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People generally won’t admit to liking Kevin Costner or his films but I will have to admit that grudgingly, I quite like some of his efforts. Field of Dreams and Tin Cup are in my collection, and I do look occasionally for that DTS version of Waterworld I am still after but I had not yet added Dances with Wolves to the rack. The recent region two disc looked quite good but as luck would have it, I managed to get the new region one, two disc set in for reviewing, so how does it fare?

Dances with Wolves: Special Edition

The Film
It is the Civil War in America, and the film opens in 1865 in St David’s Field in Tennessee in which the North and South are sitting at opposite ends of a field in a stand off. Soldiers are having legs and feet amputated and Lieutenant (pronounced the American way) John Dunbar (Costner) is not best pleased with the “modern” medicine and therefore takes it upon himself to give the enemy something to shoot at instead. Taking a horse he charges past the enemy and this stirs spirit on his side. This leads to a swift victory and Dunbar is decorated as a hero and given his choice of post. Always wanting to see the frontier, he makes his choice and sets out into the remote part of the prairie.

After a tiring journey with a troublesome guide, Dunbar arrives at Fort Cedric which is unfortunately deserted. Instead of retreating back to whence he came, Dunbar makes this fort his new home and starts to tidy and repair its dilapidated conditions. At nearly an hour in, Dunbar sees his first Native American Indian. As the Indian tries to steal his horse, Dunbar runs from the lake where he was washing to confront this would be thief, but in a strange and perhaps unconventional twist, the Indian does not suddenly become violent but instead reacts as anyone would do when someone appears out of no where and is running at them while naked – he falls over trying to retreat and then manages to mount his horse and runs away.

Dances with Wolves: Special Edition

Days and weeks pass and with no support from the army Lt. John Dunbar is still alone aside from his horse. On one of his regular reconnaissance rides he finds a female Indian named Stands With A Fist (McDonnell). She is covered in her own blood and holding a knife. Dunbar introduces himself and she freaks out – the enemy has found her. A brief struggle and she faints so Dunbar binds her wounds and carries her back to her camp. Upon arriving he is obviously met with a frosty reception and dismissed from the camp with much haste. While neither side realises, this is the start of what will be a beautiful friendship between white man and Sioux Indian.

This is a great film. The direction is epic and the acting from all is just sublime. The costumes are stunning and the story’s pace is well timed. Not once does it drag even at nearly four hours long as it is just such a beautiful piece. Subtitles feature heavily in this film but they are never long or complicated and are therefore easy on the eyes. The relationships that develop between the Sioux and Dunbar are very individual with each Indian having different feelings for this potential threat. The trepidation at first expands into a partnership of unprecedented proportions with Dunbar being seen trying to “shoo” his newly found friend (a wolf named Two-Socks) away before he visits the Indians. This earns him his name, Dances With Wolves. The quiet humour, familiarity of the mannerisms and the gentleness of the Sioux make for intriguing viewing.

A little different from other films in that not only are there several different DVDs around, but each has a different cut of the film on it which makes it a hard choice in which is the cut for you. The theatrical cut of the film comes in at just over 3 hours (NTSC R1), this two disc SE edition which is just under 4 hours (NTSC R1) or you could even go for the Extended European version (available as part of a 3 disc box set from Spain) of the film which while I have not seen it promises to be the longest yet at 240 PAL minutes (which is the same as nearly 250 NTSC minutes!). So is this version definitive? Not having seen this Spanish version I cannot really say, however at 4 hours long it is a very complete story with a lot of character development and a lot of energy and excitement surrounding the movie’s thrilling scenes.

Dances with Wolves: Special Edition

I noticed that compared to when I first saw this at the cinema, the print seems cropped slightly. The pack states it is presented in 2.35:1 however a few calculations make this seem closer to 2.32:1 whereas the first couple of releases of this film are presented in 2.40:1. I assume that some of the extra footage added was not available in the original aspect ratio and therefore the image has been cropped – a bit of a shame. The first thing I noticed about the quality of the print however was how clean it is. The vivid colours of the open plains look incredible with the artefact free skies. The night scenes are dark with good levels of definition around the often present, tiny dancing flames. The bit rate for the film is very high at over 8Mb/s and it shows. An epic presentation for a truly epic film.

Several of the DVD releases come with a DTS soundtrack, however this release is only present with a Dolby Digital 5.1 English (well, mostly English) stream. Since the film is spread over two sides of a DVD I would have imagined that this would have fitted however it has been left out. The sound compliments the video in presenting an epic soundscape with John Barry’s fantastic score giving the impression of even larger prairies, of more thunderous buffalo stampeding and of more terrifying war cries. Dialogue is clear and the native American Indian language sounds wonderful – not that it matters too much since if it were not for the subtitles I would have no idea what was being said. An excellent soundtrack.

Dances with Wolves: Special Edition

The film is accompanied by two commentaries. The first is by Kevin Costner and Producer Jim Wilson. This is the better of the two as we get the opinions of the man who spearheaded the films transfer to the silver screen, the principle actor, the director and the producer. Recorded in Kevin’s screening lounge (wish I had one of them!) both men get along famously and talk with such a passion that everything they say is just really interesting. They mention how in the opening scenes where Dunbar is to have his leg amputated it is actually Costner’s double lying down on the table. This is because Costner and the producer are both playing doctor operating on him! They also talk about how they thought of trying to cast Marlon Brando for a certain part but were basically too scared that the actor wouldn’t be able to squeeze the required performance into the tiny timeframe they had for the shoot.

The second commentary track is with Neil Travis (one of the Film Editors) and Dean Semler (Cinematographer). Since Semler worked so closely with Costner behind the camera that a lot of what he says is often said also by Costner. With two such technical jobs I was expecting this to be a very technical and for the most, dull to all but film students however from what I assume is because of such a close knit film environment, they both have a decent amount to contribute on a non-technical point of view. Of course there is a lot of talk about lenses and where each camera was for each shot and how they did this and that. There are times of silence and it is not as riveting on the whole as the first commentary, but none the less it is still makes for a decent listen.

The B side of the first disc also houses the documentary, The Making of Dances with Wolves. This twenty one minute piece presented in 4:3 features interviews, behind the scenes footage and film footage (presented in cropped 4:3). The documentary is narrated by some form of voice-over-man. I kept expecting him to suddenly say “In a time before time…” but luckily he doesn’t. It’s a bit promotional to be honest but a nice inclusion.

This disc also includes the original 4:3 music video for Dances with Wolves with music from John Barry. It’s a mix of the main theme and a cheesy beat with footage from both in front of, and behind the camera. I have to say that this is pure tat. The music is not good and the video itself is dreadful. It runs for just under four minutes.

On the second disc the first feature up is a retrospective documentary entitled The Creation of an Epic. This is broken up into seven parts which can be viewed individually or all at once. Interviews with the writer Michael Blake, producer Jim Wilson and of course Kevin Costner amongst others are energised with a passion for this film, particularly from Costner. It’s fantastic to see how these people had such enthusiasm for this film which no-one wanted to make. Taking 108 days to shoot, this was a long film to make when the average of the time was a mere 65 days. In total this runs for an hour and twenty one minutes, filmed especially for the DVD. The titles of each section are:  The Creation of an Epic – Intro; Novel to Screen; Actor Becomes The Director; The Buffalo Hunt; The Look and Sound of Dances; The Art of Composition; The Success of Dances.

Next up is the Dances Photo Montage introduced by Ben Glass the publicity photographer. Frames that are memorable from the movie as well as behind the scenes photos feature here in this animated slide show lasting nine and a half minutes. The Poster Gallery follows this showcasing the four theatrical posters created for the film.

Dances with Wolves: Special Edition

Two TV Spots present the film in quite different lights and to be honest, do it no favours. The first entitled Courage and Passion bills the film as a love story with nothing about the relationship between the Sioux and Dunbar, while the second is the attempt to get the film an Oscar as over some footage, it lists the awards the film was nominated for. A bit sickening really, but then those Academy Campaigns usually are. Finally we have the Theatrical Trailer presented in a 4:3 letterboxed format running for two and a half minutes and is an incredible mish-mash of as many different scenes as possible, however to its credit, that bumbling fool of a voice-over-man is was not given the opportunity to ruin it further. Finally we are given the Trailers for the other “Great MGM Movies” of Platoon and Windtalkers as well as a look at the covers for eight more MGM classics.

This is a fantastic film and this is probably the best version for most people to buy. I would like to see the aforementioned 3 disc Spanish box set however this two disc set is a lot more affordable and contains near identical film content. The extra features here are not as immense as I had hoped but the near hour and a half documentary is a nice bit of footage. Fantastic video presentation with excellent sound make this a worthy purchase for anyone.