Film Review:Little Big Man
"I don't understand grandfather, why would they kill women and children?"
Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman)
"Because they are strange. They do not seem to know where the centre of the earth is. We must have a war on these cowards",
Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George)
"A quirky expansive comic epic" Michael Coyne, 171
"a satirical variation of the generic composite western" Cameron and Pye ,256
"Little Big Man is Penn's attempt not so much to revise the Western
but to dismember it."Paul Simpson, 84
Dustin Hoffman, as Little Big Man
Film Review:Little Big Man
It has taken me a long time to get round to reviewing this film because it is only recently that I have come to understand my ambivalence towards it. It seems apt to review it because Arthur Penn died on
September 30 2010, aged 88.Back to:
My impression when first seeing Little Big Man when it was released was to resent its flippancy. I felt that although it presented native Americans in a positive light, the subject was far too serious to be presented in this way. I saw the artificial and overly dramatic creation of the characters as trivialising them. Old Lodge Skins was too pious and Custer too deranged to be taken seriously, for example. Ralph and Natasha Friar explain my feelings as follows: those responsible for Little Big Man wanted to treat native Americans fairly but this could not be done within a satirical context. They quote William Tallbull a Cheyenne, who supports their idea. He had "been to see Little Big Man but could only stand about fifteen minutes of it. His grandfather, Lame White Man, was killed in the Custer Battle and he had heard too much to be able to endure the travesty of history as portrayed by movies."(Ralph and Natasha Friar, 257)
The Friars saw this as a weakness of the film over the book. They saw this weakness as the consequence of the film's screenwriter, Calder Willingham and director, Arthur Penn being able to visualize the whites with some degree of accuracy in order to satirise them but not being able to attribute the same degree of lunacy and lack of values to the Cheyenne. Whereas, the Friars argue, in the book, Thomas Berger's people, whether white or red were "as funny as hell, with vice and virtue common to all" (Ralph and Natasha Friar, 256)
For Vine Deloria jr. novels like Little Big Man help to preserve the myth of the native American. Falling into the "Go-in-peace-my-son " style of writing they emphasize the "communal nature of Indian personal existence", historical literature ends about 1890, and individuals appear within the history only to the extent that they personalize the fortunes of the tribe. (Deloria jr. , 41) Furthermore he clearly sets out that by ignoring events of the twentieth century this approach creates a false impression to a wider readership which is kept in ignorance of events and developments of critical importance to the modern native American communities. "The cherished image of the noble redman is preserved by American society." (Deloria jr., 50) Revealingly the contemporary review in the New York Times stated "Mr. Penn obviously takes seriously the vanishing of the race" (Vincent Canby, December 15 1970), giving some substance to Vine Deloria's argument. Of course a revisionist approach in making the film pro Indian does not mean that the film is told from the Indian perspective, far from it.
Despite appreciating what Deloria is saying I was moved to give the film another viewing by references to it in Killing Custer by James Welch. "Little Big Man, " writes James, " accomplished the feat of humanizing Indians by depicting individuals living in society, with its own special structures, mores and values " . (Welch ,98), so regardless of the negative aspects to which Deloria refers, it seems that the film struck a chord with James Welch, whose work I greatly admire. Edward Buscombe found the way in which Indians laugh in the film helps to break away from the melancholic nostalgia which often surrounds the stereotype. In other words the image shown was far from that of the "noble redman", it was much more down to earth and recognized a commonality in cultures, not least in the way that Jack Crabb manages to slip back and forward between the two. Like Welch, Buscombe recognizes the film as breaking down the stereotype rather than reinforcing it. (Buscombe, Injuns, 2006, 70) At the time Leo Braudy argued that Crabb " cannot play the role of the little man caught in History because there seems to be nothing inside him that can bring together the many faces of his experience".
Yet what makes Little Big Man such an interesting film is the contrasting interpretations put upon it. While Deloria dislikes the film for its preservation of the mythic Indian stereotype, the Friars see its satirical approach as undermining the seriousness of its message while Welch praises it for the positive image it promotes. Richard Slotkin, however took exception to this positive image, which he saw as turning the old stereotype on its head. "The 1960s saw the appearance of a substantially new genre of "anti-Custer" movies in which the traditional identification of the audience with the cavalry was inverted, and we were asked to see the bluecoats as murderous "savages" and killers of women and children, and the Indians as defenders of pastoral values, hearths and homes." (Slotkin,17) This development was not specifically anti Custer as we would later see in Dances With Wolves wherein the traditional cultural stereotypes of cavalry and Indians are transposed, albeit as mentioned above, still from the white perspective. Slotkin's apparent objection to this is somewhat ironic given the years of the opposite stereotypical images which had preceded this "revisionism". I think that here Slotkin is reflecting a trait which quite often bedevils American academics, well summarised here by David Carter: " often it is not at all clear where the borderlines are between the myths and factual history. In this respect the film reflects the American consciousness of its own past and the ambiguities inherent in the western genre." (Carter, 196-7) In some ways it is the construction of the idealised Cheyenne world to contrast with the corruption and chicanery of that of the whites to which Slotkin objects that make Penn's Little Big Man so interesting.
Not only is history satirized in the film, but so too is the Western genre itself, something which seems to irritate those film experts who dislike the film. I suspect that just as academics might be upset at the unsophisticated revisionist presentation of the history of the West so too are some film buffs by the crude lampooning of sacred cows like Shane and Custer and the trivialising of the conventions of John Ford. When Crabb enters his "gunfighter period" and teams up with Wild Bill Hickock, Crabb's epithet - the Soda Pop Kid - recalls Shane's chosen refreshment in the saloon confrontation scene. The name is ridiculously surreal and would be seen as disrespectful by those who revere a film recognized as landmark in the history of the genre. Richard Mulligan's Custer is so way over the top that he comes across as a crazed nincompoop. When the preacher's wife Mrs Pendrake (Faye Dunaway) sings Shall We Gather by the River as she feels up the youthful Dustin Hoffman in the bath the western idyll of John Ford is undermined, since he used the song as a symbol of community, of togetherness. While those like Clint Eastwood and Sam Peckinpah pay homage to Ford by including the song in their films here it symbolises "hypocrisy and falsehood" (Simmon, 266) To the film's critics the film must seem like a pastiche of the Western which devalues the very genre in which it seems to be located. Hence, I think, the often used charge that it doesn't really work or the criticism that Penn did not work well within the genre.
To an extent any film which provokes such contrasting responses to the presentation of its core subject matter - native American culture in the past - has to carry great artistic merit. Yet in another sense the film was merely reflecting the times in which it was made, "Little Big Man depicted Cheyenne life as a countercultural idyll" (Michael Coyne, 162). The audience was ready to relate to the natural way of life portrayed, so in a sense historical native American culture was being hi jacked to become idealised as "surrogate hippies, tolerant of homosexuality, kind to children, engaging in free love and conversations about the meaning of life...It's essentially a flower power vision of the Indian, produced at a time when the 'New Age' philosophy of the hippy movement was attempting to assimilate Indian culture." (Buscombe, Injuns, 135, 178) At the time much was made of the parallel between the murderous attack on the Cheyenne on the River Washita and the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War. Some still inexpliquably refer to the former as a "battle" and equally inexpliquably as a victory for Custer. Watching the film forty years later the direct historical comparison seems much less important. However the general point which shows the human effect of military attack on civilians in their homes is still of great relevance.
With the film being a contemporary vehicle as well as an historical one it is hardly surprising that different interpretations have been drawn and contrasting appraisals of its merit made. Edward Buscombe includes it in his 100 westerns while Kim Newman considers that it does not "really work". (Wild West Movies, 73) According to Paul Simpson (84) Newman sees the depiction of Indians except for Old Lodge Skins as not really differing from those of John Ford, while Edward Buscombe sees the film as giving a "highly innovative twist to the traditional captivity narrative". (105) "Sustained by a literate and witty script and a series of striking performance, not least by Dustin Hoffman in a role which requires him to age about 100 years, this is a highly enjoyable film." (Edward Buscombe, 100 Westerns, 106-7) The script contains some great one liners such as:
"I wasn't just playing Indian I was living it." Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman)
"A man ain't complete without his gun". Jack's sister Caroline
"Ah yes, the black white men, not as ugly as the white men but just as crazy", Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George)
"Am I still in this world? Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George)
"Yes" Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman)
"I was afraid of that". Old Lodge Skins
Little Big Man also made a star out of Chief Dan George, whose performance earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor and must have been noted by Clint Eastwood. He cast him in the equally enthralling similar role of Lone Watie in his brilliant classic The Outlaw Josie Wales.
For all the above reasons I highly recommend this film. It functions on numerous levels, and as long as it does not offend your sensibilities too much it is enjoyable and thought provoking. Often the most effective way to make a point is to tinge it with humour and this film certainly does that. Little Big Man is episodic, or "a series of vignettes" (Leo Braudy) but this worked for me for it enables the focus of the film to change just as a theme starts to wear a bit thin. Its message lacks clarity, it is ambiguous, even paradoxical, but hey its all the better for that, you never feel that you are being preached at or that its effect on you is prescribed. For me the film still resonates loud and strong, I would be interested to know if you agree.
Leo Braudy, The Difficulties of Little Big Man, Film Quarterly 1971
Edward Buscombe, Injuns, Native Americans in the Movies, 2006
Edward Buscombe, 100 Westerns, 2006,
Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye, The Book of Westerns, 1996
David Carter, The Western, 2008
Michael Coyne, The Crowded Prairie, 1997
Vine Deloria jr. God is Red, 1973
Ralph and Natasha Friar, The Only Good Indian......The Hollywood Gospel ,1972
Scott Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film, 2003
Paul Simpson The Rough Guide to Westerns, 2006,
Richard Slotkin The Fatal Environment The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 1800-1890, 1985
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© Chris Smallbone October 2010