Hollywood Flashback: 'Dances With Wolves' Rewrote Westerns 30 Years Ago

Dances with Wolves (1990)
Orion/Photofest

Kevin Costner and Graham Greene (third and fourth from left) and cinematographer Dean Semler (standing) on the set of 'Dances With Wolves.'

Director and star Kevin Costner was "as nervous as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs" to be helming his first film, says Graham Greene, who earned an Oscar nom for playing medicine man Kicking Bird.

Back in the mid-1980s, Kevin Costner shopped a spec script called Dances With Wolves around town, but Hollywood wasn't buying. Westerns were mostly extinct thanks to the 1980 debacle Heaven's Gate. But in 1988, Costner — then 33 and a major star after turns in The Untouchables and Bull Durham — convinced Orion Pictures to fund his first directorial effort.

It was the Civil War story of a Union soldier (played by Costner) stationed on the Western frontier, where he befriends and is accepted by a Sioux tribe. Graham Greene, who earned an Oscar nom for playing medicine man Kicking Bird, the adoptive father of white tribeswoman Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), remembers being blown away by Michael Blake's screenplay.

"I went, 'Holy wow. This is really nice,' " recalls Greene, 68. "He portrayed Native people as real people, as family. Myself and all the Native actors, we said, 'We got to play this as family' — not stoic, non-smiling, non-laughing cliches."

Also setting the Dances script apart was that most of its dialogue was in Lakota. (Greene and others learned their lines phonetically.) Costner was "as nervous as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs" to be helming his first film, says Greene. But he proved himself a natural, successfully staging grandiose sequences like the film's buffalo stampede.

"All the Native elders who were standing there started to cry — because they hadn't seen a buffalo stampede since they were babies," says Greene. "It broke my heart." THR marveled in its review that the "epic-sized, huge-hearted" three-hour film, released Oct. 19, 1990, "de-mythologizes [John] Ford and other westernmakers' blarney of the U.S. Cavalry, the murderous nature of the Indians and the John Wayne round-'em-up mentality."

Dances was nominated for 12 Oscars and won seven, including best picture and director. It grossed $424 million worldwide ($844 million today) and launched a Western movie renaissance.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.