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(Credit: Brian Beckwith)

Travel

Visit the majestic filming locations of Kevin Costner film 'Dances With Wolves'

@SamWKemp

In many ways, it’s incredible that Dances With Wolves was even made. On release, the 1990 historical drama, which both starred and was directed by Kevin Costner, was an instant success, but the long and winding road to get there was almost as long as the journey west undertaken by those early American settlers.

Michael Blake had been working on the script for years before it got picked up. By the 1980s, the western, which had once held such sway over the public imagination was lying in its grave. It was simply not the time for Blakes story about John J. Dunbar’s transcendental escape from the US military and subsequent immersion in the world of the native Sioux tribes. There were a few directors still making films about gunslingers and the like, but they were a dying breed. In 1985, Silverado arrive in cinemas, starring Kevin Costner as a hot-headed young cowboy.

Costner’s star would rise in the subsequent years, with a number of meaty roles in films like The Untouchables (1987), Bull Durham (1988), and Field of Dreams (1989). But, he clearly enjoyed nothing more than riding around on horseback because, at the age of 35, he decided to revive the western with a film that would bring it kicking and screaming into a new decade – he just needed a script. Cue Michael Blake.

After Blake had finally succeeded in getting his speculative screenplay published, Costner picked it up and went about pulling funds together for what was sure to be a very expensive production. This in itself proved to be something of a nightmare after several production companies refused to fund the project on the grounds that it lacked commercial appeal. Finally, Costner joined forces with Orian Pictures, and production began in earnest.

From July 18th to November 23rd, 1989, the production crew shot on location across the midwest, mainly in South Dakota and Wyoming. These uniquely beautiful areas of North America contain not only an abundance of wildlife but also a long and frequently painful history. Below, we take a look at some of the essential filming locations from Dances With Wolves.

The filming locations of Dances With Wolves:

Sage Creek Wilderness Area, South Dakota

Located in the Southeastern portion of South Dakota, Badlands National Park, specifically the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, forms the backdrop of Dunbar and Timmons’ wagon journey to Fort Sedgewick after Dunbar receives orders to be stationed there.

This area of rolling grasslands is one of the most serene in all the mid-west, flowing in a wide expanse of golden hues towards a mass of jutting carved pinnacles, which erupt from the earth as if from nowhere. The plains in these parts are so empty of trees that, if it wasn’t for the crumbling timber-framed homesteads that still haunt the landscape, you’d be forgiven for thinking yourself in the middle of some sprawling desert.

This area of South Dakota once belonged to the Oglala Sioux Indians and was an important ceremonial site, because it was here that the Sioux would perform the Ghost Dance. That is until 1890, when the US government, having promised that the land would remain in their hands, confiscated the area and banned the important religious ceremony, cutting a vital cord that linked the local tribes to their ancestors.

The Black Hills, South Dakota

The Black Hills, a rocky expanse that crosses over western South Dakota and into neighbouring Wyoming, are an essential feature of Dances With Wolves. The stunning Spearfish Canyon, for example, serves as the location for the tribe’s winter camp, where Dunbar bids his friends farewell for the last time in what is one of the films’ most heartbreaking moments.

The aptly-named Black Hills rise out of the earth and rip along its surface like a great stitch. The hills themselves lie between the Cheyenne and Belle Fourche rivers, rising about 3,000 feet above the surrounding flatlands, and culminating in Black Elk Peak. Amongst these forested slopes, the valleys contain multitudes of rivers, creeks, and waterfalls which, come winter freeze under the immense drifts of snow only to burst into life once again with the arrival of spring.

The location was chosen not only for its natural beauty but for its historical relevance to Dances With Wolves. Following a military expedition led by George A. Custer, gold was discovered in The Black Hills, prompting an influx of miners with dollar signs for eyes. The resistance from the local Sioux tribes culminated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which saw the crushing defeat of the U.S defeat at the hands of the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes.

Pierre, South Dakota

An area just outside Pierre, the slumbering, frequently snow-clad capital city of South Dakota, served as the location for a couple of the most memorable scenes in Dancing With Wolves, including the opening Civil War battle scene.

The city itself pivots around the central state capitol building which gleams with an ivory white which is only lessened when the winter sets in and the snow begin to bury the surrounding streets in deep, feathery drifts.

The production team, however, chose to shoot areas beyond the confines of the city, where the gridded streets give way to sweeping grasslands and fast-flowing rivers. One such location was the Triple U Buffalo Ranch, a 50,000-acre ranch in northern Stanley County, which served as the setting for the nail-biting sequence in which Dunbar and the rest of the tribe circle a gigantic herd of fearsome buffalo.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Much of the charm of Dances with Wolves lies not in the action (although there’s plenty there too) but in the sweeping panoramas that hold the piece together. Many of these were filmed by the second unit of principle photographers, who centred on the area surrounding Jackson, Wyoming.

The landscape here is defined by the presence of the Tetons, a towering slow-capped cluster of peaks that form part of the Rockies and which (or so the story goes) were originally named Les Trois Tétons (the three nipples) by a french mountaineer. It’s possible, however, that the Tetons take their name from the Teton Sioux, otherwise known as the Lakota.

I can’t quite convey how beautiful this area of North America is but to give you an impression of the kind of emotions this sublime landscape can invoke, let me just say that after driving through a snowstorm all night and finally emerging into a fresh, crystalline morning, a good friend of mine had a worryingly profound religious experience whilst going for a wild poo in the forested shadow of the Tetons. “I think…I think I saw God,” he said, clutching a trowel in one hand and a roll of toilet paper in the other.