Little Big Man (1970)

Little Big Man (1970) movie poster

director Arthur Penn
viewed: 02/14/2014

Little Big Man was one of those films that I kind of grew up with.  I always remembered liking it.  I think my mom liked it.

As I got into film as an adult I learned of Arthur Penn, most notably his 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, I decided to rewatch it, and I recalled again that I thought it was pretty good.  I’m not exactly sure what inspired me to think that I’d like to watch it with Felix and Clara.  I couldn’t recall how appropriate or interesting it would be for them, though I know I saw it on TV when I was quite small.  I have been trying to interest them in the Western.

I gave them a brief preview of it the week before and they were indeed interested.  So, we did it.

Based on a novel by Thomas Berger, it’s a picaresque ramble told by a 121 year old man to a historical archivist.  The 121 year old man is Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman in some serious make-up), narrating the tale of his life set against the backdrop of the Old West.

As a child, his family is slaughtered by some Indians, but he is also taken in by a kind tribe of Cheyenne, particularly Old Lodge Skins (played wonderfully by Chief Dan George), an elder who he comes to regard as his grandfather.  Raised as he is by the Cheyenne, he is always between the world of the white man and the Indian, never fully part of either.

His adventures include times with Christians, a snake oil salesman, as a sharp-shooting gunslinger, regular businessman, and town drunk.  He encounters real life characters like Wild Bill Hickok and General Custer.  In fact, his claim is that he is the lone white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Most interestingly, the film is a revisionist Western, notably treating the Native Americans not merely in a sympathetic light but using Native American actors, playing roles with greater dignity, humor, depth and honor, telling a more true story of the slaughter of the native people by the European settlers and the US government.  I’m sort of curious whether the role played by Chief Dan George is the first of its kind or not.

As a kid, I didn’t care for Westerns, but oddly enough, the main Westerns that I ended up having seen in my youth were revisionist Westerns, which were the ones that I liked.

The film is not just a more positive and complex portrayal of native peoples but also its depiction of women and in particular a homosexual Indian character is very notable, not just for being a good character but also the specificity of how the Cheyenne treated homosexuality, a special and completely accepted aspect of their society.

Being a fairly comic film throughout much of the story, the portrayals are complex and multifaceted, which adds to the sensibility of the whole.

Hoffman is kind of a strange lead in the role, but at the same time, so particular to the film as to feel wrong.

I don’t know.  I think it’s still quite a good movie.  The kids liked it too, though they tired a bit at the length of the film, 2 1/2 hours or so.  I actually think we’ll be seeing some more Westerns in weeks to come.

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