It’s hard to believe it’s already been over three decades since Kevin Costner‘s Dances With Wolves swept the Oscars and revitalized the dying art of westerns in the world of entertainment. Cowboys and westerns had been a pivotal part of Hollywood through the 60s, but they were much less frequent throughout the 70s and 80s. Though Costner received high praise for his incredibly realistic depiction of the western frontier in Dances With Wolves, it was actually a long road to get the movie made, with few people in the entertainment industry believing in him or the film.
The movie follows the story of Lieutenant John Dunbar, a Union soldier fighting in the Civil War. Following an injury and unintentionally heroic moment during battle, Dunbar requests a transfer out to the American frontier. He ends up at Fort Sedgewick and begins to form a connection with the local Sioux tribe. He befriends the medicine man, Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) as well as his white adopted daughter, Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell), who becomes his love interest. Providing a viewpoint that was not common in the 1800s, Dunbar realizes that stories of the local Native Americans are untrue and embraces the Sioux history and culture, eventually becoming one of their own. Not to mention he earns the name ‘Dances With Wolves’ after befriending an actual wolf, Two Socks. From depicting life on the plains and fighting the enemy tribe, the Pawnee, the film is visually stunning with a story that keeps you glued to the screen until the closing scene.
Dances With Wolves, despite being three hours long, ended up being one of the highest grossest films of 1990. It won seven Oscars out of a whopping 12 nominations and has been preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress due to its historical significance and accuracy. Here are a few things you might not have known about this classic film.
1. It was based on the novel by Michael Blake, which he had trouble getting published
Costner had previously worked with Michael Blake on the film Stacy’s Knights in 1983. Blake had originally written Dances With Wolves as a spec script but throughout the 80s, no one had any interest in turning it into a film. With encouragement from Costner, he managed to get it published in 1988 and Costner immediately bought the film rights. The actor requested that Blake write the screenplay as well which went on to win Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars.
2. Filming mostly took place in South Dakota
The filming locations were incredibly accurate, with the majority taking place on ranches in Pierre and Rapid City. There were some scenes shot in Wyoming as well as throughout Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, and the Belle Fourche River area. The insane bison hunt was filmed outside of Fort Pierre at the Triple U Buffalo Ranch.
3. The epic buffalo hunt was a major undertaking
It took 3,500 bison, 20 wranglers, 24 bareback riders, 150 extras, a helicopter, and 10 pickup trucks to film the memorable scene. They only got one shot at filming the stampede each day so they really had to make every attempt count. Somehow, they managed to capture it all in 8 days…with Costner even surviving a fall from his horse during filming.
“It was by far the most comprehensive scene setup we had,” producer Jim Wilson told Entertainment Weekly. “The trucks began herding the buffalo at five o’clock in the morning in hopes that they would be in position by eleven.”
4. Hollywood thought the film was going to be a flop and wouldn’t finance it
Kevin Costner was already a well-known actor by the time he started working on this movie. Silverado, The Untouchables, and Bull Durham were all huge movies so it’s confusing that no one in Hollywood wanted to fund Dances With Wolves. Eventually, Costner had to look overseas and got foreign investors to help him cover part of his $15 million budget. Though Orion Pictures eventually stepped in, Costner had to use $3 million out of his own pocket to cover overages.
The film became known as “Kevin’s Gate” or “Costner’s Last Stand,” due to budgetary issues and insane production needs. But Costner prevailed at the box office and ended up personally making a profit of over $40 million.
5. A Community College professor was hired to help with Sioux Lakota dialogue on the set
Over 25 percent of the script called for the actors to speak in the real Lakota dialect but the only problem with that was Costner wanted to make sure they got it right. He found a woman named Doris Leader Charge who taught Lakota language and culture at a South Dakota college and not only got her to translate the script properly but brought her on set to further assist with the dialect. Costner even gave her a small role in the film as the wife of Ten Bears, Pretty Shield.
6. It’s the most successful western of all-time
Despite the initial skeptics, Dances With Wolves went on to become the highest-grossing western of all time. It brought in over $420 million at the box office and to this day is considered one of the best westerns ever made.
7. The Sioux Tribe made Coster an honorary member
The Sioux were so pleased with the accurate way that Costner depicted their tribe’s culture and daily lives in the film that they made him an honorary member.
8. Costner didn’t intend on directing the film himself
Though Costner went on to win an Oscar for Best Director, he initially tried to secure other prominent directors to the film. When several unnamed directors voiced their interest in changing elements of the script, he eventually just decided to direct himself. The film ended up going on to also win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Sound, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Score as well.
9. Dances With Wolves was the first western to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards in nearly 60 years
In 1931, Cimarron brought home the Oscar. But Dances With Wolves would change everything after winning in 1991. In fact, Clint Eastwood‘s Unforgiven would go on to win Best Picture and Best Director just two years later.
10. Costner did the majority of his own stunts
It’s estimated that Costner did 95 percent of his own stunts from riding horses to shooting and interacting with the wolves. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise because to this day he does his own stunts on the set of his current TV show, Yellowstone.