Irony, thy name is "Dances with Wolves." This blockbuster of a modern-day Western carried away seven Academy Awards, most notably Best Picture and Best Director, but also Best Editing. Fast-forward thirteen years to the creation of a Special Edition. What does director Kevin Costner decide to do? Why, to dig up his earlier version of the film, the one that incorporates nearly an hour's worth of footage that had been left on the cutting-room floor in the process of creating the award-winning theatrical cut. The four-hour version of Dances with Wolves is not the same film that won Best Editing in 1990. And it shows.
To be entirely clear, I have no prejudice against director's extended cuts, even of already long movies: for example, the extended versions of both Amadeus and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring are well-thought-out cuts that improve on the theatrical release. But "more" doesn't automatically equal "better"; whether or not additional material will improve a film or detract from it depends entirely on the film itself, the nature of the additional material, and the choices that the director and editor make in re-inserting previously cut material. In the case of Dances with Wolves, the theatrical version is by far the superior film.
The theatrical Dances with Wolves, at three hours, is already a film with a leisurely pace. We get to know the character of Lt. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) slowly, sharing his experiences as he gets to know the lonely countryside of Ft. Sedgwick, the wildlife, and his Sioux neighbors. The first half of the film, long enough to be a movie in its own right, is a story of healing, of Dunbar finding in the lonely openness of the frontier and in the company of the Sioux, a reason to live, and a washing away of the horrors of the Civil War that we saw in the opening scenes. The second half of the film slowly builds toward tragedy, with the growing awareness of the Sioux as a people living in the shadow of their own destruction at the hands of the incoming white settlers. The result is a powerful, bittersweet film, one that builds slowly but effectively toward its ultimately very moving conclusion.
Given the strengths of the theatrical cut, what exactly does the additional 52 minutes of new footage give us? Largely, more of everything that we already have. Instead of one well-chosen image or scene, we get several of the same; instead of a scene trimmed to its essentials, we get insignificant material before and afterwards. It's clear right from the beginning that this additional material disrupts the pacing and dilutes the impact of the film. In the next three paragraphs, I'm going to talk about some of these specific changes, and in the process I will reveal some spoilers; if you don't want to see any spoilers, go ahead and skip this next section.
Take, for instance, the scene in which Dunbar reports to the crazed Major Fambrough to take his new posting. In the theatrical version, after Dunbar arrives in town and walks up to the building, we immediately cut to him in front of the major. The extended version shows him being let into the building by a subordinate soldier, and walking down the hall into the office. What does this add to the film? Absolutely nothing. At the end of that sequence, viewers will recall that the major pulls out a gun and shoots himself, with the film immediately cutting to Dunbar hearing the shot as he rides away. In the extended version, this powerful scene is prefaced by a scene in which the major demands his "crown" and scuffles with his staff. This is completely unnecessary, as the preceding scene with Dunbar amply demonstrated the major's madness. Then, instead of the dramatic simplicity of the suicide in the original cut, we get a drawn-out version, in which we see the bloody window, the townsfolk gathering around, and the body being found. All this merely serves to diminish the stark effectiveness of the scene.
We also get many small additions that, for lack of a better word, are clearly just "flab." When Dunbar reads from his diary, instead of a pure voiceover to other on-screen action, we actually see the camera move down to show the page with the written words on it, and we also get scenes that act out scenes that were previously simply summarized in the voiceover, like his reconnaissance rides. In another example, when Dunbar discovers the dead deer in the water at Ft. Sedgwick, the theatrical version shows us just one image: the shocking sight of the dead animal's head submerged in the pool. We then move to his bonfire of the corpses, with the size of the pile telling us just how many bodies there were beyond that chilling first one. The extended cut shows us three dead deer, as well as footage of Dunbar actually hauling the corpses out of the water. What do the second and third deer tell us that the first one didn't? Nothing. In fact, they simply cheapen the effect of the simple, dramatic first shot.
Flab is bad enough, but what's worse is that many of the longer inserted scenes serve to destroy the dramatic tension and sense of discovery in the film. For instance, intercut with the scenes of Dunbar traveling to his new post, we get a scene that actually shows what happened to the soldiers at the fort. That means that when Dunbar actually arrives and finds the fort deserted, there's no sense of surprise at finding the place empty; we're also deprived of the possibility that the soldiers might return and the tantalizing unresolved mystery of what happened to them. Another glaring example is a scene with the Sioux in which a war party comes back and Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell) is shown weeping over her dead husband. In the theatrical cut, we don't see her until later in the film, and we experience first a sense of surprise at finding a white woman living among the Sioux, and then a sense of mystery at her depression. Learning of the reason for her sadness is a revelation in the original cut; the new cut gives it away well in advance, sapping that later scene of its dramatic power.
[End of spoilers]
I never fully appreciated just how good the pacing was in the original film until I saw it blown to pieces by the additional footage. From simple flab that reduces previously tightly crafted and polished work to being simply ordinary, to scenes that destroy the tension and sense of wonder of the original cut, there's not a single addition here that I felt actually improved the film. I think that the theatrical cut of Dances with Wolves is a fantastic movie, but the four-hour version is a testament to self-indulgence, to a bloated "more is better" mentality that makes me think much less of Costner as a director.
The two DVDs in this set are packaged in a nice single-wide keepcase; annoyingly, though, this attractive keepcase is enclosed in a paper slipcase. I'm not a fan of wasteful packaging in the first place, but this particular one is also annoying because it has a Velcro tab holding the slipcase cover closed. Not only is this tab sure to wear out quickly with opening and closing it to get the keepcase out of the slipcase, but it will make the DVD set fit more awkwardly among other DVDs on the shelf.
The Special Edition DVD transfer is in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio of the film, and is anamorphically enhanced. The earlier Image release was also an anamorphic widescreen release, but the new transfer is different in several ways (apart from having new footage inserted).
I was initially concerned about compression issues in the Special Edition DVD, since the film occupies just one DVD. However, the "flipper" DVD is dual-layered on both sides; it's the same as if the film had been spread across two single-sided dual-layer DVDs. (I'd like to see more films and especially TV series packaged this way; it would reduce the number of discs by half!) Therefore, compression is not a major issue here.
I noticed that the aspect ratio looked significantly different between the two transfers, even though both are supposed to be 2.35:1. After some screen captures and detective work, I discovered that both the MGM Special Edition transfer and the earlier Image transfer have some peculiar framing issues. The Image transfer is actually very slightly "squashed": the image that should appear in the 2.35:1 ratio is actually shown on the screen in a 2.49:1 ratio. However, the correct amount of visual information is presented on the screen; there is no cropping of the image.
The new MGM transfer corrects the slight "squashed" look of the earlier transfer, and has the genuine 2.35:1 aspect ratio for the image that is presented on the screen. However, a portion of the image is actually cut off on both the right and left sides. Side-by-side comparison of the same frame in the two transfers indeed shows that the MGM transfer is missing information that does appear in the Image transfer.
The Special Edition's image looks good on the whole, but it's not the definitive transfer that we might have had. The new transfer is slightly softer on the whole than the Image transfer, an observation that is backed up by the slightly lower bit rate: the Special Edition clocks in at an average of around 8.7 mb/s, compared to around 9.0 mb/s for the Image transfer. I noticed some unevenness in color in one early scene, where the image alternated between a heavy reddish tone and a lighter, more natural color. (This flaw is not apparent in the Image transfer at the same point.) Some slight shimmering in the image at times is apparent, and there is a moderate degree of edge enhancement. The contrast is also too heavy in some scenes, with dark areas becoming too fully black and losing detail; well-lit areas look excellent, however.
Colors are also different in the two transfers, but they are both problematic in different ways. The earlier Image transfer is more colorful, in fact a tiny bit too warm in its colors; the new MGM transfer is very slightly washed-out, a bit too cool. Between the two non-optimal choices, I think the new MGM color palette is slightly preferable.
Which transfer is better? Neither one actually presents the film in its correct framing, and each one is slightly "off" in a different way. I'd lean toward the Special Edition as being slightly better.
The soundtrack here is a Dolby 5.1, but it doesn't really stand out as offering a surround experience; it could as easily be a well done 2.0 track rather than a full 5.1. (No Dolby 2.0 track is included.) I noticed a few instances of decent use of the side channels, but on the whole, it's a fairly center-focused track. The sound is clean and natural-sounding, and the music is full and pleasing to the ear, but at times the dialogue is a little bit muted. The musical score is well balanced with the other parts of the film, and overall it offers a pleasing if not knockout audio experience.
Special features are included on both DVDs in the set. First of all, there are two full audio commentary tracks on the first disc, which I dipped into at various points during the film to get a sense of how much added value these tracks provide.
The commentary track by Kevin Costner and producer Jim Wilson is the same as appeared on the earlier Image release... almost. That is, the same commentary is used for most of the film, but with a few additional comments on the new material spliced into the middle. Rather oddly, it seems that the original commentary has also received some cuts; I sampled both the Image commentary and the MGM commentary for various sequences throughout the film. At one point in the first commentary track they praise the cinematographer and assistant directors for their hard work in difficult conditions, but this section is omitted in the MGM commentary. It couldn't have been for lack of space, either, since there is "dead time" in the track. As for the added portions of the commentary dealing with the new scenes, there's really not much worthwhile: it's mainly descriptive of what we see on the screen, or commenting on how they really liked those scenes. The most insightful comments are those that were already in the existing commentary.
The second commentary track is an all-new track for the extended edition, featuring the director of photography Dean Semler and editor Neil Travis. I was really hoping here for some in-depth discussion of the editing choices that were made for the theatrical release, and the rationale for the inclusion of the additional material, but all in all, it seems to be a fairly lackluster commentary. During one early extended scene, the two speakers are more interested in sharing anecdotes about life on the set than discussing what's going on in the film. There are many lengthy silent gaps as well.
The first DVD also includes a 20-minute featurette (the original "The Making of Dances with Wolves" documentary) as well as a four-minute music video. The making-of featurette is mildly interesting; with a promotional slant, it takes a look behind the scenes and offers some interviews with Costner and other crew members, along with a liberal number of clips from the film.
On the second disc, we get the bulk of the special features. Of most note is a substantial documentary, titled "The Creation of an Epic: A Retrospective Documentary." With seven sections (and a handy "play all" feature) and a running time of an hour and 21 minutes, this documentary takes an interesting and informative look at the making of the film, from its original conception to the actual filming. Extensive interviews with Costner and other key members of the production staff, as well as behind-the-scenes footage from the set, provide an in-depth look into the creation of the film.
The remainder of the bonus materials are trivial. An eight-minute photo montage with a brief introduction from Ben Glass, the publicity photographer from the film, and a poster gallery offer plenty of still images for those who are interested; rounding out the features is a selection of TV spots, a trailer for the film, and two trailers for other MGM films. Oddly enough, there's no filmography section, which is one minor special feature that I appreciate (and which appeared on the Image release).
The three-hour theatrical cut of Dances with Wolves is the film that won seven Academy Awards, not the four-hour extended cut, and it shows. The theatrical version was a leisurely but well-paced and moving story; the extended cut is a bloated showcase for directorial self-indulgence that manages to sabotage much of what made the film great to begin with. Is it a terrible movie? No; even bloated by an extraneous 52 minutes, Dances with Wolves still shows its strengths. But the fact of the matter is that the extended version makes a hash of the theatrical cut, and I've rated it accordingly.
I'm suggesting the Special Edition as a rental, in large part for the substantial new documentary, which will be of interest to all fans of the film. I'm sure some viewers will share Costner's "more is better" attitude (or at least will be curious to see for themselves how the film is affected by the additional material), but I don't suggest risking a purchase to find out if that's the case.
If only the SE had used seamless branching technology (or an additional DVD) to give viewers the option of watching either the original or the extended version, I would be happy as a clam. As it is, I will be holding on to my copy of the theatrical release and hoping for a special edition of that version.