Little Big Man(1970) is a revisionist Western directed by Arthur Penn from Thomas Berger’s satirical novel. The film stars Dustin Hoffman as Jack Crabb, a white man raised by Native Indian Tribes, and it tells the tale of the conquest of the American West from the point of view of the Native Americans.
Dustin Hoffman in a ‘Western’ sounds as ludicrous as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood playing virginal college boys or crossdressing actors. But then again Little Big Man(1970), directed by Arthur Penn, is no ordinary Western, it’s truly an oddball one: where the hero is no ‘hero’ in the Western genre sense; he’s a survivor, who hardly did anything heroic in the old-west, and a misfit, who tries to straddle two civilizations, white and Indian, throughout his life and fails to belong to either one of them. And there’s no better actor in the world to play a loser cum misfit better than Hoffman. Whether it’s Benjamin Braddock, “Ratso” Rizzo or ‘Rainman’ Raymond, that’s what he’s done (and done well) for the most part of his career. “Little Big Man” came at the height of the New-Hollywood movement and Vietnam war, and the film is a revisionist take on the “How the West was Won” story, shown through the eyes of the conquered Native American tribes; it portrays the Indian tribes positively and it casts American military in a negative light; with their ruthless and stupid actions in the old-west meant to be an allegory for the American involvement in Vietnam. Penn was coming off the unprecedented success of “Bonnie and Clyde(1967),” which had become a worldwide phenomenon, and also helped usher in a new-age in American cinema. “Bonnie and Clyde” was a revisionist take on the classic gangster dramas: with its mixture of blood and humor, the film would deglamorize the life of gangsters. Penn would apply the same formula to the Western genre with “Little Big Man”: by crafting a shaggy-dog style picaresque narrative about the old-west from the perspective of an unreliable storyteller, Jack Crabb- who seems to be (magically) present at most of the important events that took place in the West during the (tumultuous) second half of the Nineteenth-Century.
The film begins in 1970, where we find a 121-year old Jack Crabb – the oldest man in the world- narrating his life story to a historian. Though, at first, the curmudgeon Crabb does not want to tell his tale, he’s goaded into his narration when the historian refers to Crabb as an ‘Indian Fighter.’ The film then flashes back to 1859, when Crabb’s pioneer family is massacred by the Pawnees while crossing the Western plains; a 10-year old Jack Crabb and his adult sister, Caroline(Carole Androsky). are the only survivors. The two are discovered by ‘Shadow’, a Cheyenne brave, who takes the siblings to his village. Caroline escapes the village at night, but Jack remains behind and is reared by the good-hearted tribal leader, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan george). The Cheyenne train him in their ways, though he unwittingly makes an enemy of Younger Bear(Cal Bellini), after Jack saves the latter’s life in a Pawnee ambush; and as it is the Cheyenne custom, Younger Bear owes Jack a life. Jack is also named “Little Big Man” because he is short but very brave. When Jack is 16, he joins the Cheyenne in battling the American cavalry, but is shocked to see that the battle-tactics adopted by the Cheyenne and the cavalry are vastly different: while Cheyenne shames the enemy by gently hitting his body with their weapons, Cavalry retaliates by shooting down the Cheyenne braves. The Cheyenne are wiped out and, to avoid being killed, Jack surrenders himself to the army, claiming himself to be a white man abducted by the Cheyenne. The U.S. army sends Jack to the foster care of Reverend Silas Pendrake and his wife, Louise (Faye Dunaway), so that Jack would get a good Christian education and rejoin the ‘civilized’ society. The adolescent Jack soon falls under the spell of the bewitching Louise, a sexually frustrated lady, who alternatively nurtures and seduces him. But when Jack catches Louise having sex with a soda shop owner, he decides he’s had enough of the hypocrisy of the Pendrake household: Jack renounces his foster parents and his religion, and takes up with a Snake-oil salesman, Allardyce T. Meriweather(Martin Balsam)- whose act of unapologetically conning the common folk is refreshing to Jack after the religious and sexual hypocrisy of the Pendrakes. But soon the two conmen are caught; they’re tarred and feathered by angry customers whom they have defrauded, but it turns out that one of the angry customers is Jack’s now-grown sister, Caroline, with whom he reunites.
Now back in the ‘bosom of his family’, Caroline tries to mold her brother into a gunfighter. And it appears that her efforts have borne fruit when Jack exhibits remarkable ability with the gun. But Jack’s career as a gunfighter lasts all but one day: Jack runs into the legendary gunfighter, Wild Bill Hickok(Jeff Corey); and though Jack takes a liking to Bill, when Jack witnesses Bill slaying an enemy in self-defense, he realizes that this line of work is not him. Angry with Jack for quitting gunfighting, Caroline abandons him. Now once again an orphan, Jack decides to get married to a Swedish lady, named Olga. To make a living, he becomes a partner in a General store, but Alas! his partner cheats him, and once again Jack finds himself penniless, homeless and out of a vocation. The grieving couple accidentally runs into George Armstrong Custer(Robert Mulligan) who advices them to go west, and that there’s nothing to fear from the Indians. Trusting Custer’s words, Jack and Olga go west, but on the way, their stagecoach is attacked by Cheyenne: Jack is thrown off the carriage, while one of the Cheyenne braves kidnap Olga. Jacks sets out to find his wife, and on his way he’s reunited with his Cheyenne family, his foster grandfather, Old Lodge Skins and Younger Bear, who has become a Contrary – a warrior who does everything in reverse. Jack stays with the Cheyenne for some time, and then departs to find Olga. Soon, Jack becomes a scout for Custer, and he unwittingly becomes part of an ambush on a Cheyenne village, where Custer’s men massacre the villagers, including Jack’s saver ‘Shadow’. Jack manages to save the life of Shadow’s daughter, Sunshine, who ends up becoming his wife and, in the winter, they return to Old Lodge Skins, who has now become blind, and is now living with his family near the Washita river.
On Sunshine’s insistence, Jack takes 3 of her widowed sisters as his wife as well. There, Jack also runs into his Swedish wife, Olga, whom he has been searching all along, and to his utter surprise: she’s now the wife of Younger Bear, and she does not recognize Jack; and Jack does not take the effort to make her realize who he’s either. Jack and the Cheyenne’s idyll on the land is broken when Custer and his armies launch an unprovoked attack and massacres the entire village, including women and children – this came to be know as the Battle of Washita River . Jack’s 4 wives and his child is killed in the attack, but miraculously, he and Old lodge Skins manages to escape. Driven by vengeance, Jack reenlist in Custer’s army, but though he comes very close to stabbing Custer from behind, he loses his nerve at the last moment. Custer catches Jack in his murderous act, but the megalomaniac he is, he decides that his decision to pardon Jack will stay. This is the ultimate humiliation of Jack; having lost his pride and his family, he rejoins the ‘White’ society as a drunkard. He once again runs into Wild Bill, who asks him to clean himself up and seeks his help in paying off a prostitute, Lulu Kane, whom he has been seeing. Jack sobers up and takes the money from Bill, but before he departs, Wild Bill is shot in the back, and he falls dead right in front of Jack. Jack goes to pay off Lulu, but he’s shocked to realize that Lulu is none other than his foster mother, Louise Pendrake. Louise and Jack reminisces about the old days; Jack gives her Bill’s money, and then walks away- once again refusing to succumb to Louise’s charms.
After this Jack withdraws completely from civilization and becomes a hermit. He has suicidal thoughts, but before he could act on them he spots Custer’s army marching through the woods. This reignites his desire for vengeance; and when he volunteers to be a scout, Custer, reasoning that anything he says will be a lie, thus serving as a perfect reverse barometer, happily takes back Jack. Jack tricks Custer into leading his troops into a trap at the Little Bighorn by truthfully telling Custer of the overwhelming force of Native Americans hidden within the valley. Using his ‘reverse barometer’ theory Custer venture out with his forces only to be slaughtered by the combined might of Sioux and Cheyenne. Seeing his army being defeated, Custer loses his mind and starts to rave and rant at a wounded Jack lying on the ground. Mistaking him for the US President, the maddened Custer attempts to shoot Jack, but is killed by Younger Bear, who then carries Jack away from the battlefield, and back to the camp of Old Lodge Skins. Having thus discharged his life debt, Younger Bear tells Jack that the next time they meet, he can kill Jack without becoming an evil person. Then one day, Old Lodge Skins decides that ‘it’s a good day for him to die’, and ventures out into the burial ground with Jack. He offers his spirit to the Great Spirit, and lies down at his spot in the ground, but then it starts to rain, and Old Lodge Skins realizes that it’s not time yet fro him to die; he is escorted out of the burial ground by Jack. Now the film cuts back to 1970, where we find that the 121-year old Jack has abruptly stopped his narration. He asks the historian to leave, and sits there in the hospice all alone thinking about the times long gone by.
In one line “Little Big Man” can be described as “Forrest Gump meets Dances with the Wolves.” But the film is much much better than those two Oscar winning films. For one the film is devoid of the saccharine dripping sweetness of Gump; Jack Crabb is a liar, cheat, fabricator, opportunist and devoid of any special skills; his main motto is his survival and he remorselessly switches sides as and when it suits him, elevating the film to a sort of an existential comedy. It has also to be noted that maybe half, or even all, of what jack is narrating here could be lies, or the hallucinations of his senile mind: he obsessively inserts himself into almost all the major turning points in the history of the old-west. In fact, Jack’s life goes through so many highs and lows that it’s almost impossible to imagine that all of it could have happened to one person in a single lifetime. Also, the depiction of the Native culture is more truthful, layered and less idealistic as it was the case with “Dances with Wolves.” The Indians refer to themselves as the “Human Beings”; they being one with the nature. To these “Human beings”, the white man is a dangerous fool, yet they are not above adopting a ‘White boy’ like Jack and showing him their traditions and their ‘way of life,’ which will ultimately be decimated by the American military. “There is an endless supply of white men. There has always been a limited number of human beings.” laments Old Lodge Skins at one point. The life of a Cheyenne is shown to be noble and an advanced one, even advanced than the Whites: from the adoptive brother who resents Jack for having saved his life and owes him a life, after which he feels he can freely kill Jack without being considered evil, to the sweet and honored homosexual native, Little Horse (Robert Little Star), who stayed at home with the women yet was never shamed for it by the warriors in his tribe; and then the idea of a ‘Contrary‘, who did everything backwards. I can’t think of another Western that went so deeply into the native culture and broke all existing stereotypes regarding the ‘Indians.’ The tragedy of the ‘Indian’ civilizations is also depicted in how they are constantly displaced from lands that they have claimed to be their own purely through their nature (and not through military conquest or possession documents); and how they are forced to fight to retain them, even the lands that are granted to them through treaties by the American government.
Arthur Penn’s films are always marked by their sympathetic portrayal of the ‘Outsider,’ or the socially marginalized class. And this is very evident in the portrayal of a misfit anti-hero like Jack, and the Native tribes. Penn is no stranger to revisionist Westerns, oddball cinema or episodic narratives: he had started his career with a gritty, revisionist Western like “Left-handed Gun.” He had made the two bizarre Marlon Brando vehicles: “The Chase(1966)” and “The Missouri Breaks(1976)”; the latter was a sort of episodic Western with Brando at his weirdest. Though it’s hard to call “Little Big Man” Penn’s greatest film- he has made masterpieces like “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “Night Moves,” but this film can be called his most ambitious, epical and the most effortlessly crafted. The filmmaking has a nimbleness which belies the episodic stricture of the film with its constant shift in moods and even genres. Though broadly termed a Western, it mixes elements of drama, comedy, tragedy, farce, romance, historical epic and war film. Most of the events in the film, comic or tragic, are observed from an ironic distance. This is most visible in the film’s battle scenes; whether it’s the Washita river battle, or the battle of Little Big Horn, they are all observed either from afar or right from the middle of it. While the Washita river massacre is more grittily shot, constantly intercutting to Jack standing across the river, helplessly watching his family being massacred; the “Battle of Little big Horn” is shot in almost a farcical way- like a skirmish in a schoolyard between kids, with Custer behaving like a petulant child; here there’s absolutely no sensationalism, grandeur or sentimentalism attached to the cavalry Vs Indian battles that we usually see in the regular Western\cavalry pictures. The treatment of Custer himself, as an egomaniacal, ruthless, ambitious, pompous fool who has turned his subordinates into cronies and yes men- who tell him only what he wants to hear, is quite satirical and radical. This detached and ironic treatment of events (and characters) ensure that the film is devoid of melodrama, which in turn allows the film to maintain a consistent tone, even as the film continuously shifts moods, as it moves from one episode to the next.
Penn and writer Calder Willingham uses a loopy ‘circle of life’ style narrative structure for Jack’s life progression. The people whom he meets in the latter part of his life are the same he met in the early part of his life. The characters comes into his life, then disappears for a period, and then reenters his life in a different form. Louise become Lulu; Meriweather, who was without an eye and arm when Jack first met him returns minus a leg as well; Shadow, who saved his life when he was a child returns as his killer, but is in turn killed by the cavalry; and so it goes… The film’s ending is bittersweet and metaphorical: Old Lodge Skins trying to die, but then living on works as a metaphor for the current state of the Native tribes: who are defeated, but not fully eliminated, and cursed to live on in a world ruled by the ‘White’ man. Penn displays remarkable economy in compressing such an epic tale into a film of less than two and half hours length. He must have been helped immensely by the legendary editor Dede Allen, who had also done path breaking work on “Bonnie and Clyde.” The film’s progression reflects the ‘unreliable narrator’ framing device, with the narrative stopping, restarting and jumping forward abruptly, and not bothering much with maintaining emotional continuity, as it shifts from an extremely violent and tragic sequence to an extremely optimistic sequence. The film is beautifully photographed by Harry Stradling Jr. in locations like Montana, Alberta and Nevada. This is unquestionably the most beautiful-looking film Penn has ever made.
Ultimately, the film belongs to Dustin Hoffman. It’s impossible to imagine anybody else in this role. As I said in my “Marathon Man” review, I’m not the biggest fan of Hoffman; I don’t really like seeing him (or buy him) in straight-serious roles. For me, the roles he is perfect for are the ones that require a perfect mixture of humor and pathos; and coming after “The Graduate” and “Midnight Cowboy,” “Little Big Man” was the perfect hattrick for Hoffman. There is an effortlessness to his acting in this period which he lost later on. Hoffman essays this part with sensitivity and grace, convincingly aging from 16 to 121. For his work in the film, Hoffman was put in The Guinness Book of World Records as “Greatest Age Span Portrayed By A Movie Actor.” The other scene-stealer in the film is Robert Mulligan who created a delightful caricature of General Custer. Every scene he’s in is a knockout. Faye Dunaway, Jeff Corey and Martin Balsam are also very funny in their roles, with Chief Dan George being simply magnificent as Old Lodge Skins- giving the ‘Wise old sage’ character a mixture of nobility and goofiness that’s rare to achieve. Those were the times when Native Americans were played by White Actors, and the role was initially offered to Marlon Brando, Paul Scofield, and Laurence Olivier, all of whom turned it down. So Penn decided to go with a real ‘Native American’ actor for the role, and it elevates the film to another level. For his performance in the film, Chief Dan George was nominated for a best supporting Oscar; and he became the first Native American to receive an Academy Award nomination for acting.