Monday, March 25, 2019

Twenty-Eight Things You Didn’t Know About Dances With Wolves

It was on this date twenty-eight years ago, March 25th, 1991, that Dances with Wolves won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 63rd Academy Award ceremonies, becoming only the second western film to earn that honor - the first being Cimarron (1931), directed by Wesley Ruggles. To honor the occasion, here are twenty-eight things that you didn’t know about Dances with Wolves:

  • Author, Michael Blake, wrote Dances with Wolves as a novel after Kevin Costner convinced him to do so. Blake originally tried to sell the idea as a screenplay, but Costner believed that it would generate more studio interest as a novel.
  • Three other prominent directors were offered the project, but each one turned it down. Finally, Costner decided to direct the film himself in his directorial debut.
  • The scene involving the buffalo hunt utilized an amazing 3,500 buffalo and took two weeks to shoot. Only one take could be made each day for the scene because the buffalo would run up to ten miles and had to be rounded up for each take.
  • Two-Socks, the wolf in the film, was actually played by two different wolves – Buck and Teddy.
  • Costner’s six-year-old daughter, Annie, appeared in the film, playing Stands-With-a-Fist as a child.
  • The novel upon which the film was based was rejected by over thirty different publishers before it was picked-up by Fawcett Books.
  • Dances with Wolves was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, winning seven including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Original Score. 

Kevin Costner and Michael Blake - Photo credit Ron Galella WireImage
  • Although Dances with Wolves has earned over 424 million dollars and is the top-grossing western in movie history, it never topped the box office charts while in theaters.
  • In 2007, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.
  • The buffalo liver that Wind-in-His-Hair offers to Dunbar after the buffalo hunt is actually made of cranberry Jell-O.
  • One of the doctors who is preparing to amputate Dunbar’s (Costner’s) leg in the opening scene is actually played by Costner. His face is never seen and his voice is dubbed over.
  • Blake based the character of Stands-with-a-Fist on Cynthia Ann Parker, who was kidnapped and adopted by the Comanche at age ten in 1836. Her story was the basis of another Western classic, The Searchers (1956). 
  • To add authenticity to the film, a Lakota language tutor was brought in to teach the cast how to speak the Lakota Sioux language. The gendered aspect of the Lakota language made the male language much harder to learn than the female language, so all of the Sioux in the film are speaking the female gendered Lakota, even the men.
  • Because of the films sympathetic depiction of the Indians, the Sioux Nation made Kevin Costner an honorary member.
  • The buffalo hunt scene made use of a specially built animatronic buffalo that cost a quarter of a million dollars.
  • During the buffalo hunt scene, a buffalo charges a young brave named Smiles-a-Lot who had fallen off of his horse. The charging animal is really Cody, a domesticated buffalo. In order to get Cody to charge toward the camera, his handler enticed him with his favorite treat – Oreo cookies.
  • Another domesticated buffalo was used for close-up shots. His name was Mammoth, and he belonged to singer Neil Young.
  • The film had an initial budget of fifteen million dollars. It ran over budget, so Costner put in three million dollars of his own money. This investment earned Costner an estimated forty million.
  • Graham Green played Kicking-Bird, a Sioux holy man. In order to best portray an older man with poor posture, Green put a slice of bologna in each of his moccasins, believing that the slimy sensation would help him to project the proper bearing.
  • There is a sequel to the book. It is titled The Holy Road. It is in development for a movie and is rumored to have Viggo Mortensen playing the part of John Dunbar. Viggo was originally considered for the part of John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves.
  • Tom Berenger was also considered for the part of John Dunbar.
  • The first cut of the film ended up being five and a half hours long.
  • The producers had a “garage sale” where props and costumes were sold off in order to raise money for the two-month long post-production.
  • John Dunbar’s jacket has yellow epaulets signifying the cavalry. He gives his jacket to Wind-in-his-Hair. Later in the movie, after the battle with the Pawnee, the epaulets have changed to blue, signifying the infantry.
  • The Lakota language tutor who taught the cast the Lakota language was named Doris Leader Charge. She was given a speaking role in the film as Chief Ten Bears’ wife, Pretty Shield.
  • Dunbar reports to Fort Hays (which is misspelled “Hayes”) sometime in 1863-64. However, Fort Hays did not exist until 1865 and was not named “Fort Hays” until 1866.
  • The films beautiful symphonic score (especially the John Dunbar Theme), composed by John Barry, was a personal favorite of Pope John Paul II. Barry won his fifth Oscar and his fourth Grammy for Dances with Wolves.

  • For a while, Michael Blake, the author of Dances with Wolves, slept on Kevin Costner’s couch while working on his manuscript. He later moved to Arizona to continue his writing and supported himself by washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant for $3.35 an hour.


  1. I really loved this movie, and enjoyed these 28 things about it that you've posted--because I didn't know any of them. I love trivia like this. And I especially love a great success story--it's really cool how this all came about and became such a memorable movie for so many. Yes, it was long, but it needed to be! I love long books, too, when the story warrants it. Thanks for a very interesting post, Michael!

    1. Thanks, Cheryl. It was/is an amazing story and a great success for the western genre. I am really looking forward to the sequel, although it will take me some time to get used to someone other than Kevin Costner as John Dunbar. Thanks for checking it out and for leaving a comment.

  2. An all-time favorite movie! Informative post, and super interesting! Of course, being a novelist, this line stood out to me personally: "The novel upon which the film was based was rejected by over thirty different publishers before it was picked-up by Fawcett Books."

    Wow. Perseverance. The name of the game!

    1. That's funny, Jodi, because that's the one that stuck with me the most too. That really should inspire all of us authors to stick with it and preserver. Thanks for reading and for your comments.

  3. A lot of wonderful things about this epic movie; however the political correct innuendo (EVERY soldier except for Dunbar was depicted as a villain) was not one of them.

    1. I totally agree with you about that, Zeke. The stereotyping of the soldiers as the bad guys was unfortunate. It would have been nice to have some of the military personnel sympathetic toward the Indians, or at least towards Dunbar after he “went native.” It’s possible that when Michael Blake wrote the book, he was cognizant of the fact that the civil war was still going on in the east. Most of the soldiers who were worth their salt were fighting the Confederacy at the time. The ones who were sent out west to man the frontier outposts were often of the lowest character. Dunbar was a bit of an anomaly. When he arrived at Fort Hays, even Major Fambrough is surprised to find out that Dunbar requested an assignment there. Whether or not Blake really had that in mind or not who knows? But the explanation works.

  4. One of my favorites also. It is frustrating for all the western author working today to realize even with Costner pushing the novel, it took 30 different publishers to find one willing to take on a western. And the same for the Hollywood types. Costner had to put 3 mill of his own money to get it finished. Think how many good western novel are out there that would make a great western movie?

    1. Frank, you have voiced our collective frustration eloquently. It’s even more frustrating that when Hollywood does decide to make a western, they will often rehash a story that has been done to death. Take for example the 2019 movie “The Kid,” which retells the Billy the Kid/Pat Garrett story. How many times has this story been put to film? There are so many other wonderful stories out there that I would like to see. It’s a shame.

  5. Thanks, Michael, for a very informative post. I really enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks, Dennis. I really appreciate you coming by and checking it out. I enjoyed writing it. Dances with Wolves is probably one of my top five favorite movies.

  6. a lot of the props were bought by a company who has a western town built along I-90. I have been there several times but it has been awhile and I don't remember the name---they even had Costner's horse he rode

    1. Yes, that’s correct. It’s the 1880 Town in South Dakota, located along I-90 just east of the Badlands National Park. I have driven past it several times, but never visited. I have heard that the place isn’t exactly living up to its potential. If that’s the case, then I hope that someone can take it over who can do justice to it. Thanks for checking out my post.