Probably no 1990 film was a bigger gamble than Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. In his directorial debut, Costner also produced and starred as John Dunbar, a Union Army lieutenant who forges a bond with the Sioux Indians, eventually joining the tribe.
Even though the film clocked in at three hours and all of the Indian scenes were spoken in the Lakota Sioux dialect with subtitles, the movie was a surprise hit at the box office. Beautifully written and photographed, the film’s epic tone is matched by John Barry’s reverential score.
“Because the look of the picture involved such a feeling of space,” Barry said, “[I] envisioned a score that would be large and romantic.” Performed by a 95-piece orchestra and 12-voice contralto choir, the musical forces (heavy on the strings) are as expansive as the Western frontier they embody.
Over a dozen themes play out over the hundred minutes of music. “Although it’s a big score, and a long score, in a strange way it had to be very simple. That was the most difficult thing, keeping that simplicity for most of the music.”
First heard on solo trumpet, Dunbar’s theme conveys a man that Barry called “noble, simple and dedicated…who had a kind of purity in everything he did.” When Dunbar befriends Two Socks, the wolf’s gentle flute melody tells us that the animal poses no threat. Another main theme accompanies the blossoming love between Dunbar and Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman found by the Indians as a child and raised in the tribe.
As Dunbar arrives at Fort Hayes, sustained brass and arpeggiated strings accompany the first of two traveling melodies in the strings. More sustained brass chords underneath another majestic string melody and French horn fanfare escort Dunbar across the plains to abandoned Fort Sedgewick.
Barry listened to a lot of American Indian music that was recorded while the film was being shot on location but decided not to incorporate it. “For me the score had to be seen through the eyes of its protagonist. Though it has Indian themes, they were my interpretation of what those would be.”
Given its strong box office showing and critical reception, it was no surprise that Dances With Wolves was the frontrunner at the Oscars, and voting for the film was the politically correct thing to do, given the Native American factor. Though the score contains a sameness after a while, it’s difficult to complain when the music is this attractive.