The prevailing logic in Hollywood 25 years ago was that Westerns, while long on history and sometimes successful, were not a genre moviegoers were clamoring to see. Any filmmaker who did get the green light would need to keep the project within budget, under two hours, and, of course, keep all the dialogue in English. Dances With Wolves defied all of that.
Directed by and starring Kevin Costner, the 1990 epic about a disillusioned Civil War lieutenant who travels west and befriends a tribe of Sioux Indians clocked in at three hours long, came in millions of dollars over budget, and included a cast full of unknown Native American actors speaking a language most audiences had never heard. In the end, the film—“a journey movie,” as Costner has called it—won seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and grossed more than $400 million. On the 25th anniversary of its release, here are a few things you might not know about Dances With Wolves.
1. IT STARTED AS A NOVEL THAT NOBODY WANTED TO PUBLISH.
Inspired by books he’d read about the Plains Indians, screenwriter Michael Blake (who died earlier this year) pitched Costner on the idea for Dances with Wolves. Costner told Blake, whom he’d met in a Los Angeles acting class, to write a novel instead of a screenplay, reasoning that a novel could generate studio interest more effectively than a cold script. So Blake spent months writing and sleeping on friends’s couches (including Costner’s). “I wrote the entire book in my car, really,” Blake said in a behind-the-scenes feature. Once finished, Blake submitted Dances with Wolves, to numerous publishers, all of whom passed on his manuscript. Finally, after more than 30 rejections, a small publisher called Fawcett accepted it.
2. IT BECAME THE FILM THAT NO STUDIO WANTED TO FINANCE.
Turned down by American studios, Costner looked abroad for help, eventually securing startup funds from a handful of foreign investors. With only a fraction of the movie’s $15 million budget secured, he began filming. Orion Pictures eventually stepped in with $10 million, but Dances with Wolves ended up going more than $3 million over budget. Costner covered the overage out of his own pocket.
3. COSTNER AND HIS SCREENWRITER HAD A COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP.
Before Blake began working on Dances with Wolves, Costner tried to get work for his friend by arranging numerous interviews with studio representatives. But as Costner told Tim Ferriss on a recent podcast, Blake spoiled every opportunity by arguing with the reps. “I really started to lose patience with him,” Costner said. The two became increasingly at odds, culminating in a physical confrontation that had Costner pinning Blake against a wall. “I said, ‘Quit pretending you want to be in Hollywood,’” Costner told Ferriss.
Blake stayed with Costner while writing Dances with Wolves, all the while pestering Costner to read his work in progress. Costner refused, and Blake quickly wore out his welcome. He eventually moved down to Arizona, where he washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant for $3.35 an hour. He called Costner asking for money, so Costner mailed him a sleeping bag and a portable stove. Blake pestered Costner again to read the book, which he’d since finished. After months of refusing, Costner finally gave in and was stunned. “It was the clearest idea for a movie that I’d ever read,” Costner recounted.
4. COSTNER TRIED TO FIND ANOTHER DIRECTOR BEFORE TAKING THE JOB HIMSELF.
After deciding to go ahead with the project, Costner gave the script to three prominent directors (he won’t name names, unfortunately), hoping that one of them would be a good fit. But each of them had parts they wanted to cut that Costner considered crucial. “Some wanted to get rid of the opening Civil War sequence,” Costner told Tim Ferriss. “Some thought it was too long. Somebody thought it shouldn’t be a white [love interest], that that would be cliché.” So the actor decided to step in and do the job himself.
5. A COMMUNITY COLLEGE TEACHER SERVED AS THE FILM’S DIALOGUE COACH.
More than a quarter of Blake’s script had to be translated into the Sioux Lakota dialect. This was admirable, considering most Westerns made Native American actors spout their lines in English. But there was one problem: Few people could speak Lakota, much less translate it. Costner heard about a teacher at South Dakota’s Sinte Gleska University named Doris Leader Charge, who taught the Lakota language and culture. He sent the script to her and got it back three weeks later, fully translated.
“I’d never even seen a script before then,” the then-60-year-old teacher said in the behind-the-scenes feature. Since none of the actors spoke Lakota, Costner brought Leader Charge onto the set for further guidance and even offered her a speaking role as Pretty Shield, the wife of Ten Bears. Leader Charge initially declined, saying she needed to return to work. So Costner called up the president of the college and got her stay extended.
6. THE LOGISTICS WERE DAUNTING.
In addition to filming at more than 30 locations throughout South Dakota and Wyoming, the shooting script called for 3500 buffalo, three dozen teepees, 300 horses, two wolves, and a small army of Native American extras. Add in budget headaches and complications with the weather, which ranged from 20 degrees to over 100 degrees across the July-to-November shoot, and it’s a wonder the film got made at all.
7. THE BUFFALO HUNT WAS PARTICULARLY COMPLICATED.
There were no trick shots or CGI wizardry behind the film’s centerpiece: That really is a herd of 3500 buffalo storming across the prairie. The crew got only one shot at filming the stampede each day, since the animals had to first be rounded up and then, once they started running, would go for miles before stopping. “The trucks began herding the buffalo at five o’clock in the morning in hopes that they would be in position by 11,” producer Jim Wilson told Entertainment Weekly. Capturing the sequence took eight days and involved 20 wranglers, a helicopter, and 10 pickup trucks with mounted cameras.
8. NEIL YOUNG AND OREOS HELPED COMPLETE THE SEQUENCE.
Filming required a few domesticated buffalo for close-up shots. So the crew turned to singer Neil Young, who loaned them “Mammoth,” and to a South Dakota meat manufacturer, whose mascot “Cody” played the buffalo that charged a young brave who had fallen off his horse. To get Cody to run at the camera, his handler enticed him with his favorite treat: Oreos. “You could be 100 yards away, pull out an Oreo, and he’d take off like a bullet straight for you,” Wilson told Entertainment Weekly.
9. COSTNER DID MOST OF HIS OWN STUNTS.
Wilson estimates that Costner did 95 percent of his own riding, shooting, fighting and wolf-dancing in the film. All of which was impressive, but also kept the crew on edge. During the buffalo hunt sequence, a rider veered in front of Costner’s horse, throwing the star from his mount. “I was in the copter and all I heard was ‘Kevin’s down, Kevin’s down,’” Wilson recounted. While the crew held their breath, the star got up, dusted himself off, and hopped on his stunt double’s horse to finish the scene.
10. THE WOLVES WERE DIFFICULT TO WORK WITH, NATURALLY.
The crew employed two wolves—Buck and Teddy—to play Two Socks, the wolf that Costner’s Dunbar befriends. But even with trainers, so called “trained” wolves are notoriously temperamental. Lots of patience and meat scraps were required to get Buck and Teddy to cooperate. The filmmakers weren’t above humiliating themselves to get the shots they needed, either. Behind-the-scenes footage shows Wilson and Costner trying to get the wolves to howl by belting out their own calls of the wild.
11. COSTNER WANTED AN ACTRESS “WITH LINES ON HER FACE” TO PLAY STANDS WITH A FIST.
Going against the trend of pairing a leading man with a much younger love interest, Costner said he wanted a mature, more experienced actress to play Stands With a Fist, the white woman adopted by the Sioux tribe as a child who helps John Dunbar integrate with her people, and eventually falls in love with him. They handed the role to Mary McDonnell, a then-37-year-old stage actress who learned her Lakota lines quickly and deftly handled her character’s re-learning English. Her performance garnered an Oscar nomination—plus lots of compliments about her wind-blown hair.
12. HOLLYWOOD INSIDERS REFERRED TO IT AS “COSTNER’S LAST STAND.”
Hollywood insiders smelled blood after hearing about the film’s production difficulties. Some called the risky bet “Costner’s Last Stand,” while others dubbed it “Kevin’s Gate,” in reference to Michael Cimino’s wildly over-budget Western flop Heaven’s Gate. In the end, they were all humbled by the film’s nearly $425 million box office haul.
13. THE STUDIO TAILORED SEPARATE MARKETING CAMPAIGNS TO MEN AND WOMEN.
Part of Dances With Wolves’ success was due to its appeal to both male and female moviegoers. To stoke interest, Orion took a unique step at the time by cutting separate trailers and print ads that played up different aspects of the film. The female-focused marketing played up the movie’s love story, while the male-focused campaign emphasized the gun-slinging, Wild West elements of the film.
14. IT BECAME THE HIGHEST-GROSSING WESTERN OF ALL TIME.
Over the course of six months in wide release, Dances with Wolves took in $184 million domestically, rocketing it past Young Guns, Silverado, and other Westerns to become the highest grossing film in the genre. Twenty-five years later, it’s still at the top of the chart, just ahead of 2010’s True Grit. Interestingly, in all its weeks in theaters, Dances With Wolves never topped the box office charts.
15. THE MOVIE GAVE ORION PICTURES A TEMPORARY BOOST.
The company that distributed RoboCop, Platoon, and Caddyshack rolled out a string of poor performers in the late 1980s. By the time Dances With Wolves came to theaters, Orion’s stock was down 50 percent and the company was $500 million in debt. “We needed a hit,” David Forbes, Orion’s president of marketing and distribution, told Entertainment Weekly. Unfortunately, not even the combined success of Dances with Wolves and Silence of the Lambs (which came out the following year) was enough to recoup Orion’s losses. A year later, the company filed for bankruptcy, emerging briefly in the mid-1990s before MGM bought it. In 2014, MGM released The Town That Dreaded Sundown under the Orion label.
16. THE FILM HAS ITS CRITICS.
More than a few reviewers wrote that the film was overly sentimental and romanticized the lives of the Sioux Indians. David Sirota, writing for Salon, recently called Dances With Wolves an example of a “white savior film” that tells a familiar story about a white hero who swoops in to save a helpless tribe from destruction. Native American actor and activist Russell Means, meanwhile, called the film Lawrence of the Plains, meant as a derogatory reference to Lawrence of Arabia, and pointed out that the film’s Lakota dialect is almost all wrong. “The odd thing about making that movie is, they had a woman teaching the actors the Lakota language,” Means told High Times. “But Lakota has a male-gendered language and a female-gendered language. Some of the Indians and Kevin Costner were speaking in the feminine way. When I went to see it with a bunch of Lakota guys, we were laughing.”
17. THE SIOUX NATION ADOPTED COSTNER AS AN HONORARY MEMBER.
Criticism aside, the Sioux were pleased with a portrayal that focused on the peaceful, day-to-day life of their tribe. So they honored Costner with official membership. The induction ceremony included tying an eagle feather in his hair and giving him a hand-woven quilt. A few years later, though, Costner lost some of those good vibes when he bought several hundred acres in South Dakota’s Black Hills—a land considered sacred by the Sioux—and announced plans to build a resort. Development proved difficult, however, and Costner finally abandoned the plan in 2013.
18. THERE’S A SEQUEL.
A sequel to the book, that is. In 2001, Blake published The Holy Road, which continues the story of John Dunbar, now a full-fledged Sioux warrior, as he tries to protect his tribe from encroachment by white settlers. Critics praised the novel for the ways it portrayed westward expansion and the plight of Native Americans without coming off heavy-handed. There have been rumblings about a possible miniseries, but nothing is confirmed at this time.