Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Rather underappreciated when new, Little Big Man sits outside and a little to the left of
the Western genre tradition. A folksy, ironic fable that takes one fictitious man's memoirs and
that he experienced 5 or 6 lifetimes' worth of adventures in the old West, it aims to debunk and
disabuse us of our illusions while revisiting some of the same old time thrills. Dustin Hoffman's
Jack Crabb is one of his best characters, and, as it turns out, Little Big Man is one of
Arthur Penn's best movies.
Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) survives a Pawnee massacre at a young age and is raised
by the Cheyenne chief Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George).'Rescued' by the U.S. Army, he spends the
shuttling back and forth between white settlements and the remnants of the Cheyenne nation. By
turns, he's seduced by a Reverend's wife (Faye Dunaway), enlisted as a snake oil salesman by
Mr. Merriweather (Martin Balsam), becomes a storekeeper with a Swedish wife (Kelly Jean Peters),
once again with a Cheyenne wife (Aimée Eccles), a gunslinger pal to Wild Bill Hickock and
muleskinner for the mad General Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan). Every time he thinks life is
too crazy to live, the accepting philosophy of Old Lodge Skins brings him back to his senses.
Westerns were just beginning to fade in the early 70s, although they'd straggle on for another decade
before becoming literal boxoffice poison. In 1969 there were two bellweather films. Butch Cassidy
and the Sundance Kid charmed audiences with its 'radical chic' reinterpretation of the outlaw
life along the lines of Pierrot le fou. Then The Wild Bunch came along and announced
that the era of the classic Western was over, like the closing of an era. Violence and politics
caught up with the genre.
Little Big Man is about other things, mainly the new liberal revisionism of American history
that appreciated the simple fact that the West wasn't won, but instead stolen from the
indigenous people who came before us. The sullied image of the American military in Vietnam had its
precedent in 'the Indian Wars' of the great plains, that were really a systematic conquering of the
Indian nations. In a year, the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee would recharacterize
previous Indian battles, as massacres.
Little Big Man is told in flashback, as the 120 year-old Jack Crabb relates it to the tape
recorder of a pompous historian. It's a tall tale in the classic American tradition, except this
one might be true. If he cast himself as the hero of his tale, we'd consider this some kind of
Walter Mitty boasting, but as it is, Crabb doesn't seduce the females or win most of his battles,
and he's actually a self-acknowledged coward.
Hollywood movies have been championing the cause of the Indian (Native American) since the silent
days, but rarely from the point of view of the red man. Jack Crabb is raised half 'Injun' and half
white, and sees for himself the incompatability of the two cultures. There were other 'good Indian,
evil cavalry' films made about this time,
the most heinous example being the crass and exploitative Soldier Blue, but anyone who
actually watched The Searchers fourteen years earlier with their eyes open could see that
even John Ford had already been there - he shows Indian braves running with children in their arms,
and women being mercilessly ridden down.
Westerns are the bread and butter of ordinary folk who generally support the status quo, and not
of liberal intellectuals. So Little Big Man's liberal armband made audiences nervous, and
even the substantial humor in Calder Willingham's clever script didn't lower resistance to his
messages. About the time that Richard Mulligan's gloriously deranged Custer shows up, wave-the-flag
types probably thought that Little Big Man was a Kremlin production. Custer, as everyone
knows, was Errol Flynn, a dashing hero who really loved Indians and died a great hero at the
Little Big Horn.
Audiences amenable to the historical truth in Little Big Man had a jolly good time
with its farcical sense of humor. Jack Crabb is bathed by Faye Dunaway in one hilarious scene, and
tarred and feathered with Martin Balsam in another. Dustin Hoffman is able to work out all of his
mannered 'give the character a funny walk' schtick, when Crabb becomes a ruthless gunman known as
'The Soda Pop Kid.' New York actor Hoffman convincingly rides a horse (unless there's some clever
doubling going on that we didn't catch) and fights with a knife as well.
Jack Crabb not only isn't all that tough, the women in his life are much tougher. His sister turns
into a rough'n ready blacksmith, and his Swedish wife becomes an Indian squaw, terrorizing her
henpecked Indian husband.
Probably Arthur Penn's biggest achievement is the way he changes tone in the picture, time and again,
without warning. The 'told story' flashback aspect of the film helps here, but the switches from
outrageous slapstick (Crabb wallowing in the mud as a drunk) to cutesy sex (crawling from bed to bed
to satisfy his Indian wife's sisters), and finally to murderous tragedy, are masterfully handled.
Chief Dan George got a lot of attention for portraying the old chief not as an 'ugh ugh'
wooden Indian, but as a spirited old man with a lively sense of humor. The shift from 'today is a
good day to die!', to , 'Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't!', is very touching,
as is Crabbs insistence that the old man had certain magic powers of clairvoyance.
The production is also dazzling, with enough hardware and action for four Westerns, yet never trying
to intimidate us with its scale. Stagecoaches crash and armies collide on the Dakota highlands, and
the massacre of an Indian village was filmed in subzero temperatures in frozen Alberta. The photography
and art direction in the interiors matches the good work done out in the open country. The film was
lauded for its elaborate age makeup for Hoffman - which Savant never liked. For all the effort and
artistry, it looks like a rigid mask, pasty and artificial.
Paramount/CBS' DVD of Little Big Man is a very nice-looking transfer in excellent shape. The
sound has been remixed in 5.1 . I'm not aware of missing scenes, so the longer running time posted
by the IMDB might be an error. The disc has no extras - a shame as there must have been a hundred
fascinating stories about this unique epic.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Little Big Man rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 1, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson