Dances with Wolves is made with the noblest intentions and comes off like a passion project for star and director Kevin Costner. He even had to chip in a large sum of his own money, (reportedly more than $3 million), in order to finish the film. But good intentions and being passionate about a project can only get you so far, and often times result in a film oversaturated with content.
I think that’s the case here, with the extended version of the film totaling almost four hours in runtime. Maybe the theatrical cut would have been more enjoyable, but that’s not what I saw. I saw this extended cut, typically because if that much content is added back in, it’s going to be the superior version. I’m unsure if this is what happened, especially after I learned that Costner had little, if anything, to do with this cut. So if you’re going to watch the film, watch the three hour cut first, and if you like it, only watch the extended version then.
The story follows First Lieutenant John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), who does something stupid and then gets rewarded for it. He decides to ride in front of a bunch of people with guns, hoping to die. But the enemy is a terrible shot, and he lives. Then he is given a citation for bravery, the horse that allowed him to carry out this moronic stunt, and the choice to be posted wherever he chooses.
He chooses a post in the middle of nowhere because he claims that he wants to see it before it disappears for good. He sets out to rebuild the post, but ends up finding an injured Native American woman (Mary McDonnell), the adopted daughter of one of the tribe’s members. He met the tribe earlier in the film, but those interactions were all negative. They finally begin getting along after he “saved” this woman, who goes by the name of Stands with a Fist.
He begins wishing to communicate with the Sioux more frequently, as he finds their lifestyle attractive, and their people friendly. He ends up getting along really well with them, learning their language (kind of), with the help of Stands with a Fist. He even gets the honorary name “Dances with Wolves“, named because he befriended a wolf and played with it.
But that’s essentially all of the story. Oh, there’s a couple of large-scale fight scenes between different tribes and races of people, but essentially, it’s just a story of a man getting along with a tribe of Native Americans, something that would have been unheard of in 1863. So I guess the film has that “shock” factor going for it, but there is no conceivable reason for it to take 4 (or even 3) hours to tell this story.
Since the story is so basic, you need something to hold your attention, or your mind will start to drift. The characters aren’t strong enough to do this, which is unfortunate. Oh, they’re far from your stereotypical Hollywood Native Americans, who would be running around with their tomahawks screaming at the top of their lungs, but that’s all that they are. They’re like normal human beings, and while it’s nice to see them treated with respect, they’re nothing more than that. No deep characters or standouts, just normal.
What almost holds us, but still cannot sustain a 4 hour running time, are the visuals. The film is shot wonderfully, and really captures both the era of the mid 1800’s, but also the feel of the plains. You could take a snapshot of one of the sweeping shots in this film, and frame it. But then you realize that they’re only there as transition shots, and you’ll see the same type of shot over and over again, which becomes dull.
I also found Dances with Wolves incredibly difficult to get into. There are a lot of moments near the beginning of the film that have little to do with the overall idea, plot or message of the film. I’m hoping that it’s only a result of padding brought on in the longer cut, but I don’t have much confidence in that guess. There are a lot of moments throughout the film that drag and almost made me want to turn off the film. The story is so basic that there’s no reason for it to be of this length. Especially when nothing additional is there to make us want to watch it.
I didn’t feel an emotional impact from this film, except for some admiration for Kevin Costner. Not his character, even though he was doing something daring and risky for the time, but for the man who put 5 years of hard work into this film. It’s clear that he cared, and it’s also clear that he’s a good director. So good on him for, at the very least, making something ambitious and impressive in its scope, especially considering its relatively low budget of $22 million. (Likely around $30 million if adjusted for inflation, but that’s still not all that much for a film this long and with this kind of scope.)
Dances with Wolves is ambitious and made with the best of intentions, but wasn’t for me. I didn’t enjoy myself watching it, because it’s far too long and I had trouble caring about what was going on. But there’s a lot of good parts to it, like the portrayal of the Sioux tribe and the breathtaking landscape. But if you’ve never seen it, check out the shorter, (although 3 hours is still a long time), version, and only if you enjoy that should you watch the longer cut.