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  • Post last modified:March 8, 2022

Little Big Man: Echoes of Vietnam


Dustin Hoffman. Photo: National General Pictures

There once was a real-life figure called Little Big Man. An Oglala Lakota warrior, he fought under but was also rivals with the legendary Crazy Horse. He’s known to have cooperated with the white man and might have been involved with the murder of Crazy Horse. Little Big Man also fought at the Battle of Little Big Horn, the one usually known as Custer’s Last Stand. This isn’t really his story. But the original novel by Thomas Berger is a satirical tale that incorporated details from Little Big Man’s experiences.

Taken to a Cheyenne camp
At the age of 121, Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) tells a historian the story of his life. Starting at a very early age, Jack and his sister Caroline (Carole Androsky) survive a Pawnee attack that kills their parents. They’re taken to a Cheyenne camp; Caroline escapes, but Jack remains and is raised by Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), a wise tribal leader. It doesn’t take long for Jack to make an enemy out of another boy, Younger Bear, but their conflict is complicated by the fact that Jack saves the other boy’s life.

At the age of 16, Jack becomes involved in a skirmish with cavalry troopers and identifies himself as white to a soldier, in order to save his life. Jack is brought back to “civilization”, but soon learns that the lives of white people is even more complicated than the Cheyenne way of lifeā€¦

Wavering from one emotion to the other
Released in the middle of the Vietnam War, it was impossible to ignore the film’s symbolism, especially in the wake of My Lai. Much like the same year’s Soldier Blue, the American military (represented in both films by the U.S. Cavalry) is portrayed as a malignant force intent on genocide.

The film depicts two very controversial clashes, the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn and the 1868 Battle of Washita River. Historical accuracy may not have been the filmmakers’ chief concern, but women and children were indeed slaughtered in these inglorious moments of history. Those scenes are bloody, shot in a similar way as the massacre on Bonnie and Clyde in director Arthur Penn’s landmark 1967 film. This epic wavers from one emotion to the other. It has a special sense of humor, where Hoffman contributes a lot (especially in the scenes where Jack tries his luck as a gunslinger and runs into Wild Bill Hickock). So does Faye Dunaway as a “virtuous” preacher wife who just can’t keep her hands off other men, and Richard Mulligan as a fictitious, virtually insane, comic version of Custer. Other moments of Jack’s life are touching, or exciting, such as an attack on a stagecoach.

The filmmakers devote a lot of energy to demystifying Western myths and make it clear that life with the Cheyenne may be different but not at all less worthy than that of the whites, pointing at everything that’s phony about “civilization”, from sexual dishonesty to alcoholism to thirst for blood. Through the lens of cinematographer Harry Stradling, Jr., the tribal lifestyle is in sync with nature; providing beautiful shots of Montana and Alberta, Canada, the film offers an irresistible alternative to all the foolishness of civilization.

Some of the same themes would return in Dances With Wolves (1990). Unlike Soldier Blue, Little Big Man has become a classic. Both films are children of their times, harshly critical of excessive American military violence. What sets this one apart is its entertainment value, cast, unpredictability and refusal to be bland. Jack is never truly comfortable in either society even though his loyalties primarily lie with the Cheyenne. He’s bewildered by both cultures, and it’s easy to identify with that.

Little Big ManĀ 1970-U.S. 139 min. Color. Widescreen.Ā Produced byĀ Stuart Millar.Ā Directed byĀ Arthur Penn.Ā Screenplay:Ā Calder Willingham.Ā Novel:Ā Thomas Berger.Ā Cinematography:Ā Harry Stradling, Jr..Ā Cast:Ā Dustin Hoffman (Jack Crabb), Faye Dunaway (Louise Pendrake), Martin Balsam (Allardyce Meriweather), Richard Mulligan (George Armstrong Custer), Chief Dan George, Jeff Corey.

Trivia:Ā Marlon Brando was allegedly considered for a part. Originally 150 minutes long.

Last word: “IĀ had folks out combing the hustings and Chief Dan George, who was Canadian, had performed Chief Josephā€™s farewell [speech] as a sort of ceremonial thing and somebody had seen him and put him in a small part in a Disney film. So we were trying to track him down, but meanwhile, I was getting all this pressure from the studio to get a name because Dustin was not that big a name yet. Actually, we didnā€™t approach [Paul] Scofield and [Laurence] Olivier was not a serious consideration. [Richard] BooneĀ wasĀ a serious contender but his agent said, ā€œFor the part of Old Lodge Skins? Let me tell you something, Richard is not going to play the part ofĀ oldĀ anything.ā€ I was also interested in Donald Pleasence, a strange, terrible idea, and Iā€™m afraid itā€™s mine. I just knew him as a very elastic character actor and I thought we could get him. Fortunately, none of them accepted my offer and I was so grateful.” (Penn, Cineaste Magazine)



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