Dances With Wolves (1990): Kevin Costner’s Western Sweeps the Oscars

In 1990, Hollywood skeptics were convinced that Kevin Costner had a flop the size of Heaven’s Gate on his hands in “Dances with Wolves.” They thus tagged his three hours directorial debut, “Kevin’s Gate.” When Costner was looking for financing, there was not much interest in a marathon-length Western featuring unknown actors speaking in subtitled Lakota Sioux dialect.

But Costner proved his critics wrong, when “Dances With Wolves,” his epic ode to a West long gone, won seven Oscars, including Best Picture.

Costner directed himself as an idealistic cowboy officer whose solitary life at a frontier outpost is interrupted, and forever changed, when he encounters members of a tribe of Lakota Sioux.

Some critics dismissed it as a simplistic “New Age” Western, while other thought the movie was too preachy in its messages. Nonetheless, while “dances With Wolves” is not a revisionist or new type of Western, it’s a perfectly watchable film with middlebrow sensitivity about co-existence between the Whites and Native Americans.

The movie suffers from Costner’s flat voice-over narration. As an actor, Costner is blessed with the right looks for the part–in his screen image, he’s close to Gary Cooper–but lack of acting skills and interesting voice have always worked against him.

Even so, “Dances With Wolves” became the first Western since “Cimarron” in 1931 to be named Best Picture. By Oscar night, the picture had grossed more than $130 million in ticket sales.

Michael Blake, who just a few years ago was washing dishes and sleeping on friends’ sofas, won the Oscar for Screenplay, based on his novel, which Costner had encouraged him to write.

Detailed Plot

Set in the midst of the Civil War, in 1863, the wounded First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar opts for suicide over amputating his foot. Rides up his horse along the Confederate front lines, they fail to shoot him off his mount.

Whilst distracted, the Union army attack and the battle ends in a Confederate rout.  Dunbar survives and recovers, earning a citation for bravery, and getting Cisco, the horse that carried him, as well as choice of post. He requests a transfer to the frontier so he can see its vast terrain. Dunbar is led to Fort Segwick, which is now abandoned and in bad shape. Despite the threat from Indians, decides to stay and rebuild the fort. In solitude, he records his observations in his diary.

Timmons, the Mule wagon driver who transported Dunbar to Fort Sedgwick, is killed and scalped by Pawne Indians. Timmons’ death and the suicide of Major Fambrough, who had sent them there means that no one knows of Dunbar’s isolated presence in the post.

Dunbar encounters his Sioux neighbors, when they try to steal his horse and intimidate him. On his way he comes across Stands With A Fist, who attempts suicide in mourning her deceased husband. She is the white adopted daughter of the tribe’s medicine man Kicking Bird.  Her family was killed by the Pwnee tribe when she was young.

Dunbar brings her to the Sioux for treatment, which changes their attitude toward him. He establishes rapport with Kicking Bird and warrior Wind In His Hair. There are language barriers, and Stands With A Fist acts as translator, even though her English is poor.

Drawn to the customs of the tribe, Dunbar spends most of his time with them. Learning their language, he is accepted as honored guest by the Sioux after he locates a migrating herd of buffalo and participates in the hunt.  At Fort Sedgwick, Dunbar also befriends a wolf he dubs “Two Socks” for its white forepaws. When the Sioux observe Dunbar and Two Socks chasing each other, they give him the name “Dances with Wolves.”

Dunbar also forges a romantic relationship with Stands with a Fist and helps defend the village from the rival Pawnee tribe. He eventually wins Kicking Bird’s approval to marry Stands with a Fist, and abandons Fort Sedgwick.

The Pawnee and white threat motivates Chief Ten Bears to move the tribe to its winter camp. Dunbar decides to join them, but must first retrieve his diary from Fort Sedgwick, realizing its importance as source of information.

When he arrives, he finds the fort re-occupied by the US Army–the soldiers open fire, killing Cisco and arrest Dunbar as a traitor. Dunbar cannot prove his story, as a corporal has discarded his diary. Refusing to serve as interpreter to the tribes, Dunbar is charged with desertion and transported back East as a prisoner. Soldiers shoot Two Socks when the wolf attempts to follow Dunbar.

In the end, the Sioux track the convoy, kill the soldiers and free Dunbar. At the winter camp, Dunbar decides to leave with Stands With A Fist–his presence puts the tribe in danger. As they leave, Wind In His Hair reminds Dunbar of their friendship.

U.S. troops search the mountains but are unable to locate them, while a lone wolf howls in the distance. The epilogue informs us that 13 years later, the last remnants of the free Sioux were subjugated to American government, concluding the conquest of the Western frontier states and the livelihood of the tribes.

Reel Impact

Will Dances With Wolves make a difference?  Will it inspire pride in Native Americans?  asked Newsweek, on April 29, 1991, after winning the Best Picture.

As a result of the movie, many Indian reservations began to consider their policies allowing toxic dumping grounds on their land.  Some protesters have called these plans “Dances with Garbage.”

Relevant issues to consider:

Effect on Native Americans: their image of themselves

Effect on reforms in the tribes and reservations themselves

Effect on reforms in American government regarding Native Americans

Effect on the screen imagery of male heroes–though set in the past, Lieutenant Dunbar was very much a man of the 1990s New Age

Effect on job opportunities for Native American actors

Oscar Nominations: 12

Picture, produced by Jim Wilson and Kevin Costner

Director: Kevin Costner

Actor: Kevin Costner

Supporting Actor: Graham Greene

Supporting Actress: Mary McDonnell

Screenplay (Adapted): Michael Blake

Cinematography: Dean Semler

Art Direction-Set Decoration: Jeffrey Beecroft; Lisa Dean

Costume Design: Elsa Zamparelli

Sound: Jeffrey Perkins, Bill W. Benton, Greg Watkins, and Russell Williams II

Original Score: John Barry Editing: Neil Travis

Oscar Awards: 7



Screenplay (Adapted)



Original Score


Oscar Context

Sweeping most of the Oscars in 1990, “Dances With Wolves” received 12 nominations, that largest that year. Kevin Costner’s Western competed with two crime films: Coppola’s “The Godfather: Part III” and Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” each of which got 6 nominations.

The other two nominees for Best Picture were Penny Marshall’s melodrama “Awakenings” and the spiritual romantic drama “Ghost,” the most commercially successful of the five nominated films.


Lt. John W. Dunbar (Kevin Costner)

Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell)

Kicking Bird (Graham Greene)

Win in the Hair (Rodney A. Grant)

Chief Ten Bears (Floyd Red Crow)

Black Shawl (Tabtoo Cardinal)

Timmons (Robert Pastorelli)

Lt. Elgin (Charles Rocket)

Major Fambrough (Maury Chaykin)

Stone Calf (Jimmy Herman)