Directed by Arthur Penn, Little Big Man is a 1970 movie based on a 1964 novel by Thomas Berger. It stars Dustin Hoffman and Chief Dan George. The story begins as old Jack Crabb tries to recall the events of his long life for a biographer William Hickey. He had been a frontiersman, Indian scout, gunfighter, buffalo hunter, adopted Cheyenne homesteader, and witness and survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. However, among his varied life events, the fact that he was adopted by the Cheyenne gives him an unique perspective on both the white and Native American cultures of the 19th century. The movie unravels the white man’s attempted genocide of the Indian and provides an indirect commentary upon genocide then occurring in Vietnam. However, the movie is most noted for its celebrated toppling of the legend and heroic aura surrounding General George Armstrong Custer and his defeat at the Little Big Horn (Geyring, 1988).
Little Big Man (1970) breaks many myths surrounding the world of the American West. It raises questions on many of the notions of the West that have come to dominate the popular consciousness. The new elements of Little Big Man that are in opposition to popular myths in western cinema include a decreased use of violence, increased use of non-traditional sexuality, critical views of historical masculine figures, more concern for the feelings of a woman, nontraditional sexuality and more focus on favoring “realism” over “romanticism”.
Young Jack and his older sister Caroline were orphaned during a massacre of his wagon train. Jack is later raised by the Cheyenne leader Old Lodge Skins and taught the Cheyenne language whereas Caroline runs off. Jack is given the name “Little Big Man” when, despite his short statures, he bravely volunteers to fight against the United States Army. After many adventures, he reunites with Caroline for a brief time. Jack finally settled down with a Swedish woman named Olga and even opens a general store. However, when his partner deceives him and puts him in heavy debt, he is forced to close the store. George Armstrong Custer suggests they make a new beginning in the west. But their stagecoach is attacked on the way and Olga is abducted by the Cheyenne. Jack later on, tragically finds Olga married to Younger Bear. He later marries Sunshine. Custer kills many of the Cheyenne leaders. Unable to take revenge on Custer directly, he leads them to their doom at the Little Bighorn in a smartly planned manner.
The western film genre has been associated with America’s historical past. Usually, the central plot of the western film is simple and based on conflicts between good and evil, white hat and black hat, settlers vs. Indians, humanity vs. nature, and so on (Dirks, 2007). Often the hero of a western meets his equal and opposite self in the form of the villain. Thus typical elements in westerns include enemies (often Native Americans), guns and gun fights, violence and human massacres, horses, trains and train robberies, bank robberies and holdups, runaway stagecoachs, shoot-outs and showdowns, outlaws and sheriffs, cattle drives and cattle rustling and distinctive western clothing (denim, jeans, boots, etc.) (Dirks, 2007).
Little Big Man focuses on the settlement of the American West during the middle- and late-nineteenth century. Crabb’s is obsessively in search of his own origins. In relating his past, Crabb introduces several sets of parents over the course of the novel, including his birth parents, the Indians, and the Pendrakes. He does not sense any connection in the true sense to these people: “my Ma was well-meaning but ignorant. My Pa was crazy and my brother was a traitor. Then there was Caroline.
They weren’t much of a family, I guess, but then I was not with them long”. One also finds that Crabb could not have a family of his own despite two official marriages. He participates in almost every major event in the West at that time, beginning in 1852 and concluding in 1876 with the Battle of Little Bighorn. Following Crabb in his search for roots the movie traces the complex issues of Western settlement, especially those raised by the collision of cultures and peoples.
This breaks the myth of Western movies that the Native Indians are all savages and the white people are all decent settlers. Crabb is a White Man and he always remembers it. But he was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of ten. When Crabb lives with the Indians, he cannot forget that he is white and while in the company of the whites, he seems more connected with the Indians; he confesses these conflicting attitudes when he runs away from the Pendrakes, his adopted parents in Missouri (Sinowitz, 1999).
Crabb is derogatory in his speech and attitude towards both the Native Indians and the whites. When he is captured, he makes remarks such as “Indians of course invented the habit of smoking, and almost nothing else” and refers to the Indians as “barbarians.” As he proceeds to compliment them, he says “you couldn’t get away from the fact that they wasn’t white”. However, when he is among the whites later in the novel, Crabb realizes that he finds civilization meaningless. These ambivalent notions about the Indian world and civilization are very different from earlier Western type movies where the native Indians were the only villains.
In most traditional Western movies, the settlement primarily involved bringing civilization to the West. In Little Big Man, Crabb even points out that the Indians are very mannerly. He also indicates the barbarity of the whites. Instead of simply reversing the traditional roles of the Indians and whites, the movie shows us that in reality both groups are comprised of civil and savage men and values.
In doing so, Penn revises traditional views of Western settlement and the tendency of observers neatly to categorize the roles various groups play in a historical process. The movie does not place any community as superior compared to another. But each culture along with its criticism is brought on an equal plane. The Little Big Man provides an increasingly positive representation of Native Americans who had been treated as “savages” in earlier films. Contrary to general American Western genre movies, this movie portrays the American Indians in a sympathetic light whereas the soldiers are portrayed as lunatics or violent barbarians (Sinowitz, 1999).
Often considered the most American of film genres, the Western has long shaped the way the history of the West has been recorded in American culture. When Western Movies brought in historical characters, the role they played was minimal. In this movie, we find that historical characters such as Custer and Wild Bill Hickok are treated with more detail. Crabb develops an obsessive hatred and then a strange admiration for Custer, and something of a friendship with Hickok.
The film seems to make them more human and realistic with all their flaws and natural talents. When Crabb meets Hickok, he is performing one of his famous stunts; however, Crabb downplays Hickok’s shooting display and later does not really believe the legendary feats of Hickok. The movie reveals that the images of Hickok are most those projected by writers and press people. In effect, Crabb uses realistic portrayals of these historical figures to deflate the myths surrounding them (Sinowitz, 1999).
In the movie Little Big Man, Penn parodies scenes and incidents from other Western movies (Sinowitz, 1999). There is a near reproduction of the climactic chase at the end of Stagecoach (1939), where John Wayne’s Ringo Kid helps fend off an Indian attack on the coach . In Little Big Man, Penn converts this scene into a comic disaster instead of making it into a moment of heroic grandeur (Sinowitz, 1999). While in the movie “the Ringo Kid” and his companions shoot at Indians with a great deal of accuracy from the fleeing stagecoach, Crabb notes the need to use a shotgun, instead of a rifle from a moving stagecoach.
Crabb also informs the reader that the apparent tough man traveling among the passengers on the coach dies of a heart attack before the Indians get close. Western movies such as Ford’s The Searchers (1956) show Indians attacking a farm house in the middle of the night and capturing Edwards’s two nieces. In this movie, Crabb stresses that Indians never attack at night. Morever, Western movies generally involve the concepts of taking revenge. In Little Big Man, Crabb finally tracks down his own non-Indian wife and child and finds them living with his greatest enemy among the Indians. But, knowing that they are content with Younger Bear, Crabb decides to leave them alone.
The western films generally have a simplistic moral code. For example, a white hat represents the good guy, a black hat represents the bad guy; two people facing each other on a deserted street leads to the expectation of a showdown; cattlemen are loners, townsfolk are family and community minded, etc. All western films can be read as a series of codes and the variations on those codes. Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves actually resurrects all the original codes and conventions but “reverses the polarities”: the Native Americans are good, the U.S.
Cavalry is bad. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven uses every one of the original conventions, only reverses the outcomes instead of dying bravely or stoically, characters whine, cry, and beg; instead of a good guy saving the day, irredeemable characters execute revenge; etc. Here, in Little Good Man, the original codes and conventions are rewritten. Every person is treated as an individual with his own flaws in personality. Traditional Western movies had cowboy like heroes who were ruthless in their killings. ‘Unforgiven’ however, shows that even the gunslingers of the western had their own feelings and had to deal with a conscience after killing. In Little Big Man, Crabb gives up his gunslinger role the moment he sees Hickok kill another person in self-defense. Thus, there is more of a humanizing treatment to the western protagonists in Unforgiven and Little Big Man.
As for the Native American characters, Little Big Man is more similar to “Dances with Wolves”. In the movie Dances with Wolves, the main protagonist Dunbar realizes that contrary to his belief that native Indians are barbaric people, they are a remarkable people, who are at one with the land and the earth. He’d earlier been told that Native Indians were thieves, savages, and barbarians. But after knowing about them, he finds them both noble and intelligent.
Dunbar becomes a friend and eventual member of the Tribe. He has found his place in life, and he is content and at peace. Here again we find that the Little Big Man does not place a similar halo around the native Indians. Rather, the movie etches out great characters among them who also have their flaws. Little Big Man differs from Dances with Wolves in the fact that it does not totally glorify the native Indians though it does focus them in a positive light.
The reason why Little Big Man provides a neutral perspective towards the native Indians as well as towards the main protagonist Crabb is best explained by the words of authors Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner in their book “Camera Politica: the politics and ideology of contemporary Hollywood film”: “Fundamental social attitudes like patriotism, optimism, trust in government and business, sense of social security and so on were either deliberately overturned by such things as counterculture or undermined by events like Watergate.
As a result the generic division which maintained boundaries around proper public dress and behavior or between public morality and immorality were crossed. Idealized cultural representations of public authority could no longer hold in a society in which young people scorned public figures and repudiated authority”. Thus, according to the authors, the neutral perspective is mainly due to the fact that during the period after 1967, America was in turmoil due to the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Demarcations between right and wrong were diffused and hence the movie of that period – Little Big Man (1970) – reflects that.
Thus the movie “Little Big Man” marks a changing point in American Western Movies in many ways. This was due to changing times in history during the late sixties and changing perceptions. However, the movie was the first to start the revisionist Western trend in Hollywood, where age old western myths were shattered and new elements were added to this genre.
Ryan, Michael. Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film.
Dirks, Tim (2007). Westerns Films. http://www.filmsite.org/westernfilms2.html
Gehring, Wes D. (1988). Handbook of American Film Genres. Greenwood Press, 1988
Meldrum, Howard Barbara (1985). Under the sun: Myth and realism in Western American Literature. Whitston Pub. Co., 1985
Sinowitz, Leigh Michael (1999). The Western as Postmodern Satiric History: The Little Big Man. CLIO. Volume: 28. Issue: 2.