“One hundred and eleven years ago, when I was ten…”
121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman, in sweet age makeup) tells a reporter how he became the only white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand by recounting the murder of his parents by Pawnee, his life with the Cheyenne “human beings,” and his adventures as a gunfighter, a husband, a snake oil salesman, a scout, and a kept boy for a lusty preacher’s wife (Faye Dunaway). Critically, Crabb reveals Custer’s brutal genocide of the Cheyenne, and how Crabb eventually led the General to his death.
Arthur Penn had long been interested in the true story of how the west was won, and in fact had been working on a script of his own when he came across Thomas Berger’s picaresque 1964 novel, Little Big Man. Penn dropped his project to pursue the film rights but, since there’s an immutable law in the universe that nothing ever goes smoothly for Arthur Penn, a rights war with MGM stalled the project for six years. Penn moved on to a string of film classics, including Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant, before finally returning to Little Big Man in 1970.
Had he known what he was in for, he might have thought twice. Little Big Man was a painful production, what Penn referred to a “killer” job. The Alberta set was enormous—up to a thousand people could show up for lunch—and besieged by frigid Canadian winds. Penn’s loose style and the story’s sprawling nature led to months of shooting and miles of footage, which Penn and his longtime editor Dede Allen finally condensed to two and a half hours of film.
Little Big Man opened over the 1970 Christmas season and found modest success, coasting hard on Hoffman’s performance and the film’s slyly accessible tone. Still, as per usual, the movie only found true success abroad—Penn said the film was a hit in every market except the US.
With all the Indians and cavalry and cowboys, it should be pretty obvious by now: Vietnam. OK, the film is definitely about sanctioned genocide and the folly of Manifest Destiny, but Penn had an eye on the broader themes of conquest and the conquered. Penn believed all civilized cultures commit atrocities when annexing the so-called uncivilized, and he drew a clear parallel between the murder of Cheyenne women and children and alleged similar incidents in the Vietnam War.
Little Big Man is proudly episodic, a series of loosely-connected scenes, told like a homespun story on a lazy summer porch. Since this is Jack Crabb’s highlight reel, it’s filled with great scenes, from Crabb’s days as the Soda Pop Kid to his near-murder of a naked Custer (which predicts Brando’s bathtub scene in The Missouri Breaks). My favorite, however, comes late in the film, in a droll scene that secretly carries the film’s entire idea in just a few moments. Old Lodge Skins (the fantastic and Oscar-nominated Chief Dan George), Crabb’s surrogate father, has decided that it’s his time to die and asks Crabb to aid him.
This scene is Penn’s symbol for the fate of the Indians. Old Lodge Skins senses that his people’s time has passed and he asks to join them on the other side. When he lives, we laugh his nonchalant acceptance or, if we’re feeling mean-spirited, his “silly” beliefs. But to Penn, this is the core tragedy. The native people are condemned to die, yes, and to be wiped from their land, but they’re also condemned to live, sitting on their reservations fully aware of the past glory that’s been robbed of them, watching as history passes them by.
Little Big Man is technically one of the best westerns of all time, and if I sound like I’m hesitating, it’s because the only thing Little Big Man has in common with a traditional western is the side of the country it’s in (hint: not east). The differences go beyond the film’s strictly-revisionist content and into its heart. Westerns typically look you in the eye and speak plainly—this is the genre of white and black hats—but Little Big Man says everything at a slant, shielding its meaning behind satire. It starts as a crowd pleaser and then goes for the throat.
We can forgive Penn’s aggression because, at the time, Indian mistreatment was hardly confined to history. Penn’s film is as much about the atrocities as it is the depiction of those atrocities that still lingered in pop media. If history is written by the winners, then we wrote the story as an action movie, with white survival threatened by unfeeling savages drunk on murder, and while in today’s post-Costner world condemning those lies feels like preaching to the choir, in 1970 it was hard to even find the church. This was the dawn of the American Indian Movement and Red Power, and only a few short years ahead of the Wounded Knee siege and Sacheen Littlefeather. Little Big Man premiered to a country that still desperately needed to hear what it had to say.
The movie uses comedy as a lure. The aged Jack Crabb is a cranky old coot weaving tall tales. He spends less time discussing his parents’ murder than he does his sister’s indignation when the Cheyenne refuse to rape her. When Crabb defects back to white society rather than die in battle, we’re treated to overwrought farce as he’s “civilized” by a devout couple, including Faye Dunaway as a lady who seems to have interest in arousing more than Crabb’s faith. Dunaway’s character, among others, fills the movie with a sense of fluffy brightness, which makes the coming genocide all the more shocking.
Crabb is at the center of two real-life massacres—Sand Creek and Washita River—and Penn largely stages these scenes as defenseless villagers annihilated by bloodthirsty cavalry. What’s interesting is that Penn’s portrayal is not entirely accurate either, sliding right past revision and into an agenda-driven rewrite, a technique he applies liberally throughout the film. The white people in Little Big Man are almost universally corrupt. Custer (the brilliant Richard Mulligan) is pure detachment and megalomania. The Christians are hypocrites. Men like Wild Bill Hickok kill and are killed for no reason. Meanwhile, the Cheyenne treat each other with respect, and attack only in self-defense or to avenge loved ones. They’re shown as kind, funny, and tolerant; one Cheyenne youth is openly feminine and reads as homosexual to white eyes, yet he’s fully embraced into Cheyenne society, putting them at least a century or two ahead us in that department.
Penn’s version of events has been accused of reverse racism, of painting whites as the devils some Indians claimed they were, but it’s hard to sustain that argument because Crabb never loses his fundamental whiteness. If the main character of the film had been a native-born warrior—Old Lodge Skins, or perhaps Crabb’s enemy, the angry Little Bear—Little Big Man would be no more than a beautiful, well-shot, but shrill bit of provocation, a propaganda piece. As it is, Crabb never fully embraces either side of his heritage. He moves back and forth between the whites and the human beings (the Cheyenne name for themselves), and while the greed and hubris of the whites infuriates him, he seems to recognize that the problem lies with particular whites, not the race as a whole.
This begs the question: Why use Crabb at all? Why tell the story as an ancient man’s flashback and not simply tell the story straight through? The answer is there in Old Lodge Skins’ “death” scene. Jack Crabb is neither Cheyenne, nor white. He’s both, tied together forever by a common history, and in that way, Jack Crabb represents America itself. Like Crabb, the country has seen its share of joys and tragedies, has embraced many cultures and allowed them to prosper, has stood witness to the loss of its own identity and the rise of a new one. And, like Crabb, America is still here, built on memories of murder that fade, but are never gone. We who live here can’t help how our country was born or how the west was won. We can only remember and, like Old Lodge Skins and older Jack Crabb, we can live with that memory. And live, and live, and live.
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
13. Four Friends (1981)
12. Target (1985)
11. Dead of Winter (1987)
10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)
9. Inside (1996)
8. Alice’s Restaurant (1969)
7. The Chase (1966)
6. The Left Handed Gun (1958)
4. Mickey One (1965)
3. The Miracle Worker (1962)
2. Little Big Man (1970)
1. ??? (although, really, it should be obvious by now)