|Little Big Man
1970 - PG-13 (2002 DVD re-rating) - 147 Mins.
|Director: Arthur Penn
|Producer: Stuart Millar
|Written By: Calder Willingham
|Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Richard Mulligan, Chief Dan George, Carole Androsky
|Review by: John Ulmer
There's some classic folklore regarding "Little Big Man." Legend has it that Dustin Hoffman sat in his dressing room prior to filming and screamed at the top of his lungs for an hour in order to gain the raspy voice of a 122-year-old man for the voice-over soundtrack of the film.
I don't know if that's true or not, but regardless of the methods he may have used to gain his coarse voice, it works like a charm. Until the very end, I doubted whether it was even Hoffman doing the voice-over at all. And speaking of the ending, it is purely and simply one of the greatest ever made.
The story is something that Hollywood likes to do a lot; only this time it's the best version. Having just watched "The Last Samurai," I realized the similarities between both films -- a man is taken in by his potential enemies and treated as one of their own. Then, when faced with the possibility of war, he must choose which side to fight for. And, as I said in my review of "The Last Samurai," both films similarly bash General Custer.
In that movie, samurai warriors captured the hero. In "Little Big Man," the hero is captured by Indians -- or, more correctly, saved. After being massacred in a sandy desert by the Indians, a young boy named Jack Crabb is kidnapped by one of them and the Indian brings him back to their camp.
As a small child, Jack is raised as one of their own. As he grows older, the "Human Beings" affectionately name him Little Big Man. As anyone can guess, he doesn't fit in with the Indians, but the Chief of the Cherokees (Chief Dan George, who died 11 years after the film was made) takes a liking to Little Big Man. Jack refers to him as "Grandfather," even up until the end of the film.
Much to the chagrin of some Indians his own age, Jack begins to grow into an adult -- he looks a lot like Dustin Hoffman, too. When he hits adulthood, Jack leaves the Indians and heads out into civilization, where he meets Mrs. Louise Pendrake (Faye Dunaway) and his sister, Caroline (Carole Androsky), who fled from the safety of the Indians one night years before, leaving Jack by himself.
Jack, as an adult, even joins General Custer and is present at the infamous Custer's Last Stand, where he has to choose whether or not to fight against his own kind or become a traitor to the Indians.
In between we follow Jack's adventures as he tries to make a living a number of different ways -- by helping an old man sell fake medicine to townspeople, to going out into the wild to find his kidnapped wife. (He eventually ends up finding her years later, only to see her as a wife to one of the Indians. She doesn't even recognize him.)
This is an amazing, beautiful movie, filmed and released at the height of Cowboy and Indian movies. The message isn't gooey and sentimental like it could have been handled -- it seems very real. We become so affectionate towards Jack's character that when small things happen to him we feel sad or happy, or even laugh at the small humorous quirks. (Such as the irony that Mrs. Pendrake becomes a prostitute after having preached to Jack years before about the importance of avoiding Satan's temptation.)
The director, Arthur Penn, stands back and lets things play out in old fashion filmmaking style. No quick cuts or awkward camera angles during action sequences -- this feels like a real old-fashioned western movie, even though it was released in 1970, the decade when the westerns started to increasingly diminish.
The political correctness of the film is easily overlooked. For once it seemed as though Indians were not portrayed as the type of tree-loving mythical warriors in such films as the terrible "Pocahontas" (Disney version). No, here we get a lot of Custer bashing, which probably had to do with the fact that the Vietnam War was going on at the time of release. Custer's attack on the Washita was perhaps intended to trigger thoughts of the Calley massacre at My Lai, the trial of which was going on the same year as the film.
And I seriously doubt whether Custer was quite as crazy as Richard Mulligan portrays him in "Little Big Man." Egotistical, yes, but I don't think he suddenly started calling people "Mr. President" at the Last Stand and tried to murder them.
But the film is also a subtle satire of the west. Besides, the film will sweep your thoughts away into other terrain before you have time to get mad over some of the inaccuracies and stereotypes.
Example? The acting is marvelous, and full credit goes to Dustin Hoffman, who carries this film from beginning to end. I don't usually think of Dustin Hoffman as one of the best actors ever made, but I think that's because he so often disappears into character. He rarely plays himself. In "Tootsie" he plays a woman, in "Rain Man" he plays a mentally challenged individual, and in "Little Big Man" he plays a sort of hybrid between an Indian and a cowboy. He doesn't know what he is, and his journey to find out is what holds us, as an audience, so interested in the story.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect sitting down to watch "Little Big Man." But the film took me on a wild ride. As long as it the running time was, I never felt like it was too long. This is a true "adventure" film in the sense of the meaning -- a western adventure that chronicles the amazing life of one of the greatest screen characters of all time. "Little Big Man Was Either the Most Neglected Hero in History of a Liar of Insane Proportion!" read the tagline for the film.
My two votes for best westerns ever made would go to "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969) and "Little Big Man" (1970). Both films are very different. Both are very amazing.