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Blu-ray Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Barrie Maxwell of The Digital Bits

Dances with Wolves: 20th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Disc)

Dances with Wolves: 20th Anniversary Edition
1990 (2011) - Orion (MGM)
Released on Blu-ray disc on January 11th, 2011
Also available on DVD


Film Rating: A+
Video (1-20): 17
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: A

At a time when westerns had receded to a minor genre compared to their heyday over two decades before, the release in 1990 of Dances with Wolves was a revelation. Here was a movie that reveled in its genre and gave us three hours of it. But not three hours of cliché and mindless action with all the stereotypes firmly in place. Rather it offered a thoughtful evocation of the post-Civil War northern great plains of the American west and their Sioux inhabitants that is no more - much to the shame of the white man, too many of whom saw the situation as one of mere exploitation, not co-existence, preservation or reverence.

Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner), after an almost surreal act of heroism during a stand-off in the Civil War, travels west to an isolated army post on the edge of the western frontier. At Fort Sedgwick he finds himself alone, the previous garrison having disappeared leaving only destruction and neglect behind. Dunbar sets about bringing order to the chaos, making friends with a wolf, and maintaining a diary along the way. Also in evidence are Sioux tribesmen who seem as curious about him as he is of them. Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) counsels caution in dealing with Dunbar, seeing an opportunity to learn more about the lone man, but also possibly about rumours that many more whites will eventually invade the Sioux lands. The gradual trust that develops leads to Dunbar realizing that the gentle rhythms of native life and their admiration of the power and beauty of nature is more in tune with his own personality than the white man's world. With his own new native name - Dances with Wolves - and partnership with a young white woman captured by the natives in her childhood (Stands with a Fist - Mary McDonnell), Dunbar is prepared to abandon his army responsibilities until one day that past life intrudes, threatening to destroy all he has come to admire and love.

Little was expected of Dances with Wolves as it came to theatres in 1990, though much was likely hoped for by western aficionados. Kevin Costner was both acting in the film and taking a shot at direction for the first time too. He'd cobbled together financing and the script suggested a thoughtful western meditation rather than a traditional action film. And it promised sub-titles for the large amount of Lakota language spoken. How would American audiences react? Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. The film was a powerful experience that touched audiences everywhere and the box office was impressive. Impressive too was the acting of Costner, his nature perfectly suited to the naïve but empathetic Dunbar character. Matching his efforts were Green and McDonnell with the result that the two central emotional relationships of the film (that of Dunbar and Kicking Bird and Dunbar and Stands with a Fist) are equally satisfyingly portrayed.

Yes the film is long (even longer at almost four hours in the extended cut that is the only version contained on the Blu-ray release) and much time is spent conveying the magnificent vistas of the west. But none of it is wasted. It immerses us in the atmosphere of the time and place so effectively and conveys the lives of characters that are so interesting and real that it could go on for as long again and we would not be bored. That is not to say that the film is not without some typical western tropes such as Indian attacks, army skirmishes, and a buffalo hunt (alone worth, as they say, the price of admission) as well as matters of treachery and reprisal - only that they take second place to an intensely human drama based on the impending clash of two different ways of life. There is undoubtedly a sense of unevenness in the portrayal of two ways of life as embodied by that of the Sioux and that of the army, but as time has gone by it seems more the case that the unevenness is a reflection of reality rather than a bias of the film.

It's hard to believe that a film of such majesty was that of a first-time director, but Costner pulls it off whether it's a complex action sequence, one of photographic meditation, a tense dramatic confrontation, or one of reflective and personal exchange between two individuals. His Academy Awards for direction and for the film itself were well deserved despite 1990's other nominees (and that includes Goodfellas, fine film that it is).

MGM's Blu-ray presentation is on two discs. The first contains the film and some supplements with the rest of the supplements taking up the second disc. The 2.35:1 image is for the most part very rewarding, evoking the mythic imagery of the wide-open spaces of the American west with a natural look in terms of colour fidelity and vibrancy as well as detail that is at times striking. The attention to accuracy in terms of the film's costuming and artifacts is beautifully conveyed with various textures and aging clearly evident. Skin tones look natural. There is some inconsistency in image sharpness and black levels are not as deep as they could be, but those are minor quibbles in what is otherwise an impressive effort. Minor grain is apparent and any DNR applied has been done judiciously.

Perhaps even more impressive is the 7.1 DTS-HD Master audio track. It provides a thoroughly immersive experience that is most apparent in the action sequences, most notably the buffalo hunt when LFE particularly kick into action. But the quieter sequences fare very well also, whether it's the sound of wind in the grass, rain pounding on the ground in a storm, or the cadences of animals and birds. John Barry's soaring orchestral score is a grand beneficiary of the 7.1 mix. Dialogue is clear and well balanced with sound effects and the score. An English stereo track and English, French, and Spanish subtitling have been provided. Those with Constant Image Height set-ups will be glad to know that the English subtitling for the Lakota dialogue is properly included within the film frame.

The supplement package carries over the previous DVD supplements and adds a few new ones the most substantial of which are in HD. Chief among the carry-overs are the very good 7-part retrospective documentary The Creation of an Epic and two audio commentaries - one by Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson, the other by cinematographer Dean Semler and editor Neil Travis. Both inevitably have some silent stretches (moreso on the second one), but offer plenty of information, insight, and enthusiasm worth hearing. The new HD offerings are highlighted by a trivia track comparing the US Army military rank and Sioux social hierarchy, and a 14-minute featurette A Day in the Life on the Western Frontier.

MGM's new 20th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray edition of Dances with Wolves is well worth your attention. Yes, it would have been ideal to have also included the original theatrical release version, but the 4-hour director's cut that is presented is a glorious achievement in itself. Sporting both a significant upgrade in look and sound over the previous DVD versions of a superbly entertaining film and all the DVD supplements plus some new ones, the release is very highly recommended.

Barrie Maxwell

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