Neil Young owned two domesticated buffalo, which he lent to Kevin Costner for “Dances with Wolves.”
Originally written as a spec script by Michael Blake, it went unsold in the mid-1980s. It was Kevin Costner who, in early 1986 (when he was relatively unknown), encouraged Blake to turn the screenplay into a novel, to improve its chances of being adapted into a film. The novel manuscript of Dances with Wolves was rejected by numerous publishers but finally published in paperback in 1988. As a novel, the rights were purchased by Costner, with an eye on directing it. Actual production lasted for four months, from July 18 to November 23, 1989. Most of the movie was filmed on location in South Dakota, mainly near Pierre and Rapid City, with a few scenes filmed in Wyoming. Specific locations included the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, and the Belle Fourche River area. The buffalo hunt scenes were filmed at the Triple U Buffalo Ranch outside Fort Pierre, South Dakota, as were the Fort Sedgwick scenes, the set being constructed on the property.
Production delays were numerous, because of South Dakota’s unpredictable weather, the difficulty of “directing” barely trainable wolves, and the complexity of the Indian battle scenes. Particularly arduous was the film’s centerpiece buffalo hunt sequence: this elaborate chase was filmed over three weeks using 100 Indian stunt riders and an actual stampeding herd of several thousand buffalo. During one shot, Costner (who did almost all of his own horseback riding) was “T-boned” by another rider and knocked off his horse, nearly breaking his back. The accident is captured in The Creation of an Epic, the behind-the-scenes documentary on the Dances with Wolves Special Edition DVD.
According to the documentary, none of the buffalo were computer animated (CGI was then in its infancy) and only a few were animatronic or otherwise fabricated. In fact, Costner and crew employed the largest domestically owned buffalo ranch, with two of the domesticated buffalo being borrowed from Neil Young; this was the herd used for the buffalo hunt sequence.
Budget overruns were inevitable, owing to Costner’s breaking several unspoken Hollywood “rules” for first-time directors: traditionally, they avoid both shooting outside and working with children and animals as much as possible. As a result, late in the production Costner was forced to add $3 million personally in out-of-pocket money to the film’s original $15-million budget. Referring to the infamous fiasco of Michael Cimino’s 1980 Heaven’s Gate, considered the most mismanaged Western in film history, Costner’s project was satirically dubbed “Kevin’s Gate” by Hollywood critics and pundits skeptical of a three-hour, partially subtitled Western by a novice filmmaker.
The film changed the novel’s Comanche Indians to Sioux, because of the larger number of Sioux speakers. Lakota Sioux language instructor Doris Leader Charge (1931–2001) was the on-set Lakota dialogue coach and also portrayed Pretty Shield, wife of Chief Ten Bears.
Despite portraying the adopted daughter of Graham Greene’s character Kicking Bird, Mary McDonnell, then 37, was actually two months older than Greene, and less than two years younger than Tantoo Cardinal, the actress playing her adoptive mother. In addition, McDonnell was extremely nervous about shooting her sex scene with Kevin Costner, requesting it be toned down to a more modest version than what was scripted.
Defying expectation, Dances with Wolves proved instantly popular, eventually making $184 million in U.S. box office sales, and $424 million in total sales worldwide. It won the Best Picture Academy Award.
As of 2011, the film holds a positive review score of 80% on Rotten Tomatoes. Because of the film’s popular and lasting impact on the image of Native Americans, the Sioux Nation adopted Costner as an honorary member.
Native American activist and actor Russell Means was less kind about some aspects of the film’s technical accuracy. In 2009, he said “Remember Lawrence of Arabia? That was Lawrence of the Plains. The odd thing about making that movie is that they had a woman teaching the actors the Lakota language, 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. “Other Native Americans like Michael Smith (Sioux), Director of San Francisco’s long-running annual American Indian Film Festival, said, “There’s a lot of good feeling about the film in the Indian community, especially among the tribes. I think it’s going to be very hard to top this one.”
According to other sources[which?] the gender-specific Lakota words were used correctly in the movie. Some of the criticism was inspired by the fact that the pronunciation is not authentic since only one of the movie’s actors was a native speaker of the language. The movie’s dialogues in the native language has been lauded as a remarkable achievement. However, other writers have noted that earlier otherwise English-language films such as Eskimo (1933), Wagon Master (1950), and The White Dawn (1974), had also incorporated Native dialogue.
David Sirota of Salon referred to Dances with Wolves as a “white savior” film, as Dunbar “fully embeds himself in the Sioux tribe and quickly becomes its primary protector”. He argued that its use of the “noble savage” character type “preemptively blunts criticism of the underlying White Savior story. The idea is that a film like Dances With Wolves cannot be bigoted or overly white-centric if it at least shows [characters such as] Kicking Bird and Chief Ten Bears as special and exceptional. This, even though the whole story is about a white guy, saves the day