“The Human Beings, my son, they believe everything is alive. Not only man and animals. But also water, earth, stone.” – Old Lodge Skins
Arthur Penn’s western masterpiece that would never get made today, which makes it all the more unique and idiosyncratic. Little Big Man (1970) is about 121-year old Jack Crabb, a white man who goes back and forth living between white culture and the Cheyenne Indians throughout the course of his life. Dustin Hoffman does a peerless and expressive job playing the young puerile Indian, then young white man, then rugged adventurer whose self-appointed mission was to defeat General Custer (Richard Mulligan). I have often described to others the film as a comic romp version of “Dances with Wolves.” This is fiction based on the Thomas Berger novel, but persuasively resurrects insalubrious historical footnotes such as the genocide of Indians on the American Reservations.
“Little Big Man” has the epic arc and a compelling one, coursing Jack’s life through a revisionist Old West that reveres the old ways. Yet it still has the impudence to label the Pawnees as vicious Indians, who murdered Jack’s family when he was a boy and became adopted by a Cheyenne tribe.
This is one of those movies that wants to tell it how it was.
Jack briefly engages religion, feels first love for his adoptive stepmother, meets Wild Bill Hickok while he flirts with a gunslinger profession, is a failed shop owner married to an oafish Swedish woman, and finally, after rejecting the white lifestyle, he re-establishes himself as a “Human Being,” what the Cheyennes refer themselves as.
Embodying great dignity, actor Chief Dan George plays the venerated Human Being who goes by Old Lodge Skins and is grandfather to Jack. He appears throughout, slightly more damaged than the last observation of him, but perseveres and becomes a great wise man. At some point, during a massacre by the white man’s military, he is miraculously “invisible.” Trotting through the carnage unscathed, he is either a lucky fluke or perhaps there is something happening deeper to actualized myth – great men transcend their space in the physical world. For Jack, he takes on the patronage hardship of four wives. Particularly heartrending is the conclusion of his best wife Sunshine (Aimee Eccles), a sequence that tears my heart out every time I see it.
You must appreciate how canny the narration is with explaining history and motivation. “Custer believed that he needed one more victory over the Indians to be nominated for President of the United States.” Jack goes back and forth with comingling peacefully with the Indians and rubbing noses with Custer, who dismisses Jack as ineffectual. What Jack imparts to Custer is reverse psychology advice. The Little Bighorn scene, so crucial, was filmed in Montana near the actual battle site. Most Indian men die in battle, as stated, leaving women repeatedly as widows. There is also one gay Indian, which is an example of anti-convention in the western genre.
Vigorously entertaining, the picturesque “Little Big Man” offers us old-fashioned traditions and values that are disappearing from this world, such as a peaceful peoples’ communal embrace with nature. There’s no doubt of the film’s heavy ideology – the white man has been a repeat offender in murderous racism – but the film always sticks with exploring the personal human conflict as a context within a larger history. Just now, I rewatched a scene with Jack sucking up to Custer. You sense his humility in having to do such a thing just to stay alive. Penn, the director of “Bonnie & Clyde” (1967) previously, made the most humane and conscientious westerns, albeit, not without a protagonist who questioned his bravery and cowardice hand in hand. He found peace with it. You have to find peace in order to find a way to live to 121 years.
With Martin Balsam as a snake-oil salesman, Faye Dunaway as the luscious preacher’s wife, Kelly Jean Peters as Olga, Jeff Corey as Wild Bill and William Hickey as the historian. You can find “Little Big Man” available at Amazon.
140 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
WESTERN / SCENIC IMAGERY / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1969); “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971); “Dances with Wolves” (1990); “The Ballad of Little Jo” (1993).