Home > Reviews > DANCES WITH WOLVES – John Barry


November 6, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

By the mid-1980s the cinematic western was almost dead, a relic of an older, less sophisticated Hollywood, which had long since left behind icons such as John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Thankfully, nobody told Kevin Costner. In 1989 Costner was one of Hollywood’s upcoming leading men, having starred in successful and popular movies such as Silverado, Bull Durham, No Way Out and Field of Dreams. When it was announced that he would direct, produce and star in a big screen version of Michael Blake’s novel Dances With Wolves, at first the news was treated with incredulity; later, with stories of spiraling costs and unconventional on-set activities, the film was expected to be a vanity project at best, a laughing stock at worst. No-one expected the film to be one of the best westerns ever made, but that is ultimately what happened.

The film is a sprawling, large canvas drama set at the tail end of the American Civil War; a story which is one part war story, one part romance, one part meditation on the meaning of life, one part love letter to the American west, and several parts restitution for the shameful treatment of Native Americans on screen during the preceding 50 years. Costner stars as John Dunbar, a lieutenant in the Union army who, after being wounded in battle and accidentally leading his platoon to victory, is branded a hero, and granted leave to request any assignment he desires. He chooses a post in the remote Dakota Territory, deep in the heart of Sioux country, so he can ‘see the frontier, before its gone’. Once at his lonely outpost, he meets, and eventually earns the trust of the local Sioux tribe, shedding his preconceptions of them as ruthless savages, instead warming to the family-oriented ways and simple lives. He befriends their medicine man, Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), and falls in love with Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who grew up in Sioux society. However, while the newly-named Dances With Wolves assimilates into his new life, the outside world comes knocking in the shape of his former military colleagues, and Dunbar is forced to make a choice between his old life, and his new one.

The film won 7 Academy Awards in 1991, including Best Picture and Best Director, validated Costner’s talent as a filmmaker, and effectively made the western ‘bankable’ again after years in the wilderness. It also marked the return to the film score world of John Barry. After completing work on The Living Daylights in 1987, the then 60-year old Barry was diagnosed with a rare type of throat disease, and for the better part of two years battled against it. When Basil Poledouris – who was Costner’s original choice to score the film –decided to score Flight of the Intruder for his old friend John Milius instead, the project fell into Barry’s lap. Having finally recovered from his ruptured oesophagus, he responded to Costner’s film with what is arguably the greatest score of his career, an enormous, romantic, sweeping, theme-filled epic which characterizes everything that is great about the Englishman’s music.

In recent years especially, many people have criticized Barry for being a one-theme-per-film composer, who repeats his motif ad nauseum through his scores. Dances With Wolves is the ultimate rebuttal to those criticisms. It’s a grand, multi-layered work which contains at least eight different themes and variations, and several standalone set-pieces, all of which inhabit the same sonic world, and all of which are singularly stunning. The style, of course, is familiar: Dances With Wolves, in terms of orchestration, is similar to other classic scores of his, notably Out of Africa, High Road to China and Somewhere in Time. Where this score excels, however, it in its development, and in its scope. There is never a moment where one of the main themes is not carrying the weight of the emotion of the score, or where the themes are not playing off each other to expert effect.

The score actually begins somewhat unnervingly, with a dark, snare-led march underscoring Dunbar’s sense of desperation at the Civil War, and screeching strings marking his desperate attempt to make the ultimate escape from its horrors, but which eventually proves to be his salvation through a triumphant brass-led finale. This dark opening leads into the first of the major motifs, “Ride to Fort Hayes”, a grand, spacious string and brass theme which perfectly encapsulates the natural beauty and stunning grandeur of the American West; this continues on into the equally magnificent “Journey to Fort Sedgewick”, which introduces a new thematic element, but retains the same sense of scope and majesty. The languid pacing of Barry’s writing, combined with the effortless beauty of the theme itself, is intoxicating in a way which only Barry can achieve. Then, finally, the score moves into the first majestic performance of the film’s main melody, “The John Dunbar Theme”, a warm, hopeful, old-fashioned nostalgic piece for a lush symphony orchestra. It’s a theme which somehow captures Dunbar’s personality perfectly: optimistic, wholesome, romantic, but a little bit melancholy. Its second restatement in the 16th track features a glowing harmonica performance which brings back memories of his 1970 western score Monte Walsh, and is just wonderful. It’s easily one of the most beautiful pieces John Barry has ever written.

In most scores, this would be enough, but not on Dances With Wolves – this is by no means the end of the thematic development. “The Death of Timmons” introduces the unsettling motif for the Pawnee, the ‘evil’ Indians of the film, and who are categorized by rattling bass flutes, stark string chords, tempestuous percussion hits, and an ominous bass pedal which rumbles underneath the rest of the orchestra. The Pawnee motif also appears in later cues, notably “Stands With A Fist Remembers” (where is combines with a dreamlike piano and choir motif to represent the white woman’s flashbacks), and the film’s central action sequence “Pawnees/Pawnee Attack/Stone Calf Dies/Toughest Dies”, which becomes quite violent and abrasive at times.

“Two Socks” introduces a light, playful woodwind theme for the wolf who inspires Dunbar’s Lakota name, and captured the inquisitive nature of the animal who, for a while at least, is Dunbar’s only friend on the prairie. The Two Socks theme features in later cues such as “Two Socks at Play” to underscore the scenes where Dunbar is visited by his lupine friend. Later, Dunbar’s other animal companion, his horse Cisco, gets one of the score’s most poignant moments, in “The Death of Cisco”, which represents one of the most stunning examples of how to score anguish: the devastating cello chord Barry uses to underline the sense of desperation Dunbar feels as his faithful steed is cut down (at exactly 1:22) is palpable. It’s only a single, brief cue, but it’s one of the score’s emotional highlights.

The warm, noble theme for the Sioux themselves first appears in “The Buffalo Robe”, which is harmonically linked to the two travelling themes, and cleverly insinuates that the natives and the land itself are as one, underlining one of the key elements of the film itself. The beautiful see-sawing two-note theme which first appears in “Journey to the Buffalo Killing Ground” represents the growing friendship ship between Dunbar and his Sioux counterparts, Kicking Bird and Wind in His Hair; it’s the most masculine of the themes, full of rich, resonant horns, but it quickly changes into an anguished flip of the John Dunbar theme, which cleverly substitutes certain notes in order for others, which turn the optimism of the original into a darker, more tragic variation to underscore the sad discovery that the buffalos – on which the Sioux rely – have been needlessly slaughtered. A variant on the friendship theme reaches its zenith in the stirring “Rescue of Dances With Wolves”, as Dunbar’s Sioux brothers pluck him from the clutches of the Union army to the sound of brass fanfares and tribal drums.

Barry’s one concession to the conventions of the old west comes through “The Buffalo Hunt”, which begins with another performance of the friendship theme, but eventually explodes into a wonderfully vibrant piece that perfectly captures the excitement, energy, freedom and joy of the sequence, and could easily have been written by Copland, Bernstein or Moross. The “Fire Dance” cue which follows it was written by new age musician Peter Buffett to add a little cultural authenticity to the score, and includes various native chants and rhythmic elements.

The theme for the budding relationship between Dunbar and Stands With a Fist gets its first, hesitant outing in “Falling in Love”, where it is performed on soft, breathy flutes, before receiving its formal statement in the “Love Theme” itself, where the flutes are gradually overtaken by soothing, graceful strings to wonderful effect. It appears again, with great longing and relief, when Dunbar and Stands With a Fist are reunited following his rescue, in the beautiful “The Loss of the Journal/The Return to Winter Camp”.

The score’s 9-minute conclusion – “Farewell and End Title” – is an utterly magnificent restatement of the majority of the main themes in succession, a stunning overview of the entire score, and a wonderful illustration of the thematic power Barry has at his fingertips. That final scene, with Dunbar and Stands With a Fist reluctantly leaving their family, with Wind In His Hair shouting an emotional call of brotherly love from a snowy clifftop, accompanied by this breathtaking music, never fails to bring a lump to my throat.

While others may rightly praise John Barry for his Bond scores, or for his excellent work in the 1960s and 70s on such epic works as Zulu or The Lion in Winter or The Last Valley, for me Dances With Wolves remains his magnum opus: easily the best score of 1990 and a truly deserved Oscar winner, the best score of his entire career, and (in my opinion) one of best twenty or thirty scores in the history of cinema. If Barry never writes another score – and, in all likelihood, he won’t – Dances With Wolves will surely live on as a major part of his musical legacy. It’s a score which belongs in EVERY film music fan’s library.

A note to collectors: this is a review of the 24-track expanded edition of Dances With Wolves released in 2004; the more widely-available original edition of the score released by Epic Soundtrax in 1990 is shorter, with just 18 cues, and runs for just over 53 minutes.

Rating: *****

Track Listing:

  • Main Title/Looks Like a Suicide (7:34)
  • Ride To Fort Hayes (2:02)
  • Journey to Fort Sedgewick/Shooting Star/John Dunbar Theme/Arrival at Fort Sedgewick (4:55)
  • The John Dunbar Theme (2:18)
  • The Death of Timmons (2:25)
  • Two Socks – The Wolf Theme (1:31)
  • Stands With A Fist Remembers (2:11)
  • The Buffalo Robe (2:12)
  • Journey to the Buffalo Killing Ground (3:39)
  • Spotting the Herd (1:49)
  • The Buffalo Hunt (Film Version) (4:33)
  • Fire Dance (written by Peter Buffett) (1:40)
  • Two Socks At Play (1:59)
  • Falling in Love (3:04)
  • Love Theme (3:46)
  • The John Dunbar Theme (2:06)
  • Pawnees/Pawnee Attack/Stone Calf Dies/Toughest Dies (6:15)
  • Victory (1:03)
  • The Death of Cisco (2:14)
  • Rescue of Dances With Wolves (2:09)
  • The Loss of the Journal/The Return to Winter Camp (2:08)
  • Farewell and End Title (8:46)
  • The Buffalo Hunt (Album Version) [BONUS] (2:44)
  • The John Dunbar Theme (Film Version) [BONUS] (2:22)

Running Time: 75 minutes 46 seconds

Epic/Legacy EK 63555 (1990/2004)

Music composed and conducted by John Barry. Orchestrations by Greig McRitchie and Mark McKenzie. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Cliff Kohlweck. Mastered by Dave Collins. Score produced by John Barry. Album re-issue produced by Didier C. Deutsch, Darcy M. Proper and Mark Wilder.

  1. Lee
    February 13, 2020 at 2:54 pm

    Everything you said about this incredible score is dead on i agree 100%

  1. April 3, 2020 at 4:39 am

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