June 11, 2008

Little Big Man (1970)
Grade: 89/100

Director: Arthur Penn
Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Richard Mulligan, Chief Dan George

What it's about. Set in 1970, with flashbacks from 1858 (or so) through 1876. Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) is 122 years old, and reminiscences about his wild west days. Crabb was a 19th century Forrest Gump who knew General Custer (Richard Mulligan) and Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey), in addition to fictional personages such as Cheyenne Indian chief Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), nymphomaniac preacher's wife Mrs. Pendrake (Faye Dunaway), and increasingly handicapped con artist Mr. Merriweather (Martin Balsam).

Jack was apparently born east of the Mississippi. His family attempted to travel by stage cross-country, but their coach was attacked by Pawnees. Jack survived, and was rescued and raised by the Cheyenne. Jack alternates between whites and Cheyenne over the following years. While with the Cheyenne, he ends up with four wives, and makes an enemy of eccentric warrior Younger Bear (Cal Bellini). His adventures with whites include stints as a devout Christian, a grifter, a gunfighter, a drunk, and a soldier.

How others will see it. This is a revisionist western that alternates between comedy and drama. Classic film fans will relish the performances, and the script and direction are equally outstanding.

Viewers will notice that the film is openly biased. The Cheyennes are treated favorably, while the cavalry soldiers are depicted as butchers. Custer comes off worst of all, as a preening egomaniac. Those raised on the John Ford/John Wayne movies where the heroes are western soldiers may dislike their new status as agents of genocide. Most, though, will accept the notion that the U.S. Army exterminated Indian tribes in addition to merely fighting them.

How I felt about it. The pro-Cheyenne slant also applies to women. There are many women in Crabb's life, including his butch older sister (Carole Androsky), hypocritical adulteress Dunaway, and a Swedish immigrant wife, Olga (Kelly Jean Peters), whose character evolves from stupid to shrewish. The only woman who comes off well, however, is Crabb's saintly Indian wife, Sunshine (Amy Eccles). Such is her personality that she responds to labor pains by sweetly informing Jack that his child is trying to come out.

The pro-Indian bias doesn't seem to hurt Little Big Man. In fact, it helps it, since it provides a theme: the old westerns lied. How the West Was Won should have included scenes of soldiers with repeating rifles burning Indian villages and shooting unarmed women and children. Wild Bill guns down an innocent man because he moved suspiciously. This is hardly the work of a hero.

But Little Big Man is also an epic tall tale and adventure-comedy. It is substantially better than director Arthur Penn's equally praised predecessor film, Bonnie and Clyde. The reason for this has to do with the substitution of Hoffman (a better everyman comic) for Beatty, and a great screenplay by Calder Willingham (Paths of Glory, One-Eyed Jacks.