Little Big Man

1970, Movie, PG, 147 mins

Review

LITTLE BIG MAN
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One of the most unconventional westerns ever made. This startling (if occasionally heavy-handed) revisionist tale is recounted in flashback by 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), who claims to be the only survivor of the massacre at the Little Big Horn. As a boy, Jack is taken in by Cheyenne Indians and raised by Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), but later he protests that he is white when his tribe is attacked by the cavalry, beginning a pattern of cultural fence-hopping that dominates the rest of his life. Over the course of a century or so, Jack earns the name Little Big Man for his bravery in battle; is taken in by a preacher and his randy wife (Faye Dunaway); becomes both an assistant to a cure-all-peddling drummer (Martin Balsam) and a less-than-successful gunfighter; nearly dies when Custer (Richard Mulligan) and his troops attack his tribe at the Washita River; turns to alcohol; and guides the Seventh Cavalry into the Little Big Horn massacre.

Shot twenty years before Kevin Costner's smugly pro-Indian DANCES WITH WOLVES, Arthur Penn's epic western brilliantly retells American history from the viewpoint of its victims. Based on the Thomas Berger novel, LITTLE BIG MAN retains much of Berger's wit but invests the material with a passionate indignation inspired by Vietnam--a quality most obvious in the film's recreation of the Washita massacre, with its unmistakable overtones of My Lai (note Penn's use of Asian-American extras in this scene). Even with Vietnam fast receding from the national consciousness, Penn's movie remains fascinating; cultural studies types will note its handling of, inter alia, racial/cultural identity (Crabb defines himself as Indian or white as convenience dictates, but he can't control how others define him) and the ideology of the American past (compare Penn's treatment of the traditional "captivity narrative" with THE SEARCHERS).

Hoffman is uncharacteristically charming in a demanding role; the supporting cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Chief Dan George as a befuddled patriarch who takes the supernatural as a matter of course. Like all wide-screen westerns, the film loses a lot on television. leave a comment

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