- Composed by John Barry
- Epic/Legacy / 2004 / 75:46
There were many particularly cynical observers around when it was announced that Kevin Costner was to both direct and star in Dances With Wolves, an epic western based on Michael Blake’s novel with a relatively modest budget. Its success was as surprising as it was deserved. Costner crafted a moving and magnificent motion picture. Openly admitting to not really knowing what he was doing, he surrounded himself with very talented people both in front of and behind the camera, and yet it is his singular vision of presenting things “as they were” rather than as they had been presented in countless other movies which is what most shines through. Spectacularly beautiful from start to finish, the movie has attracted its share of critics in the years since its release, though any film which achieves its level of success inevitably does that. Costner’s somewhat detached style of acting, which renders him grossly inappropriate for some of the roles he picks, works a treat here and he displays a real flair behind the camera, with the assistance of cinematographer Dean Semler. It’s certainly one of the best films ever scored by the legendary John Barry – and certainly one of his finest scores.
Sometimes Barry would base an entire score around just one theme, rarely deviating from presenting one variation of that theme after another, and it’s an approach that can work wonders. For Dances With Wolves, however, he came up with at least a dozen distinct themes, and what makes the score so impressive is that each of them is quite brilliant. Barry famously said that just because Out of Africa is set there, it doesn’t mean the score needed to be African in nature, and it’s a lesson which many of his peers could have done with learning over the years: film music doesn’t usually need to simply tell the viewer what they can already see, the best film music takes a step back and offers a deeper look at what the film and its characters are actually about. Dances With Wolves is a classic example: who would ever have thought that Barry’s latter day romantic style would have been appropriate for a western – but it’s so appropriate, it’s as if he were born to score the film.
Just as all of the film is told through the eyes of Lieutenant John Dunbar, so is all of the score. Every note of the music is emphasising Dunbar’s own state of mind, from his wonder at the landscape to his horror at violence and his delight when romance arrives for him. The main theme which everyone knows is “The John Dunbar Theme”, heard on countless compilation albums and at countless concerts; it’s really a very simple piece, but features one of Barry’s effortless melodic hooks and is virtually impossible to dislike. It receives several variations over the course of the album, including a heartbreakingly beautiful (and desperately sad) arrangement in “Journey to the Buffalo Killing Ground”. Its most uptempo arrangement – and also the closest the score comes to sounding like a classic western in the Bernstein mould – is “The Buffalo Hunt”, presented in two versions here, both Barry’s original (preferred) one and the rearrangement heard in the film.
Of the other themes, the most delightful is the journey music of “Journey to Fort Sedgewick” (greatly expanded on this album compared with previous releases), perfectly capturing the spectacular beauty of the landscape. There is also the playful beauty of “Two Socks The Wolf”, a particularly thin and light piece centered around a lovely flute solo; the long-lined romance of the love theme; thrilling, heroic action theme of “Rescue of Dances with Wolves”; and raw, powerful no-holds-barred action of “Pawnee Attack”.
14 years after the release of the film, Sony finally released an extended version of the soundtrack, the original release of which sold many, many copies in its time. There are many new cues and extended versions of old cues. If truth be told, most of the best music was already released, but while much of what was added might be seen as simply more of the same, “the same” is so good that any more of it is welcome indeed. Of particular note is the extra music included in the opening track, “Looks Like a Suicide”, the most striking omission from the original album. Also impressive is “Falling in Love”, a particularly nice variant on the love theme, and at long last the first release of the film version of “The Buffalo Hunt”.
I’ve said before – there are more truly great, memorable themes in Dances With Wolves than many film composers manage in a whole career. From a personal perspective, it was the one score above all others that turned me into a film music fanatic. It was the first score Barry wrote after a couple of years in which he recovered from near-death. A love of life, a love of the planet and its people, shines through every note. Film music doesn’t get more heartfelt, more beautiful. This is a genuine masterpiece, one of the greatest scores ever written, and now stands as a remarkable tribute to the remarkable man who wrote it. *****