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Category:    Home > Reviews > Western > Dances With Wolves - Expanded (MGM DVD Box Set)

Dances With Wolves (1990/Special Edition/M-G-M DVD set)


Picture: A-     Sound: B     Extras: A-     Film: A-



PLEASE NOTE:  This film has been issued in this longer version on Blu-ray, which you can read more about at this link:





The Western has been around since the early days of cinema and has undergone many changes, been explored in many fashions, and has had mixed results in terms of critical and successful acclaim.  It certainly flourished during the 50’s until the mid 70’s once The Outlaw Josie Wales (1975) was released it was said to be the last of the great spaghetti westerns.  Then the 1980’s hit and there were very few westerns of any type hitting the silver screen, but then something strange happened in 1990.  That year as mentioned on this site in several reviews was such a huge year for the gangster film that the most shocking success was Kevin Costner’s directorial debut film Dances With Wolves, which acts more like a precursor to ‘the western’.  Even more shocking was the way in which the film was received on many levels including from the Academy as it took home seven awards including Best Picture and Best Director.  Even stranger is the fact that the film triumphed over Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas and I suppose it will be argued back and forth just like Annie Hall defeating Star Wars in the 1976 Oscars.


The main question above all else though is why was this film so successful and why is it looked back upon now as a contender for becoming a classic?  I feel that the answer to that goes many routes.  Indeed the film was never expected to become much.  In fact its 15 million dollar budget would hardly get anyone anywhere these days.  Something this grand would never happen on that budget, but Costner had a vision for this film and went about it with the fullest intentions.  His passion for this film is evident in his acting and directing skills.  Same can be said of Mel Gibson’s directing/acting on Braveheart in 1995, which also became a hit both financially and critically.  Fact of the matter is that if a story is good enough and someone feels strongly enough about telling this story that great things are bound to happen.  Costner poured his heart into this picture and the result was a film that can be enjoyed by anyone.  It hits a wide range of demographics and while it might not be a western per se it appeals to fans of that genre.


Our story begins at the closure of the civil war one soldier Lt. John Dunbar (Costner) is sent to an outpost to await new orders.  While waiting he discovers that there is more to this desolate place than imagined.  Soon he becomes acquainted with a wolf as well as some semi-hostile Indians, whom he makes friends with over time.  Dunbar learns more about himself as he becomes more involved with his Indian neighbors.  There is a scene in particular that quickly captures the entire essence of the film.  Dunbar has been invited to join his Indian friends on a hunting excursion and shortly after that they stumble across the remains of a white family that apparently had been executed by fellow Indians.  What is pivotal about this scene though is that Dunbar had (until this point) started to feel like he was one of the Indians.  Despite cultural differences and language barriers, he began to feel accepted by this group of people, but then he realizes within this moment that he will never be ‘one of them’.  He can be friends with them, he could even chose to live among them, but he will never be able to understand what it means to be a true Indian, thus he can dance among the Indians (or symbolically a wolf), but a dance is only a shared moment that does not last forever and he must accept his roots.


Dances With Wolves has had one of the strangest home video histories in recent years.  The films original theatrical cut ran 181 minutes, which was then issued onto laserdisc with an extra hour and was considered a ‘directors cut’ of the film.  VHS copies of the film only included the theatrical cut, which meant that the only way to see the four-hour version was to get the laserdisc.  Even when the DVD format came along, the film was released twice by Image Entertainment, both versions running the three-hour theatrical cut length.  Image released the film onto DVD initially with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which was later issued in DTS 5.1, but the film had to be placed onto two discs for the extra audio information.  This of course was all before dual-layer was introduced.  Both of Image’s DVD’s went out-of-print until M-G-M’s recent Special Edition, which is the ‘directors’ cut running nearly four hours in length.  The downside to this edition though is that M-G-M only went with a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which cannot come close to the sound capabilities of Image’s earlier DVD, which offered DTS playback.


This Dolby 5.1 mix is average in many ways only showing the limitations common with Dolby soundtracks and does not highlight John Barry’s superb score like the DTS edition did.  Nor does this soundtrack pack the punch either as seen early on during the ‘suicide ride’ that Costner does.  We quickly hear all the limitations, as the low-end appears too shallow, while the higher end material never cuts through with the intensity that the higher bit rate DTS offered.  The end result is a soundtrack that is nowhere near as engaging.  Luckily the film holds up on its own with its visual chemistry making it hard to resist, but for those who have experienced this film in DTS or own the DTS DVD you will still want to retain that copy!


Part of the reason that DTS was excluded for this DVD would be the inclusion of two audio commentary tracks, which certainly take up space, but M-G-M is capable of doing a three disc set for John Woo’s Windtalkers (reviewed elsewhere on this site), then the ideal setup would be to do the four hour cut of this film in Dolby and DTS spread across 2-discs with both commentaries and a third disc for supplements.  One thing that was improved with this release was a better picture over any previous release of this film.  Although the previous DVD’s offered a decent 2.35 X 1 scope transfer, there were many instances of edge-enhancement and some color problems from time to time.


The 2.35 X 1 scope transfer on this DVD is definitely an upgrade from all previous released on DVD and laser.  Finally Dean Semler’s (A.S.C.) exemplary work can be seen the way it should.  There are very few films that have managed to capture the landscapes seen in this film in recent years.  Only a few handfuls of films come to mind such as Last of the Mohicans (1992), Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), Tombstone (1993) and Legends of the Fall (1994, all on Blu-ray since we first posted this review).  Colors look especially good here and all the extra footage that has been included matches the rest of the film making its inclusion seamless.  Darker scenes hold up well, which is there the previous DVD had some issues.


The back of the package states that this extended version includes never-before-scenes, which is untrue since these scenes were available on laserdisc.  I suppose M-G-M forgot that some people did have the LaserDisc format back in the day.  The two audio commentaries are provided by Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson on the first track and Dean Semler A.S.C. and editor Neil Travis A.C.E. on the second track.  There are certain highlights to both tracks, while there are also moments where they become semi-repetitive.  Costner likes to praise himself a little too much and at times he almost refers to himself from third person point of view, which can be somewhat egocentric in a bizarre way.  I can appreciate Costner being proud of this film, but at times he is not that humble about the fact especially since it became such a big hit.  The second track offered by the Director of Photography and Editor is designed more for those interested in production or filmmaking in general.


Perhaps what most will wonder is whether or not the extra hour in this film makes the film better or worse?  In all honesty unless you are truly familiar with the three-hour version you may not notice much.  The extra footage is spread throughout in such a way that it never feels like it is included.  What the extra material does enable though is a more thorough and complete epic.  You might not miss the material if you did not know it was there originally, but once you do know it is there it only makes sense to view it this way.


Disc Two of this set includes all the bonus material, which is more thorough than I had expected.  There are several featurettes that break down different production aspects from the ‘look’ of the film to the ‘sound’ of the film.  All of this material is interesting in that it breaks down the film in a way that allows us to appreciate how all of the production aspects fell into place.  A greater appreciation for the film builds as we learn how the film captured the wild buffalo sequences seen in the film.


Also included here are some stills, a photo montage, original trailer, music video, and other little goodies for the typical fan.  This is indeed a set that is designed for those interested in extras, but the technical junkie might be disappointed by the lack of DTS from the pervious DVD.  Another cool little feature with this DVD is the packaging, which is your normal case within a paper wrapping that has a Velcro lock to hold the case inside.


Needless to say this is not necessarily the definitive version for home viewing of Dances With Wolves.  The only big drawback here is the lack of DTS, which can be revisited later on.  Picture quality is adequate for now until a better high-definition transfer can be done at a later date.  For now the extras included in this package make it worth the while as does that extended footage that was only available before on 12” LaserDisc.



-   Nate Goss


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