A helicopter, 10 pickup trucks, 24 Indians riding bareback, and 20 wranglers (were employed for Dances With Wolves‘ much-talked-about buffalo hunt sequence, but the scene’s big stars were the 3,500 furry behemoths at the heart of all the commotion. The world’s largest privately owned herd of buffalo, belonging to South Dakota rancher Roy Houck, served as the thunder and lightning of Kevin Costner’s prairie storm.
”It was by far the most comprehensive scene setup we had,” says producer Jim Wilson. ”The trucks began herding the buffalo at five o’clock in the morning in hopes that they would be in position by eleven.”
All told, the wranglers stampeded the animals past the seven carefully placed cameras five times during the eight days of shooting on Houck’s ranch outside Pierre, S.D.; each run lasted five to eight minutes, after which the arduous rounding-up process began all over again. ”When buffaloes start running, they don’t stop,” head wrangler Rusty Hendrickson says. ”Their whole thought process is food and survival.”
The movie’s two domesticated buffalo — ”Mammoth,” owned by rock singer Neil Young, and ”Cody,” the mascot of a South Dakota meat company — have slightly more refined instincts. ”Cody was obsessed with Oreo cookies,” Wilson says. ”You could be 100 yards away, pull out an Oreo, and he’d take off like a bullet straight for you.” In fact, the enraged buffalo bearing down on a fallen boy in one of the hunt’s most terrifying moments was actually Cody running for an Oreo that was being held up behind the camera. For the buffalo kill sequences, the Dances crew rigged Mammoth with a Steve Martinesque strap that made it look as if arrows were piercing his hide. Wire-and-fur dummies were used to represent the fallen animals.
Considering the awesome logistical challenges, the eight-day shoot was remarkably free of mishaps. The only near-catastrophe occurred when Costner, who did all his own riding, fell off his horse in the midst of a stampede. ”That was the worst moment. I was in the copter and all I heard was ‘Kevin’s down, Kevin’s down,”’ Wilson recounts. ”You can just imagine what goes through a producer’s mind.” Luckily, the star was unscathed and returned to the chase on another horse.