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Little Big Man

Little Big Man
Paramount/CBS Video
1970 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 139, 147 min. / Street Date April 29, 2003 / 19.99
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan, Jeff Corey, Aimée Eccles, Kelly Jean Peters, Carole Androsky, Ruben Moreno, William Hickey, Jesse Vint, Alan Oppenheimer, Thayer David
Cinematography Harry Stradling Jr.
Production Designer Dean Tavoularis
Art Direction Angelo P. Graham
Film Editors Dede Allen, Richard Marks
Original Music John Hammond
Written by Calder Willingham from the novel by Thomas Berger
Produced by Stuart Millar
Directed by Arthur Penn

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 pretends 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 next years 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), an Indian 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 1, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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