We were saddened last week to learn that Michael Blake, the writer of DANCES WITH WOLVES (both the screenplay and the original novel) died of cancer at the unacceptably young age of 69. I was even more saddened to learn what I didn't know about Blake. From the linked article:
Blake had befriended Costner when he was a relatively unknown actor. He spent several years living out of his car and on friends’ couches while he wrote the novel. It went on to sell 3.5m copies after the success of the film, which Costner starred in, produced and directed. It won seven Academy Awards, including one for Blake for best adapted screenplay.
The guy lived in his car while he wrote a novel that eventually became an Oscar-winning movie. There's beauty in that.
Similarly, there's beauty in the small moments of Blake's script, like this early one that always stuck with me, in which John Dunbar - Costner's character - meets with a commanding officer to ask for a transfer to the frontier. A Union soldier in the Civil War, Dunbar has seen the war's brutal effects on his fellow soldiers' bodies, as well as his own. In his meeting with Major Farmbrough on page nine, he comes face to face with the horrors war can wreak on the mind.
By page two, we've seen the horrors of war in a time when field medics amputate legs as a matter of regularity. By page four, we've seen a demoralized Union line, shell-shocked into stillness by unrelenting Confederate fire. By page seven, Dunbar has attempted suicide and failed - but succeeded only in turning the tide of the battle in the Union's favor. "In trying to produce my own death," Dunbar says in voice-over, "I was elevated to the status of a living hero."
In fewer than ten pages, Blake has not only given us a well-defined character and an action-packed opening scene. He's made a strong argument that in war, every victory is Pyrrhic.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the picture of Major Farmbrough, an Army lifer whose service has clearly driven him off the deep end. He's filthy. Suspicious. Weirdly anachronistic. And at the end of his conversation with Dunbar, he proudly pisses his pants, then kills himself.
If we've had any reason to be uncertain that Dunbar is making the right move in asking to be transferred as far away from as many people as possible, they're gone by the end of the scene. We're with Dunbar now, because the script has given us a million good reasons to be.
Check out the pages below, from an undated draft in our collection. Click each image to embiggen.