I was only three years old when Dances With Wolves first hit theaters and began making waves in the film world but for as long as I can remember it’s been in my family’s carousel of go-to films. When I first saw the movie I was only able to grasp the romantic elements the sweeping beauty of the ever present nature the epic adventure and the notion that some movies required enough of an attention span to read subtitles (unless you happen to speak the Lakota language of the Sioux Indians). I had yet to really delve into the historical and thematic implications that shape the story and give it enough weight to merit the “epic” label. Now that the film has been rereleased on Blu-ray with over two hours of special features – many of which help to add significant historical context – and an added 55 minutes of footage cut from the original film it’s a chance to experience Dances in fantastic visual clarity and in greater depth than ever before.
Kevin Costner’s Civil War era hero is an easy one to root for. Lt. John J. Dunbar miraculously survives a suicide mission and is rewarded for his act of bravery with the horse that carried him and his choice of posting. Being the romantic he is he requests to be transferred to the Western frontier so he can see it “before it’s gone.” This of course leads to his exploration of the Sioux Indian culture a great love of nature and the love of a white woman adopted by the Sioux nation. Historical context or not that’s already a great set-up for an epic tale. The extras (which I’ll dive into in a minute) heighten the experience by providing a specific integrated look at the history that the film draws its drama from.
The extra 55 minutes of footage added to this 20th Anniversary extended edition can be a little intimidating – and I’ll admit I needed a bit of an intermission about halfway through the now four-hour long epic – it’s well worth the time investment. The Blu-ray format brings extra vibrancy to scenes that have already been praised for their incredible beauty and while it’s a slow moving film you can’t help but be swept up in the romantic adventure of it all. If you’ve already seen the movie a million times there are four different ways to enjoy the extended cut. Of course there are two selectable commentaries but the disc also includes a pop-up trivia game pointing out which parts are movie magic and which parts are historically accurate and an interactive real-time history lesson on military rankings. The only problem with these features is that the teeny tiny text requires a sizeable television or a giant magnifying glass in order to really follow along.
But that’s only the feature disc. The special features disc includes the basics for any deluxe Blu-ray; original TV spots theatrical trailer various posters promotional photos with a little intro and soundtrack an original music video etc. but these aren’t the real treats. The disc includes vignettes featuring Civil War re-enactors performing traditional marches and a few glimpses at the making of violent effects in the days before fancy movie magic (using a wooden chest plate for a direct hit from an axe how to take an arrow to the chest and the spastic testing of the animatronic buffalo).
For those of us that have a bit of a gap between us and our high school or college Civil War era American history lessons the special features disc also provides a featurette that takes us back in time with the help of the screenwriter and author of Dances With Wolves Michael Blake and various old west and Civil War experts who place the historical lessons into the context of the film. The disc also includes featurettes that help us take a look at the history of the film itself; both the original Making Of and a newer updated Making Of are included. The retrospective featurette is the more interesting of the two including the back story of how three friends came together to get the original novel published and its subsequent film adaptation rolling in the face of studios that didn’t understand Costner’s vision. My favorite tidbit includes a confession from Costner himself about how unlikely it was that he could flip the switch from actor to the director of an epic Academy Award winning film. Despite his apprehensions the film became a classic – many even credit it with the successful return of the classic Western.
Dances With Wolves originally cost only 22 million dollars to produce yet in this new format it feels like a film created on a much grander scale.
The 20th Anniversary Blu-ray hits stores today Jan. 11.