Friday, March 26, 2010
Reeling Backward: "Little Big Man"
There are a lot of things to love about 1970's "Little Big Man."
It's one of the first great Revisionist Westerns, when Hollywood began to throw a baleful eye at the portrayal of American Indians in the movies it had made up until then. Long before "Dances With Wolves," it depicted a white man who lives among both Indians and U.S. soldiers, and finds the latter lacking.
The film wears the clown face of a comedy, but has many moments of pathos and even some of disturbing tragedy. It eases seamlessly in and out of these disparate moods without ever seeming discombobulated. There's a gentle world-weariness, with a sense of outrage buried beneath the satire. It's the sort of Western Charlie Chaplin might have made if he'd been born 50 years later.
The makeup turning Dustin Hoffman into a believable 121-year-old man still looks amazing 40 years later -- compare it with the combination of makeup and computer assistance for "Benjamin Button," and I think it holds its own quite well. Artist Dick Smith was not nominated for an Academy Award only because they didn't have that category back then.
Based on the novel by Thomas Berger, the screenplay for "Little Big Man" was written by Calder Willingham (whose first movie script, "The Strange One," was featured in this space not too long ago.) And, of course, it was directed by Arthur Penn, whose heyday as a filmmaker ("Bonnie and Clyde") was rather short but intense -- "Little Big Man" more or less marked the end of it.
Hoffman plays the titular character, a man who saw every face of the Old West. He was an Indian fighter, a member of the Cheyenne tribe, a mule skinner, snake oil salesman, drunk, gunfighter, merchant and hermit. Structurally, there's a lot of similarity to "Forrest Gump," with the main character a naive bumbler who stumbles across all sorts of famous people, and acts as our guide through the history we thought we knew.
The framing story is set in the 1950s, with the extremely aged Jack Crabb relating his story to a skeptical historian. Crabb claims to be the sole surviving white man from the Battle of Little Big Horn.
General George Armstrong Custer, played by Richard Mulligan, is depicted as a cartoonish figure, more inept than evil. Crabb and Custer repeatedly run into each other, with Custer's attitude to the little man growing darker each time. It builds to their final confrontation right before the massacre, with Crabb goading the vainglorious Custer into a foolish charge -- revenge for the general's earlier massacre of Crabb's Cheyenne family.
(I should note that in the film Custer is always referred to as a general, although at the time of his death at age 36 he was actually a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Cavalry. He did receive a temporary battlefield promotion to major general during the Civil War.)
Another historical figure Crabb meets in his journeys is Wild Bill Hickok, played by Western mainstay actor Jeff Corey. Crabb is at this time a wannabe gunfighter calling himself the Soda Pop Kid. After watching Hickok gun down an assassin, and coolly commenting at the bloody mess that he hit both the heart and lungs with one shot, the Soda Pop Kid decides to go into the mercantile business.
Martin Balsam plays Merriweather, a con man who keeps getting whittled down by life -- quite literally, losing an eye here, a hand there. Faye Dunaway plays the young wife of a reverend who briefly adopts the teen Crabb after he's recovered from the Indians who raised him after his settler parents were killed. Her mix of lustiness and protestations of religious fervor make for a memorable turn.
Crabb's longest and most important relationship is with his adopted grandfather, Old Lodge Skins, played by Chief Dan George, who received the lone Oscar nomination for "Little Big Man." It's a terrific role, with wisdom, humor and heart, and George makes the most of it.
"Little Big Man" unfortunately has not maintained much of a reputation over the decades, which is a pity. I consider it one of the minor Western masterpieces.