Kevin Costner Movies: In Which Film Did the ‘Yellowstone’ Star Make His Directorial Debut?

by Joe Rutland
(Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Back in 1990, Kevin Costner would join the ranks of actors and directors alike. It would be a triumphant entry into this brave new world. These days, people know him from playing John Dutton on Yellowstone. But Costner’s ability to mix his work and passion into a movie translated into Oscars and acclaim. The movie that would bring him these accolades happened to be his directorial debut. What movie was it? That would be “Dances with Wolves.”

Kevin Costner Made His Directorial Debut in 1990’s ‘Dances with Wolves’

Kevin Costner plays Lieutenant John Dunbar in his directorial debut. Dunbar is assigned to a remote western Civil War outpost. On the way and while out there, Dunbar befriends wolves and Native Americans. This would lead him to be somewhat of an outcast in the military. He becomes closer to the native Sioux Indians and adopts their ways. In the end, he must choose between the white man’s America or its native peoples.

But people fell in love with this movie. Now, “Dances with Wolves” originally had a budget of $15 million. Costner got behind the camera, as well as in front of it. The movie was filmed between July and November 1989 in both South Dakota and Wyoming. The language of the Lakota, along with English subtitles, dominated the film’s dialogue. We get more from IMDb.

Costner put together a hit. He admits that years later, even he’s still learning lessons from it. “Dances with Wolves” grossed $424.2 million around the world. It was the fourth-highest grossing film in 1990. It received 12 Academy Award nominations and the film would win seven. They included Best Picture and Best Director for Kevin Costner.

One of the film world’s best-regarded critics was Roger Ebert. Here is a snippet of his 1990 review: “The movie is a simple story, magnificently told. It has the epic sweep and clarity of a Western by John Ford, and it abandons the contrivances of ordinary plotting to look, in detail, at the way strangers get to know one another. … ‘Dances with Wolves’ has the kind of vision and ambition that is rare in movies today. It is not a formula movie, but a thoughtful, carefully observed story.”

‘Dances with Wolves’ Becomes One of Three Westerns To Win Best Picture Oscar

“Dances with Wolves” is just one of three Westerns to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The others, for trivia buffs, are “Cimarron” in 1931 and “Unforgiven” in 1992.

What about the movie’s cast? Others included Mary McDonnell as Stands With a Fist; Graham Greene as Kicking Bird; Rodney A. Grant as Wind In His Hair; Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman as Ten Bears; Tantoo Cardinal as Black Shawl; Jimmy Herman as Stone Calf; Robert Pastorelli as Timmons; and Charles Rocket as Lieutenant Elgin.

But this helped bring the Western genre back into the world of Hollywood films. As we just mentioned, “Unforgiven” would also win Best Picture and it’s hard to not believe “Dances with Wolves” had a role in it.

Let’s take a look and see what Kevin Costner did before “Dances with Wolves.” In 1987, he played Eliot Ness in the movie version of “The Untouchables” along with Robert De Niro, who played Al Capone. Oh, let’s not forget Sean Connery in an Oscar-winning role there. The gritty nature of Costner’s portrayal, along with the cinematic grandeur and violence, brought him into leading man status. That was backed up by “No Way Out” also in 1987.

Then, Costner would play minor-league baseball catcher Crash Davis in “Bull Durham” in 1988. The next year, he would play a farmer who loves baseball in “Field of Dreams.” All of those roles bumped his leading man status to a place where he could take a chance. What a chance it proved to be for Kevin Costner. It produced a Hollywood movie that remains among the most highly-regarded films of all time. Years later, fans would express renewed interest in the movie.

Yes, it did prove to be one heck of a movie. But Kevin Costner also brought Westerns back to life on the big screen, a place where they once dominated for movie-goers. Keep your eyes open for “Horizon,” in which Costner will go back to the world of being a director yet again.