Incredible Behind-The-Scenes Facts About Dances With Wolves

Dances with Wolves is a 1990 epic Western film directed by and starring Kevin Costner. It is based on the 1988 book of the same name by Michael Blake, and follows a US Army Lieutenant named John Dunbar who is sent to a military post in the frontier. There, he encounters a tribe of Native Americans and begins to build a relationship with them. The film was a landslide at the box office and was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, winning seven, including Best Picture and Best Director. See what makes Dances with Wolves such an iconic film and everything that had to happen for it to be made.

It Started Off As A Novel That Nobody Wanted To Publish

Costner and Blake at the Golden Globes
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Inspired after reading about the Plains Indians, screenwriter Michael Blake pitched Kevin Costner with the idea for Dances with Wolves. The two had met in an acting class, and Costner suggested that he turn the idea into a book first, rather than a screenplay, to hopefully garner more interest from the studios.

Blake wrote the book over a series of months and submitted it to a series of publishers. Unfortunately, nobody was interested in it, and after more than 30 rejections it was picked up by the small publisher Fawcett.

Costner Sought Out Other Directors Before Taking The Job Himself

Costner behind the camera
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Once Costner agreed to be part of the project, he sent scripts to three prominent directors who have remained nameless. Hopeful that at least one of them would be interested and a good fit, he was met with disappointment. According to Costner, each one of them wanted to change something crucial to the film.

“Some wanted to get rid of the opening Civil War sequence, some thought it was too long,” he said. “Somebody thought it shouldn’t be a white [love interest], that that would be cliché.” In the end, Costner decided to direct the film himself.

Costner Performed Most Of His Own Stunts

Costner riding with his arms out
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Producer Jim Wilson estimates that the actor-director performed around 95% of all the riding, shooting, fighting, and dancing that his character did. While this is impressive, it made the rest of the production team nervous considering he was both the star and director of the film.

At one point, while filming the buffalo hunt scene, he was thrown from his horse, which struck fear into the heart of everyone on set. Thankfully, Costner was unharmed and continued with the scene.

He Wanted An Older Woman To Play Stands With A Fist

Mary McDonnell as Stands With a Fist
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

While most films show an older man becoming romantically involved with a younger woman, Costner wanted to try a different approach. He wanted a mature and older-looking woman to play Stands With a Fist, the white woman raised within the Sioux tribe who helps bring Dunbar into the community while they simultaneously fall in love.

In the end, the part went to 37-year-old Mary McDonnell, who learned her Lakota lines with ease and was convincing at re-learning English in the film. Her performance earned her an Oscar nomination as well as all-around praise.

It Was The Highest-Grossing Western Of All Time

Costner saluting
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Although Westerns had been an increasingly popular genre in the preceding decades, Dances With Wolves helped to revitalize and modernize the genre. In the six months that it was in theaters, it made $184 million domestically, far surpassing the previously most successful westerns.

Over 25 years later, it’s still the highest-grossing ever, barely beating True Grit. Yet, despite being so financially successful, the film never managed to top the box office charts

Costner Is Now An Honorary Member Of The Sioux

Kevin Costner in
Tig Productions/Getty Images
Tig Productions/Getty Images

Although not everyone agreed, many Sioux were appreciative of Costner’s direction with the film, showing the peaceful day-to-day lives of their tribe. They honored Costner as an honorary member of the tribe.

At the induction ceremony, he was given a feather to wear in his hair and a hand-woven quilt. Unfortunately, years later, he lost favor with some of the Sioux after he purchased several hundred acres in the Black Hills in South Dakota and announced his plans to build. Thankfully, he abandoned the plan in 2013.

There’s A Sequel

Actors laying in the grass
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Although it hasn’t been adapted for film or TV yet, there is a sequel novel to Dances with Wolves titled The Holy Road. Blake published the book in 2001 and continues following John Dunbar, who is now a full Sioux warrior, as he tries to protect the tribe from the encroaching white settlers.

The novel was praised for its portrayal of westward expansion and the struggles the Native Americans faced. While it seems ideal for a movie or a miniseries, nothing has come to fruition.

The Movie Temporarily Helped Orion Pictures

Costner and actress in the snow
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Although Orion Pictures may have seen major success with films like RoboCop, Platoon, and Caddyshack, in the 1980s, it wasn’t doing the best as a production company. When Dances of Wolves first came out, its stock was down 50% and the company was a shocking $50 million in debt.

While Dances of Wolves was insanely successful and helped keep the company afloat, unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Just a year later, the company filed for bankruptcy and was eventually bought by MGM.

The Buffalo Hunt Took Meticulous Planning

Native American and buffalo
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Impressively, there were no there was no movie magic used when filming the buffalo hunt. That was a real herd of over 3,500 buffalo running across the plain. If they were lucky, the crew would have maybe one opportunity to film the stampede each day.

First, they had to get the animals rounded up and according to producer Jim Wilson, “The trucks began herding the buffalo at five o’clock in the morning in hopes that they would be in position by 11.” To film, they had 20 wranglers, a helicopter, and ten pickup trucks with mounted cameras.

The Film’s Dialogue Coach Was A Unique Individual

Doris Leader Charge as Strong Shield
United Artists
United Artists

As the film progressed, more than a quarter of Blake’s script had to be translated into the Sioux Lakota dialect. While some people wouldn’t have wanted to go through the hassle and would have everything spoken in English, this wasn’t the case here.

One of the biggest issues was that few people were still alive that knew the Lakota language, let alone well enough to translate it. Yet, Costner found Doris Leader Charge, a teacher at South Dakota’s Sinte Gleska University, who taught the Lakota language. He sent her the script, and she had it translated in three weeks. She then became the dialogue coach for the whole production and even had a role as Pretty Shield, the wife of Ten Bears.

Costner Had An Interesting Relationship With Writer Michael Blake

Costner and Blake at concert
Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Before Blake started working on Dances with Wolves, Costner tried to get his friend to work with a variety of different studios. In one interview, Costner eventually revealed that Blake made the whole process difficult by arguing with the representatives. He claims, “I really started to lose patience with him.”

From there, their relationship soured, with Blake eventually moving to Arizona to wash dishes at a Chinese restaurant while finishing his book. When Costner finally agreed to read it, he was stunned, stating, “It was the clearest idea for a movie that I’d ever read.”

The Actor’s Lakota Wasn’t Perfect

Costner and Greene on horses
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Even though Doris Leader Charge did an incredible job teaching Lakota to numerous individuals who knew nothing about the language before shooting, some aspects were left out. Lakota is a significantly difficult dialect to master, and even has “gendered speech” so some words have different meanings for both men and women.

Because this would have been too complicated to incorporate, the gendered speech was left out. Those who saw the film and spoke the language found it humorous that the male warriors talked like women.

Costner’s Daughter Made An Appearance

Annie Costner in Dances with Wolves
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Kevin Costner’s daughter, Annie Costner, had a small role in the film playing Stands With a Fist as a child. She can be seen running away from the group of Pawnee that killed her family in a dream sequence.

While running, she looks over both of her shoulders. This was because Costner told her to look over her left, but she was too young to know her left from right at that time. She was only six years old during production.

The Film Was An Investment For Costner

Coster in Native American attire
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Unfortunately, the film ran way over budget, resulting in Costner digging into his own pockets to make up for the $18 million budget. Because of this, there were rumors that the film was going to turn out to be a Western disaster such as Heaven’s Gate, with some people even referring to it as “Kevin’s Gate.”

Regardless, the film went on to win the first Best Picture Oscar for a western since Cimarron in 1931. Costner’s investment also paid off and he earned an estimated $40 million.

Some Characters Are Based On Real people

Actors sitting around a fire
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Although there was a John Dunbar, a pro-Native American missionary who made allies with the Pawnee in the 1800s, he has no real connection to the character in the movie. However, Stands With a Fist was based on a real person.

Her character was inspired by Cynthia Ann Parker, a young girl who was kidnapped by the Comanche in 1836 when she was just ten years old. She lived with the tribe until 1860, when she was recaptured by the Texas Rangers.

There Were Major Production Delays

Costner looking at a bison herd
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

There were countless delays during production due to the unpredictable weather of the South Dakota plains, working with real wolves, and the complexity of the Native American battle scenes. However, the most challenging aspect of the film to shoot was the epic bison hunt sequence.

This particular scene took over three weeks to make and required 100 Native American stunt riders, not to mention a real stampeding herd of thousands of bison. However, it wasn’t all for nothing and is considered to be one of the most breathtaking scenes in cinematic history.

It Was A Very Complicated Shoot

Costner carrying woman
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Although the movie may look as though it was filmed in one central location, that’s far from the truth. Filming took place in more than 30 different locations throughout South Dakota and Wyoming.

The script required 3,500 live buffalo, three dozen tepees, 300 horses, and enough Native American extras to make up a relatively large village. To top it all off, the weather drastically changed during the July to November shoot, ranging from just 20 to over 100 degrees.

The Reason Behind The Abandonment Of Fort Sedgwick

Costner at Fort Sedgewick
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

After Dunbar requests that he be stationed in the West, he is sent to Fort Sedgwick. However, upon his arrival, he discovered that the outpost is abandoned and falling apart. The film never explains how the outpost came to be in such ragged condition, but a deleted scene does.

The scene explains that the garrison stationed there had abandoned the location after their horses were stolen, they survived several Native American attacks, and were waiting for a supply train and reinforcements that would never come. The soldiers then abandoned their post shortly before Dunbar arrived.

The Wolves Were Tempermental To Work With

Wolf on set
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Producers used two wolves named Buck and Teddy to play “Two Socks,” the wolf that Dunbar befriends. Even though these were considered to be trained and docile wolves, that didn’t mean they were easy to work with by any means.

To get the wolves to cooperate, handlers had to have a lot of patience and meat scraps on hand. One of the trainers was even bitten by a wolf, so Costner had to fill in to get the scene done.

There Were Separate Marketing Campaigns For Men And Women

Costner and Mary McDonnell
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

One of the main reasons that Dances with Wolves was such a success was that aspects of it were appealing to both men and women. In order to attract men and women separately, the advertisement campaign was tweaked to create different trailers and print ads that were alluring to the specific genders.

The female-focused marketing campaign focused on the love interest between Dunbar and Stands With A Fist, whereas the male campaign focused on the Wild West and gunslinging aspects of the film.