Little Big Man (1970, dir. Arthur Penn)
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan
At the height of the conflict in Vietnam, American filmmakers were ensconced in counter-cultural material. The 1970s were also a renaissance period in American cinema as well, influenced particularly by the French New Wave of the 1960s. Both social and aesthetic revisionism is at the heart of Arthur Penn’s adaptation of this novel, which results in a film that is both clever and funny, and at other times muddy and unsure of itself.
As a young boy, Jack Crabb’s family are massacred by Indians, however he and his sister are rescued by the friendly Cheyenne. Jack grows up amongst the Indians and eventually is pulled into the white man’s world, where is to be properly educated in good Christian morals. For the rest of Crabb’s life he goes back and forth, between being a “civilized white man’ and a “savage Cheynne”. A sort of Western Expansionism Forrest Gump, Crabb runs across historical figures like Wild Bill Hickok and General Custer, the latter of whom he serves under three separate times.
Penn allows the Cheyenne to speak in plain English, but within the rules of the film, its their native tongue translated so that we may hear. This was a big change in film at the time, as Indians had been portrayed as speaking in broken English and using tired, clichéd phrases. However, the film does fall into some common cliches of another kind when dealing with the tribe’s single homosexual member, who’s portrayed as a limp-wristed effeminate dandy. It would have been more interesting to have a common brave amongst the tribe end up being attracted to his fellow warriors.
The film is infused with a biting sense of humor, and definitely plays up the common myths of the frontier for laughs. General Custer, historically known for being pompous and grandiose, is played wonderfully by Richard Mulligan. Dustin Hoffman does a very convincing job as Jack Crabb, and shines particularly in the physical comedy gags. At one point he operates as a gunslinger (The Soda Pop Kid), and has a nervous encounter with Wild Bill, which highlights the small stature of Crabb. It’s a very fun film, that rushes over so much, and that it keeps it from becoming a true classic.