‘Yellowstone’ Star Kevin Costner’s ‘Dances With Wolves’ Remains Second-Highest-Grossing Western of All Time

by Mark Long
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On “Yellowstone,” Kevin Costner plays the fierce patriarch John Dutton, who’s trying to preserve his Big Sky Country ranch. This is not Costner’s first trip West to play an iconic role. In 1990, he directed and starred in “Dances with Wolves,” a critical and commercial triumph set in the frontier West during the 19th century.

Over 30 years later, the film remains the second-highest grossing Western of all time, earning over $424 million worldwide.

The ‘Dances with Wolves’ Success Story

“Dances with Wolves” tells the bittersweet story of the end of the Western frontier during and after the Civil War. Future “Yellowstone” star Costner plays Union Army Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, who volunteers to go West after becoming an accidental war hero. Dunbar gradually becomes closer to the native Sioux Indians and adopts their ways. By the end, he must choose sides — the white man’s America or its native peoples — as the open range becomes more constrained and “civilized.”

Westerns often prove to be box-office poison. Even classic ones, such as Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” struggle to turn a profit. “Dances with Wolves” was an exception. It was the fourth-highest-grossing movie of 1990, and until “Django Unchained” (2012), the top-performing Western.

It was also a critical success, praised for its sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans and extensive use of the Lakota language with English subtitles. And it also won seven Academy Awards, including Best Director for Costner and Best Picture of the Year.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 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.”

Costner may have been a novice director when he made “Dances with Wolves,” but he was no stranger to Westerns. In 1985, he co-starred in Lawrence Kasdan’s “Silverado.” And it’s a genre he’s returned to even before “Yellowstone,” working again with Kasdan on 1994’s “Wyatt Earp.” Costner also directed another Western, “Open Range,” in 2003.

On to ‘Yellowstone’

If you haven’t yet seen “Dances with Wolves,” it’s available to stream on Netflix as of April 2021. And for the legion of diehard “Yellowstone” fans? Shooting is complete for the upcoming fourth season, which is reportedly set to begin airing this summer.

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