Epics and Westerns go together like beans and a campfire. There’s just something about the vast expanse of the untamed American West that invites sprawling cinematography, larger-than-life stories, and a wide range of emotions. And though there are many great Epic Westerns, there is one that is the most epic of all. And that film is Dances with Wolves.
The 1990 film came at a time when the Western was, for the most part, dead in Hollywood. Between 1939 and 1969 during the genre’s heyday, 10 Westerns received Oscar nominations for Best Picture. But not a single Western received such an honor throughout the entire 1970s or 1980s; not until Dances with Wolves won the award at the 1991 Oscars. And Dances didn’t just bask in its own success, it also lifted up the entire genre, kicking off a run of successful Western films like City Slickers in 1991, fellow Best Picture winner Unforgiven in ’92, Tombstone in ’93, and Maverick in ’94. Heck, even cartoons got in on the resurgent cowboy trend with An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. It’s hard to imagine most of these films getting the greenlight were it not for Dances with Wolves‘ tremendous — or, rather, epic — success. Dances grossed over $424 million worldwide, and $184 million domestic, which still is good enough to make it the top-earning Western in the U.S. nearly three decades later. But there’s more than Dances‘ awards, influence, and box office success that make it the most epic Western ever. There’s also the film itself.
Taking place over three hours — or nearly four if you’re watching the extended cut — Dances with Wolves tells the story of Civil War veteran Lieutenant John Dunbar (Kevin Costner, who also directs), who falls in with a tribe of Lakota Indians who take him in as one of their own. Eventually, after learning the ways of his new people, Dunbar’s loyalties are put to the test when the Union Army comes into conflict with the tribe. The story is expansive, it is poignant, and it has enough action, romance, and drama to fill ten movies.
The scope of the film is also something to behold. Set in the great plains of the American West, Dances with Wolves‘ scenery is breathtaking and is presented in a scope that few films of any genre can match. It’s no wonder that, in addition to winning Best Picture, the film also picked up Oscars for Best Director (Costner) and Best Cinematography (Dean Semler). All of this eye candy was also mated to a suitably epic score from John Barry who, wouldn’t you know it, also won an Oscar for his efforts.
Great epics take risks, and Dances is notable for the revolutionary way it presented Native Americans. The on screen treatment of America’s first settlers had long been a black mark on Hollywood, with American Indians almost being always depicted as villains and savages in Westerns. But in Dances, the Native Americans in the film are presented as complex human beings who are often heroic. Not only that, but they are actually played by real-life Native Americans — something that was practically unheard of at the time.
Even 29 years later, Dances with Wolves still stands as a massive triumph in Western filmmaking. And if you want to take in all its epic goodness for yourself, you can do so by watching the extended cut on CHARGE! on Oct. 12 starting at 8 p.m. EST/7 p.m. C.