Little Big Man – 3 Stars (Good)
You know that “Little Big Man” has the makings of a good film when an historian visits Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), a forgotten, 100-plus-year-old centenarian in an assisted living facility, to ask about how Native Americans lived in the Old West. It is said that Crabb lived among the Cheyenne, and indeed he did.
Both young Crabb and his sister Caroline were the sole survivors among their family during an Indian attack while heading West and are rescued by a Cheyenne and taken to their leader, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), who raises young Jack as a son after Caroline escapes back to civilization.
Jack finds life as a Cheyenne to be good, and becomes important by saving the life of Younger Bear. He is named “Little Big Man” by Old Lodge Skins because while small in size, he has a big heart.
From this improbable start, Jack recounts his walk through life with some amazing characters, including a preacher’s wife with an appetite for illicit sex, a snake-oil salesman, a Swedish woman who becomes his wife, a Cheyenne woman who becomes his wife and mother to his son, General George Armstrong Custer and Wild Bill Hickok.
He becomes a huckster of phony products, a gunslinger named the Soda Pop Kid, a friend of Will Bill Hickok, a general store owner, a drunk, a “mule skinner” and scout for General Custer, a trapper and a hermit.
It is General Custer who orders his troops to attack Jack’s Cheyenne family without cause and Jack’s Cheyenne wife and son are killed in the slaughter. Ultimately, it is Jack who leads Custer into the trap at Little Big Horn and becomes the “sole white survivor of the battle of Little Big Horn.”
Little Big Man, based on the 1964 novel by Thomas Berger, was directed by Arthur Penn and released in 1970. The film is not historically accurate, and does treat the Native Americans favorably and the U. S. Cavalry less favorably.
The screen adaptation with the help of Calder Willingham makes Little Big Man a balanced blend between humor and drama. The narration by the character Jack Crabb makes this film likeable and then some. Little Big Man is really the story of Jack’s relationship with his adopted grandfather, Old Lodge Skins.
Chief Dan George received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations as the Best Supporting Actor in this film. He was outstanding in his role as Old Lodge Skins. When his people are attacked and killed for no good reason, he will not run, saying “today is a good day to die.”
Old Lodge Skins calls his Cheyenne people “human beings”, noting that there is “an endless supply of white men” and “a limited supply of human beings.” He sees and feels the injustice being done to Native Americans who are given their own land and then attacked and killed without cause.
There are too many funny, poignant and dramatic moments in this film to recount them here. One of my favorites is when, after escaping with Jack’s help from the last of the brutal attacks on his people, Old Lodge Skins goes to the top of the mountain to die. He prays, and then lays down to die but wakes up when it begins to rain, asking Jack if he is still in this world.
Jack answers yes, to which he replies, “I was afraid of that. Well, sometimes the magic works, sometimes it does not,” and proceeds back down the mountain with Jack to eat dinner.
Dustin Hoffman set a record for portraying the greatest span of a single character in Little Big Man, playing Jack Crabb from age 17 to 121.
The narration by Jack Crabb, his walk through life, his contact with important people and his poignant story remind me of Tom Hanks and his role in “Forest Gump”. Both of these films are well done, have a story to tell worth hearing, and leave us a better person for the experience.
It has been 41 years since Little Big Man hit the big screen. Not much has been made of it, but there is a certain group of moviegoers like myself who will not let this film die a slow death. It is too good to not be seen and enjoyed by others. I feel the same way about “A Christmas Story” and a lot of others do too.
If you have not seen Little Big Man do yourself a favor while you still can.