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How did Dances with Wolves happen?

The Soak of the Year has looked at Hootie and the Blowfish’s one album of genius, Cracked Rearview, and we decided to start up a regular series looking at acts of genius and wondering how they happened. This is our second series – stay tuned for the latest Cheap Beer of the Week recycle soon.

Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner’s 1990 epic western, is part of the recent American film canon. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Directing, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Sound Mixing and Original Music Score. Plus it won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture (Drama) and Best Director. It also received Oscar noms for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction and Costume Design. Finally it was named to the American Film Institute’s best 100 movies of the past 100 years in 1998.

All due respect to Costner as he unearthed the story, directed and starred in the movie, chipped in $3 million of his own cash and almost broke his back in an on-set horse accident. Basically the project took huge balls to see through and a boatload of talent to execute.

In 1990, man of letters Roger Ebert wrote:

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. It is a Western at a time when the Western is said to be dead. It asks for our imagination and sympathy. It takes its time, three hours, to unfold. It is a personal triumph for Kevin Costner, the intelligent young actor of Field of Dreams, who directed the film and shows a command of story and of visual structure that is startling; this movie moves so confidently and looks so good it seems incredible that it’s a directorial debut.

Yet for all the film’s genius (the Library of Congress has preserved the film because it is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”), its existence gnaws at us. How can an feat of such impressive creativity and storytelling be such a one-time thing?

When considering the rest of the Costner’s filmography, Dances with Wolves just doesn’t fit at all. While Costner’s work in The Untouchables and A Perfect World was commendable, it is nowhere near the breadth and depth and complexity of his work in Dances with Wolves. Plus his work as a producer and/or director has not even come close to the quality of his first-ever effort. See below, dear reader, and leave your theories on how something like this happens in the comments.

1985 – Silverado
1986 – Shadows Run Black
1987 – The Untouchables
1987 – No Way Out
1988 – Bull Durham
1989 – Field of Dreams
1990 – Revenge
1990 – Dances with Wolves
1991 – Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
1991 – JFK
1992 – The Bodyguard
1993 – A Perfect World
1994 – Wyatt Earp
1994 – The War
1995 – Waterworld
1996 – Tin Cup
1997 – The Postman
1999 – Message in a Bottle
1999 – For Love of the Game
1999 – Play It to the Bone
2000 – Thirteen Days
2001 – 3000 Miles to Graceland
2001 – Road to Graceland
2002 – Dragonfly
2003 – Open Range
2005 – The Upside of Anger
2005 – Rumor Has It…
2006 – The Guardian
2007 – Mr. Brooks
2008 – Swing Vote
2009 – The New Daughter
2010 – The Company Men