacy's Knights (1983), and encouraged Blake in early 1986 to turn the Western screenplay into a novel to improve its chances of being produced. The novel was rejected by numerous publishers but finally published in paperback in 1988. The rights were purchased by Costner, with an eye on directing it.[5]

Actual production lasted for four months, from July 18 to November 23, 1989. Most of the movie was filmed on location in South Dakota, mainly on private ranches near Pierre and Rapid City, with a few scenes filmed in Wyoming. Specific locations included the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, and the Belle Fourche River area. The bison hunt scenes were filmed at the Triple U Buffalo Ranch outside Fort Pierre, South Dakota, as were the Fort Sedgewick scenes, the set being constructed on the property.[5]


Defying expectations, Dances with Wolves proved instantly popular, eventually earning great critical acclaim, making $184 million in U.S. box office and $424 million in total worldwide.[6] As of 13 July 2019, the film holds an approval rating of 82% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 74 reviews, with an average rating of 7.58/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "A grand, sweeping epic with inarguably noble intentions and arresting cinematography, but one whose center, arguably, is not as weighty as it should be."[7] Metacritic gave the film a score of 72 out of 100 based on 20 critical reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[8] CinemaScore reported that audiences gave the film a rare "A+" grade.[9]

Because of the film's popularity and lasting impact on the image of Native Americans, the Sioux Nation adopted Costner as an honorary member.[10] At the 63rd Academy Awards ceremony in 1991, Dances with Wolves earned twelve Academy Award nominations and won seven, including Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay (Michael Blake), Best Director (Kevin Costner), and Best Picture of the Year. In 2007, the Library of Congress selected Dances with Wolves for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.[4]

Native American activist and actor Russell Means was critical of the film's technical accuracy. In 2009, he said "Remember Lawrence of Arabia? That was Lawrence of the Plains. The odd thing about making that movie is that they had a woman teaching the actors the Lakota language, but Lakota has a male-gendered language and a female-gendered language. Some of the Natives and Kevin Costner were speaking in the feminine way. When I went to see it with a bunch of Lakota guys, we were laughing."[11] Other Native Americans like Michael Smith (Sioux), Director of San Francisco's long-running annual American Indian Film Festival, said, "There's a lot of good feeling about the film in the Native community, especially among the tribes. I think it's going to be very hard to top this one."[12]

Some of the criticism was inspired by the fact that the pronunciation is not authentic since only one of the actors was a native speaker of the language. The dialogues in the native language have been lauded as a remarkable achievement.[13] However, other writers have noted that earlier otherwise English-language films, such as Eskimo (1933), Wagon Master (1950) and The White Dawn (1974), had also incorporated Native dialogue.[14]

David Sirota of Salon referred to Dances with Wolves as a "white savior" film, as Dunbar "fully embeds himself in the Sioux tribe and quickly becomes its primary protector." He argued that its use of the "noble savage" character type "preemptively blunts criticism of the underlying White Savior story. The idea is that a film like Dances With Wolves cannot be bigoted or overly white-centric if it at least shows [characters such as] Kicking Bird and Chief Ten Bears as special and exceptional. This, even though the whole story is about a white guy who saves the day."[15]

Writer Richard Grenier was strongly critical of the film. Grenier accused Costner of misrepresenting the Sioux as peaceful, claiming that the film's "portrait of the Sioux, the most bloodthirsty of all Plains Native tribes and neither pacifists nor environmentalists, is false in every respect".[16]


In addition to becoming the first Western film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture since 1931's Cimarron,[17] Dances with Wolves won a number of additional awards, making it one of the most honored films of 1990.[18]


The Holy Road, a sequel novel by Michael Blake, the author of both the original Dances with Wolves novel and the movie screenplay, was published in 2001.[19] It picks up eleven years after Dances with Wolves. John Dunbar is still married to Stands with a Fist and they have three children. Stands with a Fist and one of the children are kidnapped by a party of white rangers and Dances with Wolves must mount a rescue mission. As of 2007, Blake was writing a film adaptation.[20] Costner, who has refused to do sequels to any of his films, including The Untouchables, stated he would not take part in this production.

Historical references

Judith A. Boughter wrote: "The problem with Costner's approach is that all of the Sioux are heroic, while the Pawnees are portrayed as stereotypical villains. Most accounts of Sioux–Pawnee relations see the Pawnees, numbering only 4,000 at that time, as victims of the more powerful Sioux."[21]

Historic Fort Hays was founded in 1867, with the iconic stone blockhouse being built immediately.[22] The predecessor to fort Hays, Fort Fletcher (1865-1868), was abandoned for only a few months and then relocated in a short distance in 1866.[23]

Fort Hays was founded in Cheyenne territory rather than Sioux. Rather than a desolate site, the Kansas Pacific Railway and the settlements of Rome and Hays City were built next to the fort in 1867; each a perceived violation of Cheyenne and Arapaho territory resulting in immediate warfare with the Dog Soldiers.[24]

A historic Pawnee tipi village had been located but 9 miles (14 km) from Fort Hays, but the Pawnee had been excluded from it for some time by the 1860s.[25][26]

There was a real John Dunbar who worked as a Christian missionary among the Pawnee in the 1830s–40s, and sided with the Native Americans in a dispute with government farmers and a local Indian agent.[27] It is unclear whether the name "John Dunbar" was chosen as a corollary to the historical figure.[28]

The fictional Lieutenant John Dunbar of 1863 is correctly shown in the film wearing a gold bar on his officer shoulder straps, indicating his rank as a First Lieutenant. From 1836–1872, the rank of First Lieutenant was indicated by a gold bar; after 1872, the rank was indicated by a silver bar. Similarly, Captain Cargill is correctly depicted wearing a pair of gold bars, indicating the rank of Captain at that time.[29]

In an interview, author and screenwriter Michael Blake said that Stands With a Fist, the white captive woman who marries Dunbar, was actually based upon the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, the white girl captured by Comanches and mother of Quanah Parker.[30]

Alternate version

One year after the original theatrical release of Dances with Wolves, a four-hour version of the film opened at select theaters in London. This longer cut was titled Dances with Wolves: The Special Edition, and it restored nearly an hour's worth of scenes that had been removed to keep the original film's running time under 3 hours.[31]

In a letter to British film reviewers, director Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson addressed their reasons for presenting a longer version of the film:

Why add another hour to a film that by most standards pushes the time limit of conventional movie making? The 52 additional minutes that represent this "new" version were difficult to cut in the first place, and ... the opportunity to introduce them to audiences is compelling.

We have received countless letters from people worldwide asking when or if a sequel would be made, so it seemed like a logical step to enhance our film with existing footage ... making an extended version is by no means to imply that the original Dances With Wolves was unfinished or incomplete; rather, it creates an opportunity for those who fell in love with the characters and the spectacle of the film to experience more of both.[32]

The genesis of the 4-hour version of the film was further explained in an article for Entertainment Weekly that appeared ten months after the premiere of the original film. "While the small screen has come to serve as a second chance for filmmakers who can't seem to let their babies go, Kevin Costner and his producing partner, Jim Wilson, hope that their newly completed version will hit theater screens first."

"I spent seven months working on it," Wilson says of the expanded Wolves. He's quick to defend the Oscar-winning version as "the best picture we had in us at the time," yet Wilson also says he's "ecstatic" over the recut. "It's a brand-new picture," he insists. "There's now more of a relationship between Kevin and Stands With a Fist, more with the wolf, more with the Indians—stuff that's integral all through the story."

Of course, exhibitors may not want a longer version of an already widely seen movie, but Wilson remains optimistic. "I don't think the time is now," he acknowledges, "but ideally, there is a point at which it would come out with an intermission, booked into the very best venues in America."[33]

Costner would later claim that he did not work on the creation of the four-hour cut at all.[34]


  • John Barry composed the Oscar-winning score. It was issued in 1990 initially and again in 1995 with bonus tracks and in 2004 with the score "in its entirety".
  • Peter Buffett scored the "Fire Dance" scene.


  • The Indian roles in the film are played by real Amerindians (mostly Sioux) who speak or have relearned the Sioux language: Lakota, thanks in particular to Doris Leader Charge, the only true representative of the Sioux people and originally from South Dakota.
  • Kevin Costner's first film as director, the film was shot mainly in South Dakota, but also in Wyoming.
  • While the shooting plan was scheduled to last 60 days, it ended up lasting 108 days, forcing Kevin Costner to pay a good quarter of the budget, himself, to finish the film.
  • The character "Stands With A Fist" in the film is inspired by Cynthia Ann Parker.

See also


  1. "Dances with Wolves". British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved July 29, 2015.
  2. "Dances with Wolves (1990)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved July 29, 2015.
  3. "Dances with Wolves: Overview" (plot/stars/gross, related films), allmovie, 2007, webpage: amovie12092
  4. "2007 list". National Film Registry. Library of Congress. 27 December 2017. Archived from the original on 31 January 2008. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  5. "Dances with Wolves". Southdakota Midwest Movies. Archived from the original on 15 February 2006. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  6. Commercial statistics for "Dances with Wolves" at
  7. "Dances with Wolves (1990)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 2019-07-13.
  8. "Dances with Wolves Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 2018-03-01.
  9. "CinemaScore". CinemaScore. CinemaScore. Retrieved 2018-03-01.
  10. Svetkey, Benjamin (1991-03-08). "The unexpected success of Dances With Wolves". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2008-03-13.
  11. "Russell Means Interview with Dan Skye of High Times". Russell Means Freedom. Retrieved 2011-03-02.
  12. Aleiss, Angela (2005). Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, Conn./London: Praeger. p. 146. ISBN 027598396X.
  13. "Discussion about the use of Lakota language in Dances With Wolves on the Lakota Language Forum:".
  14. Aleiss, Angela (2005). Making the White Man's Indian : Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, Conn./London: Praeger. p. 165. ISBN 027598396X.
  15. Sirota, David (February 21, 2013). "Oscar loves a white savior". Salon. Retrieved July 11, 2013.
  16. Hype In Wolves` Clothing: The Deification Of Costner`s `Dances` Richard Grenier, The Chicago Tribune. March 29, 1991. Retrieved May 24 2014.
  17. Angela Errigo (2008). Steven Jay Schneider (ed.). 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. 5th Anniversary Edition. London: Quintessence. p. 786. ISBN 0-7641-6151-2.
  18. "The 63rd Academy Awards (1991) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-10-20.
  19. Blake, Michael (2001). The Holy Road, Random House. ISBN 0-375-76040-7
  20. Blake, Michael. "The official website of Michael Blake". Archived from the original on 2007-10-11. Retrieved 2008-03-13.
  21. Judith A. Boughter (2004). "The Pawnee Nation: An Annotated Research Bibliography". Scarecrow Press. p.105. ISBN 0810849909
  22. "Fort Hays - Exhibits". Kansas Historical Society. Retrieved November 1, 2019.
  23. "Fort Hays". Kansapedia. Kansas Historical Society. Nov 2019. Retrieved November 1, 2019.
  24. Collins. Kansas Pacific. p. 13. [After Fort Hays, it] would then enter the country of three nomadic Indian tribes: the Cheyenne, Arapahoe and Kiowa. ... mile and a half per day. ... Then the Indian raids began.
  25. Howard C. Raynesford (1953). "The Raynesford Papers: Notes- The Smoky Hill River & Fremont's Indian Village". Retrieved 2018-08-12.
  26. Carson Bear (April 4, 2018). "A Nearly Pristine Pawnee Tipi Ring Site Preserved for More Than a Century". National Trust for Historic Preservation. Retrieved 2018-08-12.
  27. Waldo R. Wedel, The Dunbar Allis Letters on the Pawnee (New York: Garland Press, 1985).
  28. "Fiction, history intersect in a name ..." The Day, April 17, 1991
  29. "History of Officer Rank Insignia". US Army Institute of Heraldry. Archived from the original on 4 May 2006. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  30. Aleiss, Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies, p. 145.
  31. Dances with Wolves (Comparison: Theatrical vs. Extended Version).
  32. Gritten, David (December 20, 1991). "Dances with Wolves - The Really Long Version". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 23, 2017.
  33. Daly, Steven (August 30, 1991). "Dances With Wolves: Director's cut". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved January 23, 2017.
  34. Willman, Chris (January 23, 2004). "True Western". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved January 23, 2017.


  • Blake, Michael. Dances with Wolves. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-449-00075-3.
  • Blake, Michael. The Holy Road. ZOVA Books. ISBN 978-0-615-51057-6.
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