Notes From The Frontier
Dances with Wolves - Part 1
Updated: May 11
Celebrating the 31st Anniversary of the Making of a Classic
This week marks the 31st anniversary of the beginning of shooting for Dances with Wolves, the magnificent 1990 seven-time Academy Award-winning film that redefined the western and proved that the genre Hollywood had pronounced dead was alive and kicking!
But it wasn’t easy. Kevin Costner had trouble finding a studio willing to take a chance on a western and he had to finance some of the film’s $19 million budget himself. The film took five years for him to make and he turned down multiple film roles during that time, including Dick Tracy (1990), The Hunt for Red October (1990), Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and Presumed Innocent (1991). Not only that, his film went over budget and Hollywood naysayers began calling the project “Costner’s Last Stand” and “Kevin’s Gate,” after the 1980 western, “Heaven’s Gate.”
But Kevin Costner proved his critics wrong. And, boy, did he! Dances with Wolves became the highest grossing western of all time, with domestic revenue of $184 million and $424 million worldwide. It went on to win numerous awards, including the first Best Picture Oscar for a western since Cimarron in 1931, almost 60 years earlier! It also made the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Top American Movies. And, finally, because of the film’s attention to historical detail and Native American culture, in 2007, Dances with Wolves was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”
“Western themes are very hard to pull off. There’s a tendency to think white hat/black hat and it’s much more complicated,” Kevin Costner says. But, he adds, there was a time “where if you were tough enough, if you were vicious enough, you could take land and make it yours. When we figured out if we could just take it, we did and held it at all costs….[Native Americans] still haven’t recovered [from losing their land].” Dances with Wolves is, ultimately, about the loss of a people’s way of life, their land, their legacy.
Here’s some behind-the-scenes trivia about the making of Dances with Wolves:
1. Neil Young provided his pet buffalo, Mammoth, and the South Dakota Meat Company provided their mascot, a tame buffalo named Cody, for the film. Cody loved Oreo cookies and would come running from 100 yards away when he saw them. That’s how the scene of the buffalo charging the stranded Indian boy, Smiles A Lot, was made!
2. For the buffalo hunt scene, the crew attached straps to Mammoth that had arrows attached that looked as if they were piercing his hide.
3. After the buffalo hunt, when Lieutenant Dunbar was offered the buffalo liver to eat raw, Costner was, in fact, eating cranberry jello.
4. Two Socks, the wild wolf Dunbar befriends, was played by two wolves named Buck and Teddy. The scene in which Dunbar is playing with the wolf was actually the wolf trainer, who was bitten in the leg when the wolf chased him. So, Kevin Costner had to run with the wolf himself during the next shot and threw pieces of raw meat out so the wolf was distracted. When the wolves needed to howl, Costner and producer Jim Wilson howled themselves to inspire the wolves!
5. Dances with Wolves employed more than 30 Native American actors, including leading names such as Graham Greene, Wes Studi, Tantoo Cardinal, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Rodney Grant, Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse, Michael Spears, and Jimmy Herman.
6. There was a drought during the filming of Dances with Wolves, so water had to be shipped into the Fort Sedgwick location to fill the pond.
7. The dead deer Dunbar pulled out of the pond were actually from dead deer collected from South Dakota highway kill.
8. Much of the dialogue was spoken in Lakota, with English subtitles, a revolutionary approach for a western. The Lakota portion of the script was translated by a 60-year-old teacher named Doris Leader Charge, at Sinte Gleska University (SGU) with assistance from Albert White Hat, the chair of SGU’s Lakota Studies Department. SGU is an accredited, private American Indian tribal college in Mission, South Dakota, on the Brule Rosebud Reservation. Kevin Costner convinced Doris Leader Charge to play the part of Pretty Shield, wife of Chief Ten Bears, portrayed by Floyd Red Crow Westerman.
9. 250 Civil War reenactors were used in the Tennessee battle scenes, which was shot in South Dakota.
10. The shooting of the epic buffalo scene required a helicopter, 10 pickup trucks, 24 bare back Native American riders, 175 extras, 100 horses, 20 wranglers, 7 cameras, 3,500 buffalo and 25 animatronic buffalo, used for the killing scenes. The buffalo herd was the largest privately-owned herd in the world, of South Dakota rancher Roy Houck.
11. The scene where Dunbar’s horse, Cisco, was bucking around in the corral was not planned. Cisco was just frisky and letting off steam. But the cameras caught it and the footage looked so good, they included it.
12. The scene of a field of dead, skinned buffalo used papier-mâché models that looked extremely realistic. Some passersby called the police during the filming, believing they were seeing poaching in the act. The police approached with guns drawn, until the crew explained and showed them the models.
13. The legendary Graham Greene, who played Kicking Bird, an older holy man with arthritic posture, put a slice of bologna in each moccasin that caused him to walk with a slightly awkward comportment.
14. Kevin Costner did all of his own stunts, including bareback riding, galloping bareback amidst stampeding buffalo, and shooting a gun during the buffalo scenes. The iconic scene in which Dunbar is doing his suicide charge during Civil War combat and spreads out his arms at the beginning of the movie was not in the script and was completely spontaneous, surprising the camera operators and stunt coordinators. But it became one of the film’s most famous scenes.
15. Kevin Costner’s six-year-old daughter, Annie, played Stands with A Fist as a child, when the Pawnee killed her family.
PHOTOS: (1) Kevin Costner as Lieutenant John Dunbar with Native American actors playing Sioux Indians scan a herd of 3,500 buffalo on the South Dakota prairie. (2) John Dunbar watches as his buckskin cavalry horse, Cisco, grazes on the open prairie. Cisco was played by two buckskin horses, both American Quarter Horses: Plain Justin Bar, from Redstone Farm in Pilot, Point, Texas, and Buck, from Murdo, South Dakota. (3) Dunbar tries to make friends with a curious, wild wolf he calls “Two Socks,” played by two wolves, Teddy and Buck. (4) Dunbar meets with the Lakota holy man, Kicking Bird, for the first time on the prairie. (5) The lieutenant is invited to visit the Lakota village of Kicking Bird and is escorted by some Lakota men. (6 &7) The epic buffalo hunt in Dances with Wolves was filmed with a helicopter and seven other cameras with a herd of 3,500 buffalo. Costner, who did his own stunts, was t-boned by another horse as he was riding and was thrown in the middle of the herd but, miraculously, escaped injury. (8) After the Lakota and John Dunbar fight off a Pawnee attack, a Pawnee warrior—played by Wes Studi—is surrounded by Lakota in the river. (9) Wes Studi, right, as a cruel Pawnee and Robert Pastorelli, as the crude white mule-skinner Timmons, clowning around after the scene in which Timmons is slowly killed by Indians shooting arrows into him. Timmons, who plays a crude character in the movie, shows some deathbed simpatico when he begs the Indians: “Don’t hurt my mules.”
You may be interested in these related posts:
-Dances with Wolves-Native Perspectives (Part 2)
-Dances with Wolves-Film Scout Interview (Part 3)
"Dances with Wolves-Part 1" was originally posted July 26, 2020 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com
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