Dances with Wolves is a 1990 American epic Western film starring, directed, and produced by Kevin Costner in his feature directorial debut. It is a film adaptation of the 1988 book of the same name by Michael Blake that tells the story of Union Army Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Costner), who travels to the American frontier to find a military post, and of his dealings with a group of Lakota.
Costner developed the film with an initial budget of $15 million. Much of the dialogue is spoken in Lakota with English subtitles. It was shot from July to November 1989 in South Dakota and Wyoming, and translated by Doris Leader Charge, of the Lakota Studies department at Sinte Gleska University.
The film earned favorable reviews from critics and audiences, who praised Costner's directing, the performances, screenplay, and production values. The film was a box-office hit, grossing $424.2 million worldwide, making it the fourth-highest grossing film of 1990, and is the highest-grossing film for Orion Pictures. The film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards at the 63rd Academy Awards and won seven, including Best Picture, Best Director for Costner, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Sound Mixing. The film also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama. It is one of only three Westerns to win the Oscar for Best Picture, the other two being Cimarron (1931) and Unforgiven (1992).
The film is credited as a leading influence for the revitalization of the Western genre of filmmaking in Hollywood. In 2007, Dances with Wolves was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
In 1863, 1st Lieutenant John J. Dunbar is wounded in battle at St. David's Field in Tennessee. Choosing death in battle over amputation of his foot, he takes a horse and rides up to and along the Confederate lines. Confederate forces fire repeatedly at him and miss, and the Union Army takes advantage of the distraction to mount a successful attack. Dunbar receives both a citation for bravery and medical care that allows him to keep his foot. He is subsequently awarded Cisco, the horse that carried him during his suicide attempt, and his choice of posting. Dunbar requests a transfer to the western frontier, so he can see it before it disappears.
Dunbar is transferred to Fort Hays, a large fort commanded by Major Fambrough, an unhinged officer who despises Dunbar's enthusiasm. He agrees to post Dunbar to the furthest outpost under his jurisdiction, Fort Sedgwick, and kills himself shortly afterwards. Dunbar travels with Timmons, a mule-wagon provisioner. They arrive to find the fort deserted. Despite the threat of nearby native tribes, Dunbar elects to stay and man the post himself.
He begins rebuilding and restocking the fort, and prefers the solitude, recording many of his observations in his diary. Timmons is killed by Pawnee on the journey back to Fort Hays. The deaths of both Timmons and Fambrough leave the army unaware of Dunbar's assignment, and no other soldiers arrive to reinforce the post.
Dunbar encounters his Sioux neighbors when they attempt to steal his horse and intimidate him. Deciding that being a target is a poor prospect, he decides to seek out the Sioux camp and attempt dialogue. On his way, he comes across Stands with a Fist, the white adopted daughter of the tribe's medicine man Kicking Bird, who is ritually mutilating herself while mourning for her husband. Dunbar brings her back to the Sioux to recover. Though the tribe is initially hostile, some of the members soon begin to respect him.
Eventually, Dunbar establishes a rapport with Kicking Bird, the warrior Wind in His Hair, and the youth Smiles a Lot, initially visiting each other's camps. The language barrier frustrates them, and Stands with a Fist acts as an interpreter, although with difficulty. She only remembers a little English from her early childhood before the rest of her family was killed during a Pawnee raid.
Dunbar discovers that the stories he had heard about the tribe were untrue, and he develops a growing respect and appreciation for their lifestyle and culture. Learning their language, he is accepted as an honored guest by the Sioux after he tells them of a migrating herd of buffalo and participates in the hunt. When at Fort Sedgwick, Dunbar befriends a wolf he dubs "Two Socks" for its white forepaws. Observing Dunbar and Two Socks chasing each other, the Sioux give him the name "Dances with Wolves". During this time, Dunbar also forges a romantic relationship with Stands with a Fist and helps defend the village from an attack by the rival Pawnee tribe. Dunbar eventually wins Kicking Bird's approval to marry Stands with a Fist and abandons Fort Sedgwick.
Because of the growing threat from the Pawnee and the U.S., Chief Ten Bears decides to move the tribe to its winter camp. Dunbar decides to accompany them, but must first retrieve his diary from Fort Sedgwick, as he realizes that it would provide the army with the means to find the tribe. When he arrives, he finds the fort reoccupied by the U.S. Army. Because of his Sioux clothing, the soldiers open fire, killing Cisco and capturing Dunbar, arresting him as a traitor.
Two officers interrogate him, but Dunbar cannot prove his story, as a corporal has found his diary and kept it for himself. Having refused to serve as an interpreter to the tribes, Dunbar is charged with desertion and transported back east as a prisoner. Soldiers of the escort shoot Two Socks when the wolf attempts to follow Dunbar, despite Dunbar's attempts to intervene.
Eventually, the Sioux track the convoy, killing the soldiers and freeing Dunbar. They assert that they do not see him as a white man, but as a Sioux warrior called Dances with Wolves. At the winter camp, Dunbar decides to leave with Stands with a Fist because his continuing presence would endanger the tribe. As they leave, Smiles a Lot returns the diary, which he recovered during Dunbar's liberation, and Wind in His Hair shouts to Dunbar, reminding him that he is Dunbar's friend, a contrast to their original meeting where he shouted at Dunbar in hostility.
U.S. troops are seen searching the mountains, but cannot locate Dunbar or the tribe, while a lone wolf howls in the distance.
An epilogue states: "Thirteen years later—their homes destroyed, their buffalo gone—the last band of free Sioux submitted to white authority at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The great horse culture of the plains was gone, and the American frontier was soon to pass into history."