“Little Big Man”: A movie you might have missed

The American West was never wilder than in the 1970 film Little Big Man starring Dustin Hoffman in the title role and directed by Arthur Penn. Little Big Man is a relief from the usual nationalistic, revisionist whitewashing that Americans get in narratives regarding their own history.

The film put an end to the portrayal of the settling of the West as a bugle-blowing heroic exercise of taming the savage inhabitants. The U.S. Army is shown as ignorant, cruel executioners of a policy of extermination.

Hoffman plays Jack Crabb, a 121 year old man (with exceptional assistance from make-up artist Dick Smith) looking back at his life as a pioneer in America’s Old West. As a 10 year old, Jack is in a wagon train headed into the western frontier. The wagons are overwhelmed by a Pawnee band, but the child Jack Crabb is spirited away and promptly deposited with the Cheyenne where Old Lodge Skins (played by chief Dan George) raises him as one of his own. Jack is given the name “Little Big Man” because he is short but very brave.  Later, as a young man, he is recaptured in a skirmish with a patrol of the U.S. Cavalry. Thus begins the character’s ongoing back and forth, straddling the two worlds of the Native Americans and European settlers, slipping in and out of each several times, as a series of odd circumstances conspire again and again to return him to the opposite side.

The Crabb character has a variety of adventures associated with this period in history, and interacts with a number of real historical personalities. During one of his stints in the white world, he discovers that he possesses a natural talent as a marksman with a pistol, and attempts to remake himself as a gunfighter. This enterprise meets with hilarious results. Hoffman dons a ridiculous costume and adopts the ludicrous moniker of the “Soda Pop Kid.” It is at this juncture that one wonders if the filmmakers had been exposed to the film Lemonade Joe, a 1964 satire on the Western genre that was produced in then-socialist Czechoslovakia. In that film the non-drinking protagonist uses a revolver to shoot a horsefly out of the sky, and the similarities don’t end there.  

In a horrific scene, George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry make a surprise attack on the Cheyenne camp at the Washita River. A now-blind and elderly Old Lodge Skins is saved by Jack, but his wife Sunshine, their child, and her sisters are killed. Jack tries to infiltrate Custer’s camp to exact revenge, but loses his nerve. Years later, Jack Crabb prepares to commit suicide, but sees Custer and his troops marching nearby, and decides to return to his quest for revenge. Custer hires him as a scout.

Little Big Man is not carried by the considerable acting abilities of Hoffman alone. It boasts an outstanding supporting cast, including Richard Mulligan as George Armstrong Custer, who comes across as a laughable, eccentric and reckless, if occasionally cunning egotist.

Faye Dunaway is a delight as the bored and sensuous wife of a gluttonous minister charged with readjusting the wild native child to white Christian civilization.

Native-American actor Dan George is unforgettable as the tribal elder who takes the Hoffman character under his wing. His best scene comes in the final third of the film when he laments the hopeless situation of the native peoples. He sadly concludes, “If things keep trying to live, white man will rub them out!” and thus realizes that the fate of his people is sealed.

Just last year Little Big Man was added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress, deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” A praiseworthy decision, to be sure.