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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 11/5/98

Dances With Wolves
1990 (1998) - Orion (Image Entertainment)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

THX-certifiedEnhanced for 16x9 TVs

Film Rating: A+
Winner of the 1990 Best Picture Oscar, and deservedly so. This story, of one man's journey of discovery into the heart of Native America, will linger in your thoughts for a long time.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A+/A-/B
This disc boasts an absolutely outstanding new film transfer, in anamorphic widescreen to boot. The film has been remixed for Dolby Digital 5.1, and the result is a thrilling sonic experience. A brand new commentary track rounds it out.

Overall Rating: A
Image has really produced a winner with this new DVD release of Dances With Wolves. A few more extras would have been nice, but that's a minor complaint. The overall quality of this disc makes it well worth the price.

Specs and Features

181 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 84:29, near the end of chapter 12), Snapper packaging, new audio commentary track by director Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson, cast and crew filmographies, THX certified, animated film-themed menu screens with sound effects, scene access (25 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 and 2.0), subtitles & captions: English


The year is 1863, and the Civil War is in full swing. Union army Lieutenant John Dunbar has just survived a major skirmish, escaping with a badly wounded leg. A twist of fate prevents doctors from removing it, before Dunbar manages to limp away and return to the front line. Pushed to the limits of his endurance, Dunbar makes a desperate attempt at suicide. He charges the Confederate lines on horseback, daring the enemy to shoot him. Against all odds, Dunbar survives his foolhardy effort, and in so doing, inspires his shell-shocked comrades into victory.

"The strangeness of this life cannot be measured. In trying to produce my own death, I was elevated to the status of a living legend," Dunbar notes. As a reward for his 'courage', the young lieutenant is given his choice of assignments, and so finds himself sent to Ft. Hayes - the most remote outpost of civilization on the very frontier of the American Great Plains. To any other soldier, this is like being sent to Siberia - frigidly cold winters, blood-thirsty Indian savages. But Dunbar craves the isolation, and longs to see the frontier, "before it's gone". He thus begins an intensely personal journey, coming to understand the noble spirit of his Sioux neighbors, and in so doing, discovering for the first time his own identity.

To say anything else about the plot of Dances With Wolves would be to deny you the pleasure of discovering it for yourselves. Suffice it to say that this film is a tremendous achievement - perhaps Kevin Costner's finest work to date. Costner stars in this Oscar-winning, epic film, and takes his first, highly-successful turn at directing as well. I would liken it to Mel Gibson's similar work as actor/director on Braveheart. It's interesting to note, that Costner seems to have a fascination for the brooding anti-hero - witness his later work in Wyatt Eyrp, Waterworld and The Postman. All of these later roles, however, seem as pale shadows when compared to his performance here as Dunbar.

Dances also benefits from the best efforts of numerous others: Dean Semler's impressive cinematography, a wonderfully restrained screenplay by Michael Blake (based on his own novel), an appropriately sparse, yet encompassing musical score by composer John Barry. The on-screen performances are equally good, from Robert Pastorelli's foul merchant, to Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Ten Bears, the Sioux tribes' elder statesman (X-Files fans may recognize him from his performance in the episode Anasazi). Rodney Grant shines in a fearless performance as Wind in his Hair, a young Sioux warrior who is the last to accept Dunbar. And any opportunity to watch Graham Greene at work is welcome in my book. Greene brings great humanity and authenticity to his character, Kicking Bird. It's a pleasure to watch the mutual fascination, and eventually respect and admiration, that develops between Kicking Bird and Dunbar in the course of the film.

You may remember that I first announced that Image was working on a new DVD version of Dances With Wolves, way back in April, when I first toured their facility. In honor of this release, Image has commissioned a brand new, anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film, and the result is nothing short of spectacular. The image is crisp and clean, with almost no print defects apparent (dust, film grain, etc...). The colors exhibited here, are the most accurate of any transfer I can remember seeing, with very subtle hue detail, and a stunningly wide color spectrum. The vast rolling plains and foreboding Badlands of the Dakotas have never looked better than they do on this DVD. I'm not sure where Image obtained this gorgeous print, but they deserve a lot of credit for going to the effort to do so.

Dances With Wolves was originally released theatrically in the States, in only stereo sound. However, a later European theatrical release of the film was done in full 6-channel sound. Image went to great lengths to obtain the original audio stems for the 6-channel mix, and was thus able to create a brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix for the DVD. The resulting sonic experience is tremendously engrossing, creating a nicely open sound field, with excellent (if sparse) use of the surround channels. This is obvious immediately in the opening battle sequence (chapter 2). Confederate soldiers take potshots at an oblivious Dunbar, and there's great directionality to the crack of gunfire and subsequent ricochet. Listen also to the buffalo hunt in chapter 13. Very tastefully done. Note that Image chose to release the original theatrical version of Dances, rather than the longer version (which is available on laserdisc), because 6-channel audio stems are unavailable for the longer version.

The disc is RSDL dual-layered, but after watching the film twice, I have yet to spot the layer switch itself - it's obviously very well hidden. In a nice touch, the DVD features artfully done, animated menu screens. Film images play behind the main menu itself, and each scene on the scene selections menu is shown in motion as well. A small section of cast and crew biographies is also included. The disc is even THX quality certified (the familiar THX logo plays right after you start the film). About all that's missing here is a theatrical trailer, a minor complaint when you consider the most valuable extra offered here - a new, full-length audio commentary track.

In something of a coup, Image was recently able to record brand new commentary for this film, with director Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson. Those of you who have listened to director's commentary before, know that some directors are better at it than others. Costner has been reluctant to record such commentaries in the past, making this new track all the more rare a treat. Here, the friendship between Costner and Wilson (forged in large part while making this film) is obvious, and adds much to the overall experience. Hearing them reminisce about the making of Dances, is surprisingly enjoyable - there's lots of interesting stories between them.

Bottom line

Image Entertainment has finally hit their stride with the DVD format. This new edition of Dance With Wolves is an entirely satisfying experience, and exhibits much of the loving care that Image has long been so well known for among laserphiles. The quality of this DVD is simply stunning. It's been a long time in coming, but if you're a fan of Dances With Wolves, you should find that this DVD was well worth the wait. A pleasure from beginning to end.

Bill Hunt
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