In 1903, an outlaw bandit aimed his pistol at movie audiences and fired. It was a shot felt round the world. With the ten-minute-long The Great Train Robbery, a new and uniquely American film genre, the Western, was born. (Not in the West, but in Milltown, NJ, where the action was in cinema those days.)
By 1990, the Western was dead. Tastes had changed, and audiences had moved on. Other than Clint Eastwood, few were making Westerns—and he hadn’t made one since Pale Rider (1985).
The summer of 85 also saw the release of another Western, Silverado. Cast as a brash young cowboy was Kevin Costner, whose star would rise considerably in the coming years, with movies like The Untouchables (1987), Bull Durham (1988), and Field of Dreams (1989). Against long odds, Costner, at age 35, decided to revive the Western with his own project, which he would star in, co-produce, and direct.
Given wide release 25 years ago, Dances with Wolves would not just be any Western—it would be the Western, winning seven Oscars (it was nominated for 12) and earning $184 million domestically, making it the third biggest hit of 1990, after two other equally unexpected smashes, Home Alone and Ghost. Grossing an additional $240 million worldwide, Dances with Wolves is by far the most successful Western ever made.
Let’s look back at some of the facts, figures, and stories behind a phenomenon, one for each year since its release.
1) The film was adapted from a novel by Michael Blake, who had penned a low-budget Costner movie, Stacy’s Knights (1983). The project began as an unsold script, which the actor and budding director encouraged Blake to rethink as a book, purchased and published in 1988. Its unconventional, and sympathetic, emphasis is on Native American life in the Civil War era, observed by Costner’s disillusioned John Dunbar, a first lieutenant who ultimately chooses to live among peaceful Sioux and defend them from Pawnee raiders and the encroaching U.S. Army. Blake won an Oscar for his adaptation.
2) The film was shot on location in South Dakota, from July to November in 1989. Prominent castmembers included Graham Greene, a member of the First Nations of Canada, as Kicking Bird, Tantoo Cardinal, of Canada’s Metis people, as Black Shawl, and Native American actors including Rodney A. Grant (Wind in His Hair), Floyd Red Crow Westerman (Chief Ten Bears), and Wes Studi (as a Pawnee tribesman). Receiving her most prominent film credit to date was Mary McDonnell, as the Sioux-raised Stands With a Fist. Costner, Greene, and McDonnell (who was just a little younger than Greene and Cardinal, who played her adoptive parents) all received Oscar nominations.
3) To register the discomfort of Kicking Bird’s poor posture, Graham put slippery bologna slices in his shoes. On the Canadian comedy program, The Red Green Show, Graham’s character was asked what he felt about Dances with Wolves, to which he responded, “the native guy was OK. Should have gotten the Oscar.” (Joe Pesci did, for Goodfellas.)
4) Six-year-old Annie Costner, the filmmaker’s daughter, plays Stands With a Fist as a child.
5) The bison hunt, using 3,500 bison, 20 wranglers, 24 bareback Native American stunt riders, and 150 extras, took three weeks to film (with seven cameras) at the Triple U Buffalo Ranch outside Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Costner, who did most of his own horseback riding, nearly broke his back in a fall.
6) Two of the domesticated bison were borrowed from rocker Neil Young.
7) An animatronic bison costing $250,000 was built for the production.
8) Buck and Teddy shared the role of Two Socks the wolf. Neither was terribly cooperative during production.
9) With thousands of bison, incorrigible wolves, and the rigors of an outdoor shoot to contend with the production exceeded its $15 million budget. Costner supplied $3 million of his own money to complete the film.
10) The money woes led to Dances with Wolves being dismissed as “Kevin’s Gate” around Hollywood, a reference to the epic fail of the Western Heaven’s Gate a decade earlier.
11) When the movie took off at the box office Costner realized upwards of $40 million in profit.
12) “Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humor.”—John Dunbar
13) There was a John Dunbar, a pro-Native American missionary allied with the Pawnee in the early 1800s, but there’s no explicit connection to his exploits and the film. Blake based Stands With a Fist on Cynthia Ann Parker, who was kidnapped and adopted by the Comanche at age 10, in 1836, and lived with them until 1960, when the Texas Rangers recaptured her. Her story was the basis of another Western classic, The Searchers (1956).
14) While some critics complained about Dunbar’s “white savior” coming to the aid of his Sioux friends, audiences were absorbed by the details of their existence. A coach was brought in to teach castmembers unfamiliar with the language, like Greene, to speak Lakota. (Lakota’s gendered aspect proved too challenging to master, so the actors speak like women. The coach, Doris Leader Charge, was cast as Chief Ten Bears’ wife, Pretty Shield.)
15) Costner was made an honorary member of the Sioux Nation after the film’s release.
16) Adding to the film’s verisimilitude are its Oscar-nominated art direction and costuming. It won Oscars for film editing, sound, and cinematography.
17) Dances with Wolves was the first Western to win Best Picture since Cimarron (1931). Eastwood’s Unforgiven would also win Best Picture and Best Director in 1992.
18) (Some cinephiles were disappointed that Goodfellas’ Martin Scorsese, whose Raging Bull (1980) lost Best Picture and Director to actor-turned director Robert Redford’s debut Ordinary People, was whacked by another first-time actor-turned director. Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) would eventually win in both categories.)
19) Capping the film is its lush symphonic score, composed by John Barry. “The John Dunbar Theme,” heard in United Way commercials for more than a decade afterwards, was said to have been a personal favorite of Pope John Paul II. Best known for his work on the James Bond series, Barry won an Oscar (his fifth) and a Grammy (his fourth) for Dances with Wolves.
20) Clocking in at a full three hours, Dances with Wolves is among the lengthier Best Picture winners. An extended cut that debuted on DVD runs 236 minutes, longer than record holders Gone With the Wind (1939) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962)—but still shorter than the extended DVD edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), which runs 251 minutes.
21) Costner, now 60, would have three more hits after Wolves, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and JFK in 1991 and the sensationally successful The Bodyguard (1992)—then suffer a decade-long cold streak (The Postman, anyone?) snapped by another, more modestly popular and traditional Western he directed and starred in, Open Range (2003). Costner had another Civil War-era winner with the TV miniseries Hatfields & McCoys (2012), for which he won an acting Emmy.
22) Blake published a sequel to Dances with Wolves, The Holy Road, in 2004. He died earlier this year, at age 69.
23) Dances with Wolves was added to the National Film Registry, for “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films,” in 2007.
24) The Western periodically revives in the wake of Dances with Wolves. This Christmas brings two, Quentin Tarantino’s thriller The Hateful Eight and the fact-based survival drama The Revenant, directed by Birdman’s Oscar winner Alejandro G. Inarritu and starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
25) Dances with Wolves goes on. In 2004, Costner opened an exhibit, “Tatanka: The Story of the Bison,” outside Deadwood, South Dakota, to educate visitors about westward expansion. Earlier this year the Triple U Buffalo Ranch was up for sale, until Ted Turner added it to his empire. Tours of the South Dakota locations are available, so you can experience Dances with Wolves as living history.