By now you probably know - the word is out - Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves" is both an amazing accomplishment for a fledgling director and a solid box-office success among audiences in cities where the film has played for the past two weeks. And now, after opening around the rest of the country, it is doubtless perched on the edge of becoming an even bigger hit.

It's easy to see why.Based on Michael Blake's novel of the same title (Blake also wrote the screenplay), "Dances With Wolves" is a scintillating Western epic that treats both Native Americans and the frontier itself with great respect.

Not that this is the first film to do so - "Little Big Man" and "Windwalker" come to mind as examples of movies that treated Indians as multidimensional human beings or used native Indian languages with English subtitles. And the Western as environmental statement is nothing new, either.

But Costner's movie combines all these elements in a compelling story, creates fascinating characters we care about and gives the film a scope and proportions we see all too infrequently these days.

I'm not sure I'd go as far as critics who are comparing Costner with John Ford - at least not on the basis of one film. But there's no denying that he seems to have Ford's love of the land and his flair for framing action sequences in a way that is both personal and large.

Costner stars as Lt. John Dunbar, an inadvertent Civil War hero who can choose his own assignment. He soon finds himself in an outpost in the middle of "Indian territory," where he keeps a journal of his experiences as he rebuilds the fort, encounters a friendly wolf and eventually meets with Sioux tribal leaders.

What follows is a tentative relationship that begins with fear and distrust on both sides, gradually evolving into friendship.

Dunbar is expecting "savages" but instead finds a commune of people bonded together by mutual respect, tradition and family love.

Not that all the Indians in this film are saints. They are shown to occasionally have petty arguments and jealousies - and another tribe, the Pawnee, are less than friendly.

Costner is very good as Dunbar, but it is the array of excellent Native American actors in supporting roles who stay in the memory, primarily Graham Greene as Kicking Bird, Tantoo Cardinal as Black Shawl, Rodney A. Grant as Wind in His Hair, Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Ten Bears, Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse as Smiles a Lot and others. They all turn in first-rate performances and develop distinctive personalities, as does Mary McDonnell as Stands With a Fist, the white woman adopted by the tribe when she was a child.

Memorable scenes include an eye-popping buffalo hunt, Dunbar's humorous first encounter with his neighbors, Black Shawl advising Kicking Bird on affairs of the heart, Dunbar and Stands With a Fist falling in love from afar and too many others to name.

While it's true one could poke holes in some of this by taking the Kevin-Costner-does-his-hippie-thing approach - there are obvious little messages here and there - "Dances With Wolves" is full of surprises, loaded with heart and has a richness about it that makes such complaints seem trivial.

You have to hand it to him - Costner has single-handedly revived the Western to its deserved state as both an entertaining and artistic form. And the three-hour length goes by so quickly I wasn't ready for it to be over when the end credits came up.

At a time when VCRs and videos seem to have taken over and movies all too often seem to play only incidentally in theaters before taking the small-screen commercial route, it's wonderful to see a huge motion picture with vision, one willing to take a chance and explore the vistas available to the big screen.

"Dances With Wolves" is an adult film, and though it is rated PG-13, an R might not be undeserved for a couple of fairly specific sex scenes and quite a bit of violence, along with nudity and profanity.