Released in 1970, the film Little Big Man is, in my mind, truly a story of the “Old West”. However, it is not a “Western” in the traditional sense, like those starring John Wayne and the like. Instead, it is a film that centers around one man’s life and the many twists and turns it takes as he tries to find his place in “The West” (perhaps laying the groundwork for such films as Dances with Wolves), if not society as a whole. The basis for the story is that he (Jack Crabb) is the last surviving participant of “Custer’s Last Stand” or, the “Battle of Little Big Horn”—having essentially fought on both sides of the battle. And while the film has many comedic moments, it is a drama at heart—revealing the best in human nature, as well as the worst.
Directed by Arthur Penn (who is also famously known for Bonnie and Clyde and The Miracle Worker) and based on the novel by Thomas Berger, with the screenplay by Calder Willingham (also known for The Graduate), the actors certainly had all the support they needed to give great performances. Starring Dustin Hoffman as the title character (also known as “Jack Crabb”), Faye Dunaway as Mrs. Pendrake, and Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins, the film is well-cast, and the actors bring much to the screen. The story is told via voice-over, by the now 121 year old “Jack Crabb”, to a historian who wants to know more about the Indian way of life, and is also under the impression that Crabb spent his early life basically killing off Indians, which couldn’t be more different from the truth, as the historian learns by the end of Crabb’s tale.
The story Crabb tells begins when he is a young boy, who is soon taken in by the Cheyenne, who call themselves the “human-beings” after all of his family, except himself and his sister, are killed by Pawnee when crossing the vast plains of the western United States. His sister soon runs off, and Crabb essentially grows up as one of the “human-beings”, guided by the chief, Old Lodge Skins, who becomes Crabb’s adopted Grandfather. Old Lodge Skins offers much insight into how the Cheyenne view the world, and the “white man” in perhaps one of the more famous bits of dialogue in the film. “Little Big Man”, as Jack Crabb is now known amongst the Cheyenne, asks if his grandfather now hates the white man after many of his family has been killed, and he answers (after pulling out a scalp of red hair):
…the human beings, my son, they believe everything is alive. Not only man and animals. But also water, earth, stone. And also the things from them... like that hair. The man from whom this hair came, he's bald on the other side, because I now own his scalp! That is the way things are. But the white man, they believe EVERYTHING is dead. Stone, earth, animals. And people! Even their own people! If things keep trying to live, white man will rub them out. That is the difference.
To see this scene and hear this line by actor Chief Dan George, perhaps makes the entire film worth watching, because it seemingly defines the attitude of the U.S. Calvary in the film, as they brutally attack Little Big Man/Jack Crabb’s adopted
family. One attack on the Cheyenne camp is committed to the sound of a cheery
Calvary tune played by flutes in the background, which further defines the U.S.
Calvary as somehow unaware of their own brutality, which is further reflected
in General Custer’s blind arrogance that he is ultimately correct…about
everything. Custer is an interesting character in the film, with the historical
figure portrayed as both someone who is to be laughed at (playing an almost
comical figure), and also feared because of his ignorance. The combination of
ignorance and power is always a dangerous thing… Cheyenne
Crabb’s experience with both the
and “white society” gives him a unique perspective of each view-points, and way
of life. He rejoins “white society” at certain points in the film, first being
taken in as a ward of minister and his wife, Mrs. Pendrake, and then moves on
to play such roles in the Old West as a gunslinger, a drunk, and a charlatan.
However, he seems most at home with his adopted Cheyenne family, in his grandfather’s
presence. As always, I do not want to give too much away on the plot for those
of you who have not had the chance to watch the film, as it takes many twists
and turns as Crabb attempts to find not only and understanding of the things
that have happened in his life, and why, but his place IN the different worlds
he knows. Cheyenne
In this way, the film truly does examine the nature of humanity, as Jack Crabb/Little Big Man experiences both the best and worst of man first-hand. His journey is not soon forgotten, by both him, and the audience.
Complete Cast and Crew on IMDB:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065988/