Early in the 1990 Western epic Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner’s Lieutenant John Dunbar tells the mad Major Fambrough (Maury Chaykin) that he requested his new post on the frontier because the frontier is precisely what he hopes to see, “before it’s gone.” If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you have a similar choice, albeit with not quite as much historical significance. Dances with Wolves will be leaving Netflix soon, so if you’ve yet to see the classic — or if you’re already a fan but would love to rewatch it — you better check it out soon.
When Costner was a guest on The Graham Norton Show in 2016, he related an interesting and unexpected story about the genesis of Dances with Wolves. Kevin Costner told Norton and the other guests that he had a friend from before his fame with screenwriting ambitions. The two had a falling out when — after trying and failing several times to hold writing gigs in the entertainment industry — Costner’s friend began badmouthing the actor’s other friends. The wanna-be screenwriter continued to hound Costner to read a new script he’d written, including staying at Costner’s home and reading it aloud to the actor’s 3-year-old daughter. After getting kicked out of Costner’s home and winding up working at a diner in Arizona, the writer continued to badger Costner to read the script. The actor finally agreed. The script was for Dances with Wolves and the writer was the late Michael Blake who would go on to win one of the seven Academy Awards the film netted in 1991. You can watch Costner relate the strange story below.
Two years before his big breakout role as the young, cocky Jake in Silverado, Kevin Costner starred in the first film produced from one of Blake’s screenplays — 1983’s Stacy’s Knights. According to the New York Times, after Blake had written something around 15 screenplays, Costner urged him to stop working on screenplays and to instead turn the script he’d already written for Dances with Wolves into a novel, because it would have a better chance at being noticed and adapted into a film. The novel Dances with Wolves hit shelves in 1988 and the film hit theaters two years later.
It was Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, an account of the systematic destruction of Native Americans in the 19th century, that inspired Michael Blake to ultimately write Dances with Wolves. We see the film’s depiction of this destruction through Kevin Costner’s character, Lieutenant John Dunbar. After miraculously surviving his own attempt to be killed by Confederate soldiers, Dunbar requests a transfer to the frontier, where he finds his post — Fort Sedgwick in Colorado — utterly abandoned. Rather than turn back, Dunbar restocks and rebuilds the fort, and soon meets and befriends a nearby Sioux tribe.
He makes good friends with Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) and Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant), though the latter takes a lot more convincing. He hunts buffalo with the Sioux, fights against the Pawnee with them, and marries Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell) — a white woman whose family was killed by the Pawnee when she was a child. Eventually, when the the United States army finally comes calling, Dunbar stands with his new family against his old one.
Glorious and epic, Dances with Wolves was not only critically acclaimed and deserving of every single Oscar nomination and win, but it was one of the first major Hollywood productions to portray Native Americans neither as savages nor as helpless victims. The Sioux of the film are as rich with both virtues and flaws as any white character, as opposed to the blood-lusting villains decades of Westerns portrayed them as. In October 1990, Costner, McDonnell, and producer Jim Wilson were honored by members of the Lakota Sioux Nation at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. for their parts in making the film.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that while Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves was, at the time, one of the most progressive depictions of Native Americans Hollywood ever allowed, it wasn’t perfect. For example, a number of writers have argued that while the Sioux of the film are depicted with dignity, the Pawnee are essentially portrayed as the same bloodthirsty, savage villains audiences were used to from earlier Westerns. It’s also often held up in more recent years as an example of the “White Savior” film trope — in which non-white characters are shown in a positive light, but only through the viewpoint of a white character who is trying to save them.
Regardless, there is an argument to be made that Dances with Wolves was a beautiful step in the right direction. Decide for yourself by checking out the Kevin Costner classic while you can. Dances with Wolves leaves Netflix on Monday, February 28.