Star passed up other roles to make 'Dances With Wolves'


November 18, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In Sunday's editions of The Sun, an article on Kevin Costner gave an incorrect filming location for "Dances With Wolves." The movie was made in South Dakota.

Washington-- His Royal Cuddlyness, the most adorable man in America, comes bounding into the room. When he smiles, you can hear hearts stop beating, breaths being intaken and expelled. The Kevin teeth are dazzlers, and the way his blue eyes light to aquamarine when he smiles and the way he gets those crinkly little deltas of lines like a flint arrowhead next to them on his temples, why, it's something way beyond adorable.

He's there, goofy and handsome and disarming, full of aw-shucks and golly-gee in cowboy boots and jeans, garlanded in the quintessential American boy-man awkwardness, as the Huckleberry Finn of auteurs. In "Dances With Wolves," which opens here Wednesday, Kevin Costner is not only the only star, on camera for a full three hours, but director and co-producer as well. As no movie is one man's movie these days, this movie is his movie.


In fact, that it exists at all is tribute to his own stubbornness. When the major studios were offered a three-hour western epic about a turncoat American cavalry officer in which fully three quarters of the dialogue is in a foreign language, as directed by a first-timer who demanded final cut, they all said, Include Us Out.

The refusal still rankles Costner, because he knows it's the source of a lot of press speculation that "Dances With Wolves" was an out-of-control vanity project pushed toward disaster by a powerful actor who insisted on having his own way.

"I believe that this is a real movie, and that's the business I'm in. I say to the studio guys, I think it's a good investment. I think people will want to go to the theater and buy popcorn. This is not a vanity production or a documentary. It's a real movie. You want product? This is real stuff."

So Costner, in a high dudgeon of self-belief, went straight to Europe, where he raised a significant part of the film's $18 million budget by selling it to European television. Later, an American company, Orion, agreed to release it.

The Europeans, in turn and for their money, will get to see the whole thing. As in, the four-hour version.

"But this version is fine," says Costner. "This is the movie I wanted, no excuses, no alibis."

The project had its genesis almost 10 years ago when writer Michael Blake, one of Costner's early friends in Hollywood (he wrote Costner's first starring film, "Stacy's Knights"), came up with the idea.

"I just had a vision of the story," recalls Blake. "Why, it's a mystery to me. But since I was a little boy growing up in Southern California, I've been fascinated with the Indians. I think it began when I read a story of the Little Big Horn by Quentin Reynolds in the '50s. I just figured there was more to the story."

Blake told his idea to Costner, who encouraged him to develop it, but to write it first as a novel and only second as a screenplay.

"Basically," says Blake, "the story that I wrote is on the screen."

For Costner, the project was one that he believed in so fervently that he gave up a variety of other films to bring it to the screen.

"I said no to all the movies that you guys are now seeing and that are now big hits," he says with a laugh, reflecting on the options that were his in the wake of the break-out success of "Bull Durham."

"But I wanted to make a great movie," he says. "Not a good first effort -- a great movie. I think you have to direct out of passion. You can't do it as a job. You can't do it to prove you can."

He says he didn't find directing his first movie "that big a problem. It was very structured. When you're in control, you don't have to act in control. So I was very comfortable listening to people. I listened to them, but we did it one way."

"The movie has some great vistas," he says. "I wanted to use the VTC landscape. I wanted to show the buffalo on the prairie and these people's lives in nature."

The movie tells of Army Lieutenant John Dunbar who, wounded in 1864 while heroically leading a cavalry charge, is given a medal and the choice of assignments. He chooses the frontier. Venturing out to the upper great plains (the movie was shot in Nebraska), he finds himself at an outpost whose complement of troops has disappeared. Gradually, he makes friends with a neighboring tribe of Lakota Sioux and is absorbed into their culture, earning himself a Sioux name ("Dances With Wolves"); he falls in love with a white woman raised Sioux; he hunts buffalo and fights the fearsome Pawnee; and when at last more soldiers come to the fort, he's got to decide which side he's on. He's a sort of an anachronism -- a hippie cavalry officer in the middle of what will become the bloodiest battlefield of the West, the Little Big Horn.

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