Monday, May 10, 2010

Little Big Man

Many film critics consider the last "golden age" of American cinema to be the 1970's. They cite a steady decline in the quality of studio films during the 1980’s and 1990’s, and the emergence of the American independent film scene as the most important indicators of this deterioration. And to a certain degree this may be true. The '70s saw a wonderful trend of studios taking chances on risky films that often featured controversial subject matter or a departure from standard Hollywood stereotypes (i.e. opting for a downbeat ending as opposed to a happy one). A great example of a film from this decade that embodies a willingness to push the envelope of convention is Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970), an endlessly fascinating and entertaining film that contrasts the harshness and violent nature of the frontier where a man defines himself through violence, by inserting a protagonist who instead defines himself through predominantly non-violent actions. Herein lies the brilliance of Little Big Man, a film that takes an existing genre like the western and consistently subverts our expectations at every turn.
The film begins with an intriguing opening: it is present time and a snobby scholarly type is trying to interview a very elderly man (Dustin Hoffman) who claims to be the only white man to have survived the infamous Battle of Little Big Horn, also known as Custer's Last Stand. The film then proceeds to recount Jack Crabb's colorful past in a series of flashbacks. Right from the first one we are acutely aware that this is not going to be the usual western. Penn's camera does a slow pan over a beautiful, scenic grassy field. This idyllic scene is quickly shattered as the camera continues its pan and we are struck by a rather primitive, horrific sight: a dead man spread eagle, covered in blood. This is soon followed by more bodies and burnt out carriages, the remains of a settler encampment massacred by Native American Indians. This rather unromantic portrayal of the Old West is only the beginning of a scathingly critical look at the conventions and the mythology of the western.
Jack Crabb and his sister Caroline are the only survivors of this skirmish and are soon found by a Cheyenne Indian who takes the two back to his people. After Jack's sister escapes, he is soon adopted by the Cheyenne who don't turn out to be brutal savages but actually quite the opposite. They are a thoughtful, noble people that are finding their way of life being rapidly wiped out by the white man. In an interesting turn, the Cheyenne refer to themselves as "human beings" and their humanity becomes readily apparent in their quick acceptance of Jack and the willingness to teach him their ways and customs. Ironically, they don't view white men as "human beings" and this becomes evident in the white man’s harsh treatment of not only Native American Indians but themselves as well.
The film follows Jack through the various stages of his life where he not only learns valuable lessons about life and the world but also meets an intriguing assortment of characters that appear and reappear at crucial moments in his life. The first three phases of Jack's life reveal the tried and true stereotypes inherent in the western. These archetypes are parodied in order to expose how hollow and outdated they are.

Jack's first phase, a religious one, sees him under the dubious tutelage of Mrs. Pendrake (Faye Dunaway), a God-loving woman who, as it turns out, is into more "sinful" pursuits than her virginal attire would suggest. This revelation exposes Jack to the double standards and hypocrisy of religion – that many people rarely practice what they preach as Mrs. Pendrake so adequately demonstrates. This rather amusing episode also marks the final eradication of naiveté that might have existed in Jack.
From there, he hooks up with Allardyce T. Merriweather (Martin Balsam), a sleazy salesman who "tended to lose parts of himself" in retribution for his shady dealings. A left hand here, a left ear there ... more parts gradually disappear as the years pass, transforming Merriweather into a ridiculous figure who still tries to con anyone who will listen. This is Jack's con man phase as Merriweather shows him that the world has no moral order. Merriweather embodies the dark side of the capitalist dream at its most garish and lays it all out for Jack when he tells him, "Those stars twinkle in a void dear boy and the two-legged creature schemes and dreams beneath them all in vain ... The two-legged creature will believe anything. And the more preposterous the better." Merriweather preys on people and they in turn prey on him – hence his rapidly diminishing body parts.
Jack's next period in life sees him reuniting with his sister who rescues him from a lynch mob and ends up teaching him how to be an ace shot with a gun. So, he decides to become a professional gunslinger, complete with an all black outfit and spurs. But he ends up being a hilarious parody of a killer with his often clumsy gestures and the general way in which he carries himself. Jack is all talk and no action. He even ends up meeting the legendary gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey) who points out, "you don't have the look of murder in your eye." As if to prove his point, Wild Bill coolly guns down a man who tries to kill him. Jack realizes that Wild Bill is a real killer, while he is merely a poseur. It is a rather ironic moment as we realize that Jack has become an expert in quick draw and shooting with a gun, and yet he is unable to kill people with it.
Little Big Man was a film that had been a long time in the making. MGM originally wanted to make it as a multi-million dollar epic based on Thomas Berger's best-selling novel. The deal fell through and a smaller studio, Cinema Center Films, agreed to finance the film in June of 1969. Jack Richardson had originally started writing the screenplay for MGM and was subsequently replaced by Calder Willingham who took over and produced a wonderfully rich script that covered an important period of American history and one man's interaction with many of the pivotal figures of this time.
The film was budgeted at $5 million dollars with Dustin Hoffman in the lead role and Arthur Penn directing. Penn's involvement also led to the film's break with convention. He was in large part responsible for ushering in an era of ultra-violent and blood-soaked action films with his stylish feature, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which divided critics and audiences alike but is still regarded as a landmark film for the way in which it took an existing legend and reworked it for modern sensibility. This is exactly what he did with Little Big Man. As Penn commented in an interview, one of the aims of his film "was to say, 'Wait a minute, folks, the American Indian has been portrayed in movies in the most unpleasant way possible' – I mean, pure, naked racism – 'so let's examine how we have told our own history, such as Custer's last stand.' I mean, you go out there to this day and they feed you a lot of bullshit about the great, brave Custer, but the books don't bear that out at all. He was a pompous, self-aggrandizing man." To this end, Penn's film goes a long way to imparting a real sense of humanity to the Indians while showing the white man's greed and pomposity as embodied by the vain General Custer (Richard Mulligan). The film also includes numerous scenes of Indian villages being systematically wiped out by the United States army. No one is spared in these genocidal acts: not women, not children. These scenes and the fact that the film was made during the height of the Vietnam War give the material additional meaning. Little Big Man may not only be commenting on the brutal treatment of Native Americans but also the involvement in other cultures throughout the world. One could argue that Penn's film is not only a critique of past American history but also of contemporary events as well.

Little Big Man received generally favorable reviews from critics back in the day. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and wrote, “Most movie Indians have had to express themselves with an "um" at the end of every other word: ‘Swap-um wampum plenty soon,’ etc. The Indians in Little Big Man have dialogue reflecting the idiomatic richness of Indian tongues; when Old Lodge Skins simply refers to Cheyennes as ‘the Human Beings,’ the phrase is literal and meaningful and we don't laugh.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “All of these things are true, and yet Little Big Man—both in spite of and because of these failings—is an important movie by one of our most interesting directors.” Finally, Time magazine wrote, “it also accomplishes that rarest achievement, the breathing of life into an ossified art form. The '70s has its first great epic. Blood brother to the 1903 one-reeler, The Great Train Robbery, Little Big Man is the new western to begin all westerns.”
Little Big Man is a film that could only be made in the '70s. No major studio nowadays would be willing to back such a critical film without a big name star to attract a mass audience. At best, the film would probably have to be done on a low budget with independent backing and a cast of unknowns. One only has to look at a "revisionist Western" like Dances With Wolves (1990) to see how radical a film like Little Big Man still is. Kevin Costner's film has the same goals and intentions as Penn's film, however, where Dances With Wolves was satisfied to water down its message into a palatable, politically correct pill for all to swallow, Little Big Man refuses to compromise or sentimentalize its message or its subject. Penn's film avoids the trap of reducing Native American Indians to quaint stereotypes or romanticizing its story and its surroundings. It is this unyielding attitude that makes Little Big Man a daring, original film whose power and impact has yet to be dated by time.


  1. A fantastic review of one of THE great movies. It truly captures the novel and its message and shatters the mythology we'd swallowed up until that point.

  2. A great look back at this film with your review, J.D. You know, Arthur Penn really had three of the exceptional films that came out of the 70's with this one, NIGHT MOVES, and THE MISSOURI BREAKS. IIRC, Chief Dan George was the first Native American ever nominated for an Oscar because of his role in the movie. I alway recall the scene with Jeff Corey as Wild Bill when I think of this. That, and Richard Mulligan as Custer. I'm not sure, but the film's portrayal of this real character in less romantic terms had to be one of the first (if not THE first) to accurately render him in this media (history books had been doing that for awhile). Thanks for spotlighting this film, J.D.

  3. "Penn's film avoids the trap of reducing Native American Indians to quaint stereotypes or romanticizing its story and its surroundings. It is this unyielding attitude that makes Little Big Man a daring, original film whose power and impact has yet to be dated by time."

    That's right one! It does not romanticize the Indians. Here they are shown as dirty, bloodthirsty, witty, crazy, philosophical, loving, hateful, weird, timid, and courageous. Their humanity and their culture are depicted truthfully. I've read extensively about the history of the Great Plains Indians, and this great movie gets it right.

    Costner's film was supposed to bring attention to the truth about Native American history and culture. His film gave way to a whole bunch of made-for-TNT movies about Native Americans, but they kind of do the same thing that Dances with Wolves does. In that respect, they do a disservice to Native Americans - while at the same time Native Americans shirk away sometimes from presenting aspects of their culture that might not be so palatable to today's sensibilities.

    Besides presenting the culture correctly, Penn's film is gripping and downright hilarious. Great cinematography. That extreme long shot of cavalry charging across the snow to the tune of the Garry Owen is my favorite extreme long shot of all time.

  4. Tommy Salami:

    Thank you, my friend! After seeing the film, I'm dying to read the novel.


    I dig Penn's work as well. NIGHT MOVES is amazing and, of course, BONNIE & CLYDE. Hell, I even like PENN & TELLER GET KILLED, which, unfortunately, has been his last feature film to date.

    Seeing LITTLE BIG MAN after DANCES WITH WOLVES was like a shock to my system and really lowered Costner's film in my estimation. Penn's film took so many more chances and was so unflinching in its portrayal of Native American Indians and how the white man treated them.

    As always, thanks for stopping by.


    "I've read extensively about the history of the Great Plains Indians, and this great movie gets it right."

    Wow, that's great to hear. I always wondered just how accurate the film was.

    Thank you for your extensive comments that were very well-thought and said! I agree completely and certainly share your sentiments about all the inferior films that came out after LITTLE BIG MAN and how they depicted the Native American Indians.

  5. One of my all time favorites. Interestingly, Penn didn't totally follow his own train of thought as Richard Boone was first cast as Old Lodge Skins!

  6. christian:

    "Interestingly, Penn didn't totally follow his own train of thought as Richard Boone was first cast as Old Lodge Skins!"

    Huh, I did not know that! Very interesting...

  7. One of Penn's finest films that remains somewhat of a little talked about work. Glad to see you bring itsome well deserved attention.

  8. John:

    Thanks! Yeah, LITTLE BIG MAN may be my fave Penn film to date. It just fires on all cylinders and works on pretty much every level.

  9. I have to say BONNIE AND CLYDE remains my favorite film by Penn. LITTLE BIG MAN and NIGHT MOVES flip flop between 2nd and 3rd. One I have not seen since it first came out, and wonder how it would hold up is ALICE'S RESTAURANT. It was such a product of its times that I fear by watching it again it will look very dated.

  10. John:

    Yeah, I saw ALICE'S RESTAURANT a little while ago and did feel dated but in a good way in that it is very much a snapshot of its times. Still, NIGHT MOVES and BONNIE & CLYDE are certainly superior to it. Hell, I even like the Penn & Teller film he did.

  11. I have to admit that I love this movie. I enjoyed the film till the last. It is the story of an amazing man and his encounter with the Cheyenne. Highly recommended movie !!