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Dances With Wolves
  • 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.

John Barry receiving his Dances with Wolves Oscar from Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin

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.  *****

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  1. Tim Burden (Reply) on Wednesday 2 February, 2011 at 12:25

    I love this quote – “the best film music takes a step back and offers a deeper look at what the film and its characters are actually about”.

    You’re absolutely right James and this score will always be my favourite of his.

    My old cassette was totally worn out (until I finally got a CD player in 1993 and replaced it quickly). I remember listening to the tape on the train, heading to school at stupid o’clock and it was a very special comfort as I hated school! Music therapy of the highest order and seeing / hearing it coupled with the movie is just as special. I prefer the director’s cut, as much of the story and charcters are fleshed out in a positive way.

    Shawn Murphy’s beautiful recording is worth highlighting too, the employment of an echo chamber for the horns during the Fort Sedgewick cue was genius, as it adds that extra bit of appropriate grandeur.

  2. Josep (Reply) on Thursday 3 February, 2011 at 19:51

    Thanks for such a wonderful review James.

    I like to believe that music if the heart of a film, and it can’t be a better example than ‘Dances With Wolves’.

    An epic cinematography experience fusions with one of the best compositions in the 20th Century in such a way that, you can delight yourself with just listening to the music, but you can’t watch the movie without it.

    This was my second score after Willow and I will always thank Sir John Barry for his wonderful music, and for introducing to me to the world of film music.

  3. Jay Harrison (Reply) on Monday 7 February, 2011 at 00:59

    Hello James, this is off-topic but I feel this is the easiest way I can get this of my chest.

    I have been a big fan of your site since it’s inception, and i really loved the old look.

    Now I am very open to change, but let me give you a little bit of advice:

    I’ve been a graphic designer now for many years and I just have to be brutally honest and say the new look of your site is absolutely horrible. It looks like something from 1995. It’s a huge distraction for me every time I visit the site now and I would be extremely grateful if you could swiftly make the much needed changes to it. I am sure many others have said this to you as well.

    Once again, apologies but I have to be honest.

    Take care.

    Jay Harrison.

  4. Jay Harrison (Reply) on Wednesday 2 March, 2011 at 06:41

    Now THIS is how you redesign a website —>

    Jorn Tillnes’ new look is FANTASTIC.

    Take note James.

    Jay Harrison.

  5. James Southall (Reply) on Saturday 5 March, 2011 at 15:49

    It is, but I wouldn’t have a clue how to do anything like that!

  6. Thomas (Reply) on Tuesday 8 March, 2011 at 20:20

    I think your comment was a trifle harsh, Jay. Granted Im not a Graphic Designer, but James’ site is fine for what it needs to be. All we do coming here is read reviews and leave the occasional comment. The reviews are easy to find and well laid out. Why overcomplicate matters?

  7. Michael (Reply) on Wednesday 9 March, 2011 at 09:17

    This site looks fine, and no matter how much Jorn dresses up his site it won’t change the fact that his reviews aren’t up to scratch. If he gives 10/10 to another Media Ventures copycat score I think I will be sick.

  8. Jay Harrison (Reply) on Saturday 12 March, 2011 at 22:54

    “It is, but I wouldn’t have a clue how to do anything like that!”

    James, if you do not know how, that’s perfectly understandable. Just revert back to the look you had I say. At the end of the day, your original navy blue look was far better and modern than what you have now.

  9. Mastadge (Reply) on Monday 14 March, 2011 at 00:51

    I prefer this site’s design to Soundtrack Geek’s. This site is simple, sure, but very easy to navigate and not unpleasant to look at unless you contrast and brightness settings are screwy. Looking at SG’s site, I feel like I’m seeing a stack of banners. At least they’re neatly and consistently designed and arranged, as opposed to the odd spacing and weirdly sprawling clutter of the MFTM redesign, but I still don’t need a giant colorful banner every time a new review comes up.

    Plus, it’s the content that’s important on these review sites, and when it comes to the quality of the reviews James’ site is, if not quite nonpareil, at least on par with the absolute best of them.

  10. Juan Carlos (Reply) on Sunday 27 November, 2016 at 20:46

    Dear James, I just realized there are not just one review of “Dances with Wolves” but two!

    Time to do your third for Lalalandrecords’ release? 😉

    (by the way, what a magnificent score! they don’t do like this anymore)