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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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 with Wolves first came out, its stock was down 50% and the company was a shocking $50 million in debt.

While Dances with 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 Chief 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.

The Actors Didn’t Actually Ride Bareback

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Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Historically, the Sioux rode most of their horses bareback. But for the actors, this posed a higher risk of sliding off of the horses, especially during dramatic chase scenes. For this reason, the re-enactors and horse wranglers recommended that the actors used saddles.

The producers agreed, saying, “As long as we don’t notice, that’s fine.” The actors used saddles and then covered them with blankets, so that it looked like they were riding bareback. It looked accurate on screen, the actors didn’t have any major accidents.

250 Civil War Re-Enactors Worked On Set

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Archive Photos/Getty Images
Archive Photos/Getty Images

For the opening Civil War scene, the producers hired 250 Civil War re-enactors. One was Jim Hatzell, for whom Dances with Wolves was his first movie. He got the job by sending a photo of himself in cavalry clothing to Andy Cannon, the re-enactment coordinator.

Because many re-enactors had military discipline, they worked far more efficiently than the staff had anticipated. They saved Costner time and money by working swiftly and teaching him military stances, such as the right way to salute. In a sense, the re-enactors worked as unofficial technical advisors.

Graham Had Bologna In His Shoes

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Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

In an interview during The Red Green Show, the host asked Graham Greene what he thought about Dances with Wolves. He responded with, “the native guy was OK. Should have gotten the Oscar.”

Maybe he should have received the Oscar for what he did to help better the role. He had to help make Kicking Bird’s back discomfort more believable, so he added slippery bologna slices to his shoes. That’s some dedication to a role.

The Buffalo Stampede Began With An Oreo

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Gabe Polsky / Pinterest
Gabe Polsky / Pinterest

Producer Jim Wilson struggled to force his bison to stampede. The set had 3,500 bison, and two were domesticated–”Mammoth” and “Cody.” ”Cody was obsessed with Oreo cookies,” Wilson says. ”You could be 100 yards away, pull out an Oreo, and he’d take off like a bullet straight for you.”

In the scene where the buffalo tramples over a fallen boy, he (the buffalo) is actually running after an Oreo. Wilson kickstarted the entire scene by waving one Oreo in Cody’s face, and the rest of the bison followed.

Ten Bears Holds A Conquistador Helmet

GettyImages-164072504
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

During one scene, Ten Bears talks to Dunbar about the “men who came during the time of his grandfather’s grandfather.” He shows Dunbar a historically-accurate Conquistador helmet called a Morion. Conquistadors were Spanish soldiers who explored the Americas from the 15th century through the 19th century.

Morions were typically used during the 16th and 17th centuries, which would make sense given the timeline that Ten Bears offers. The helmet seen in the movie was likely a prop, not an artifact. But it does hint at what happened to the Sioux tribe long before the film’s timeline took place.

Costner Forked Out Personal Money

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Samuel de Roman/Getty Images for Netflix
Samuel de Roman/Getty Images for Netflix

The film cost a lot and Costner had to pay a little extra so that they could finish the production. How much extra? Well, with all the bison, wolves, and then having to figure out filming outdoors, things went over the $15 million budget.

That wouldn’t stop Costner. The man ended up shelling out an additional $3 million from his pocket to complete the movie. It says a lot about how much he wanted this thing done.

Costner Profited Big

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Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images
Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

Costner might’ve supplied the movie with some extra millions, but he undoubtedly made that all back and some. He put up $3 million and his return would end up more than triple that investment.

After the film took off at the box office, Costner started to see the money pour in like a flood. The actor would get upwards of $40 million in profit! It was a good thing he gave them that three million.

The Oscars Loved It

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Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

We’ve discussed some of the details about the Oscars and the awards this film won, but we haven’t told you all about it. Would you guess that this movie won three Oscars for some of the biggest categories?

The film editing, sound, and cinematography all went to Dances With Wolves that year. That’s quite the accomplishment for the time and effort everyone put in to make this as iconic as it is.

Out-Of-Sequence Scene

GettyImages-159824460
Tig Productions/Getty Images
Tig Productions/Getty Images

If you have a good eye at noticing the little things in film, you probably picked up on this fact. The last scene filmed was the one where Costner rides up to tell everyone the bison have arrived.

It’s one of the only out-of-sequence shots in the movie. He’s wearing pants and a shirt, but if you pan out, you’d see that everyone else on set had on heavy coats because it was freezing cold.

Added To The National Film Registry

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Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Clearly, not every film gets added to the National Film Registry. That’s an honor saved for movies that make the Earth move after being released, for various reasons. For Dances With Wolves, it was easy.

It made the cut for “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films,” in 2007. It looks like it hit the head on all three with ease. The real question is, what took the registry so long to finally add this movie in there?

Audiences Were Intrigued By The Real-Life Characters

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George Pimentel/[Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival]
George Pimentel/[Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival]

With all the ways the cast added depth to their characters, it was enough to capture the attention of the audiences. They did have to speak the Lakota language, put meat in their shoes (as we just mentioned), and so much more.

Audiences loved the details that went into their existence. You might notice that in a lot of films today. The plot might be about giving viewers background on cultures not everyone knows about, which strikes up more interest to learn about it.

The Skinning Wasn’t Real

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CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Production used paper animals that looked very real. There was really a funny story involving the fake animals and the cops. Because someone thought that bison were getting hurt, the cops came after a call.

Upon arrival, they had their weapons drawn and were ready to take the poachers in for justice. The police ended up leaving with laughs after the whole thing got cleared up. That sounds like a sticky, but funny, situation for everyone.

The Music Won ‘Best Original Score’

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Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

The music was composed by John Barry, who also made music for the James Bond films (including the iconic theme song). Barry received much praise for “Tthe John Dunbar Theme” and “The Love Theme” in Dances with Wolves. In 1991, the movie won the Academy Award for Best Original Score.

Barry’s music wasn’t just great; it also pioneered the use of synthesizers in a film score. He would often watch the film and jot down which scenes needed more music or more drama. Barry also won Academy awards for Out of Africa, The Lion in the Winter, and Born Free.

They Only Had One Day To Work With The Bison

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MAXIM MALINOVSKY/AFP via Getty Images
MAXIM MALINOVSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Although the bison scene took a long time to organize, the crew only had one day to pull it off. Before then, they spent one week at the ranch. The herd of 3,500 bison belonged to South Dakota rancher Roy Houck. It was the largest privately-owned bison herd in the world.

Staff set up several cameras around the ranch in the week leading up to the shoot. Wire-and-fur dummies were laid out to replicate the fallen animals. Then, they released the bison five times for five shoots, which lasted a maximum of eight minutes each.

The Feasting Scene Was Filmed Indoors

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domcha131 / YouTube
domcha131 / YouTube

In the movie, the Sioux gather for a feast after the bison hunting scene. There, Dunbar and Wind in His Hair exchange gifts and become friends. The scene looks like it was filmed outside, but it was actually filmed indoors.

The staff filmed the scene in a Quonset hut at night because it was too cold outside. At the time, the crew was in South Dakota, and winter was rapidly approaching. Because the movie was mostly outdoors, the staff had to work around the harsh weather conditions.

The Cinematographer’s Daughter Broke Her Hands On Set

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Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The cinematographer of Dances with Wolves, Dean Semler, worked with his daughter on set. She was one of the many horse wranglers needed throughout the film. While riding, Semler’s horse got spooked and threw her. She ended up breaking both of her wrists.

Her work wasn’t for nothing, though. Her father Dean won the Academy Award for cinematography for Dances with Wolves. The Semlers weren’t the only staff members who got injuries. This was one of the many complications of dealing with animals while filming.

Staff Had To Continually Fill The Pond With Water

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GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images

While the crew filmed the Fort Sedgwick scenes, South Dakota was undergoing a harsh drought. The nearby pond quickly evaporated. Every day, staff had to transport water in trucks to fill up the pond. They didn’t want any inconsistencies.

The Fort Sedgwick scenes were filmed just outside of Fort Pierre, near the Triple U Buffalo Ranch where they shot all of the bison scenes. The set was constructed for the movie and then taken down, so you can no longer visit it today. At least the pond no suffers from a drought.

Why You Need A Great Score

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Franco Origlia/Getty Images
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

A film’s score can help to make it or break it. Some ordinary films become extraordinary thanks to the music that comes along with it and adds to the drama.

For this movie, the score was enough to attract a very important person. Dances With Wolves’ score was a favorite of Pope John Paul II. John Barry composed it, and he also did work on the James Bond series. Quite impressive!

Neil Young Brought The Goods

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Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images
Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

For a movie involving a ton of animals, the production team had to figure out creative ways to supply the set with the furry creatures they needed. One method involved the rocker Neil Young.

That’s right, Young gave some animals for the movie. It wasn’t a lot, but he provided the film with two domesticated bison. Domesticated bison aren’t that easy to come by, so this was a huge help for everyone involved. Remember, it took over three weeks to film the bison scene!

Top Dollar For A Bison

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JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images
JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images

This film really needed bison and the details prove it. Not only did Niel Young provide a couple, but the production team also went to further lengths to secure one more bison. It was a costly choice.

Production ended up making an animatronic bison, and it was pretty costly. It wasn’t like it was a few thousand, no, that fake animal set them back a quarter of a million dollars.