Some of you may know our sixty-seventh adventure by its Latanka Sioux name: Shumani Tutonka ob Wachi. This sweeping Kevin Costner’s masterpiece actually spent five years being developed and about two months being marketed. Interestingly, this is the direct inverse of the way movies are made today. Whereby the marketing starts five years in the past at Comic Con and then some executives throw together some footage at the last minute and call it a sequel to Tron. The Dances story goes that after Costner read the screenplay, and in order to improve its chances of being made into a movie, he suggested that Michael Blake (the screenwriter) novelize it. This was back when executives read novels to get ideas for movies. You see, Dances With Wolves was written as a spec script. In Hollywood the phrase “On Spec” translates roughly into, “writes without obvious built in audience.” As such, spec scripts usually require Kevin Costner to make them. Though his star has faded since, back then Costner was a kind of a big deal. He was riding high and was blessed with the power to make actual decisions. Now he’s busy being cast in a marginal role in Superman Begins.
Costner’s character begins the film by trying to commit suicide. His cowardly act is interpreted as heroism and he’s granted the choice of any post he desires. He counters by asking to be assigned to the furthermost outpost in the realm, Fort Sedgwick. He claims that he wants “to see the frontier” … before it’s gone. When he arrives the fort is abandoned. He stays anyway, even makes friends with some of the locals. No not the Sioux, well not yet. No in this instance, I’m talking about animals, which are a fairly large part of the story. Dunbar has been granted ownership of the horse he stole on his suicide run, whose name is Cisco, which I assume is short for Francisco, though I’m not sure how that plays into the narrative. Besides Cisco, Dunbar has another furry friend, a wolf by the name of Two Sox. When the Sioux finally come to visit him he is sparring playfully with Two Sox, hence he is given the name “Dances With Wolves.” This is most likely because “Spars Playfully With Wolves” was already taken and there would be confusion if they tried to google him.
This is apparently how The Sioux named each other. Which makes it fun to think about how the rest of the characters in the film got their names. Dances With Wolves and Stands With a Fist are easy ones. Wind in his Hair and Smiles A Lot are even easier, but how do you get a name like Kicking Bird or Ten Bears? Incidentally this is also how most characters are named in movies: Young Man Number Two, Guy With Trench Coat, and the ever-enigmatic Man With No Name.
Kevin Costner aside, the acting here is quite fantastic. Did you know that Mary McDonnell was actually two months older than the actor playing her father in the film? And please let’s not forget the unflappable Wes Studi billed here as “Toughest Pawnee,” which could either be his name in the screenplay or his actual Sioux name. At any rate the real stand out here is Graham Greene’s Kicking Bird. He was Oscar nominated for his role, and did you know, he was actually two years younger than the actress playing his daughter? He was beat at the Academy Awards by Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, which I’m actually okay with, but he still almost pulled off the upset. He has had some pretty good roles since then, most notably in Maverick and Die Hard III: Dances With A Vengeance.
The film actually has much to recommend it, including a heart-stopping Buffalo hunt, which, I might add, was made back in the day where they had to use hundreds of real live buffaloes instead of just telling the actors to run around and pretend there are buffaloes present. This I have come to learn was because Stephen Spielberg had not yet invented CGI. A simply stunning musical score backs the whole thing. It was composed by the recently deceased genius John Barry, who is best known for composing the James Bond Theme and for using really slow string music everywhere else.
Other points of interest include the fact that there was apparently a real John Dunbar that served as a missionary to the Pawnee, but in the interest of revisionist history, this fact was not used as an inspiration for the film. Dances With Wolves actually beat Goodfellas for best picture in its year, and despite protests from film school students, it does in fact deserve to have done so. For a while there was talk of a sequel. The screenwriter actually wrote one called “Holy Road,” (you can find the novelization of it on Amazon) and everyone’s favorite ranger, Viggo Mortensen, was set to take over the role of John Dunbar from Costner. That film fell through, but the original movie was actually remade twice: once as The Last Samurai and once as Avatar.
Next up … 66!