“One hundred and eleven years ago, when I was ten years old, my family crossing the Great Plains was wiped out by a band of wild Indians.” –Jack Crabb, “Little Big Man”
A penetrating historical epic…. Yes, but also a towering Western drama…. Yes, but also a very funny comedy…. Yes, but also a perceptive tragicomedy…. Yes, but also a moving testament to Man’s inhumanity to Man….
Let me stop and suggest that maybe we should call it all of the above. “Little Big Man” is a collection of tall tales that ultimately entertains as it edifies, amuses as it educates, while poignantly relating the story of America’s early movement West at the expense of the country’s indigenous population. Believe half of what you see; believe all of what you hear.
Directed by Arthur Penn (“The Miracle Worker,” “Bonnie and Clyde”) from a novel by Thomas Berger and a screenplay by Calder Willingham, “Little Big Man” (1970) gets better as the years go by. If anything, the film’s message is more powerful today than it was so long ago when Cinema Center Films made it (CBS currently own the rights and Paramount distribute it). Anyway, even in our own modern age, we see America’s good intentions to help other people of the world often doing as much harm as good. Maybe things don’t change too much, after all.
The story is long, episodic, and rambling, but every segment works, so it doesn’t matter. Dustin Hoffman, fresh from his successes in “The Graduate” and “Midnight Cowboy” stars as Jack Crabb, a 121 year-old frontiersman, scout, mule skinner, settler, storekeeper, gunfighter, snake-oil salesman, white man, and Indian. He narrates the story of his younger days in the Wild West to a historian (William Hickey) keen on documenting the life and times of a real old-time Westerner. Crabb’s reminiscences, mostly humorous and exaggerated, a few startlingly sincere, touch on the major subjects of Western lore, culminating in the battle of the Little Big Horn, commonly known as Custer’s Last Stand. But the primary recollections dwell on the white man’s treatment of the country’s Native Americans, a tale that will melt your heart.
Jack Crabb begins his story at a very early age when he describes his family attacked and killed by a band of marauding Pawnee while the family is crossing the Plains and his own subsequent rescue by the Cheyenne (the Human Beings, as they call themselves) and adoption by their Chief, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George). The story proceeds with Jack’s return to the white community many years later and his upbringing as a teen by the Reverend Silas Pendrake (Thayer David) and his randy young wife (Faye Dunaway). Jack’s religious convictions end when he discovers Mrs. Pendrake’s hypocrisy and declares to the historian, “I ain’t sung a hymn in 104 years.”
Thereafter, Jack joins up with Mr. Allardice T. Merriweather (Martin Balsam), an eternally optimistic con man who keeps losing parts of himself–a hand, an eye, a leg–as he gets caught cheating folks. Then Jack enters his gunfighter period and meets Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey) in one of the film’s most amusing episodes. Following that, he marries and becomes a storekeeper, an occupation that doesn’t last long, either, and then returns to the Cheyenne when Pawnee kidnap his wife. Later, he becomes a mule skinner for the vainglorious General George Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan); returns to the Cheyenne, taking another wife, Sunshine (Amy Eccles); and before long doesn’t know who he is or what people he belongs to. Broken treaties, white atrocities, and horror follow as the government push the Cheyenne farther and farther away from their lands. Retribution for the Native Americans and for Jack finally comes at the Little Big Horn.
Hoffman has a field day playing every age from 15 to 121, wearing some convincing prosthetics for the latter, and proving his chops at both outrageous comedy and serious drama. But it was Chief Dan George who got all the attention. He won an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor but didn’t win, losing out to John Mills in “Ryan’s Daughter.” Like so many other Oscar winners before and since, people hardly remember the Mills role, but they think of Chief Dan George as a film legend. Such is life.
And “That’s the story of the Human Beings,” concludes Jack, “who was promised land where they could live in peace, land that would be theirs as long as the grass grow, wind blow, and the sky is blue.”
Not everybody keeps their promises.
The first thing that strikes one about the picture is the naturalness of the colors, never too bright, never dull, but realistic in almost every way, just as you might actually see them in real life. To achieve the film replication, CBS/Paramount’s video engineers used a single-layer BD25 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec for the transfer. The screen size, a 2.35:1 Panavision ratio, is wide enough to encompass the broad Western vistas of Harry Stradling, Jr.’s handsome cinematography. (The filmmakers did the location shooting in Montana, California, and Alberta with the help of the Crow, Cheyenne, and Stony Nations.) The Technicolor hues are, as I say, very lifelike, rich and deep to match the photography, and to reinforce the colors the screen is practically without blemish. Grain is minimal but shows up in broad expanses of sky, black levels are reasonably deep, and definition is quite good even by Blu-ray standards.
The soundtrack uses a remixed 5.1 reproduced via lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, and while the results are pleasing, they are not spectacular. Although the front-channel spread is not particularly wide, it sounds well balanced and well detailed, with a surprisingly good depth of field. The rear channels get only a small amount of information, not enough to notice most of the time, but occasional bird chirps and musical bloom are enough to provide a pleasant experience. Indeed, composer John Hammond’s BAFTA award-winning musical score benefits from the added resonance of the surround speakers, no matter how limited.
As with the DVD of the movie, there are precious few bonus items on the Blu-ray disc. There are twenty scene selections, English and French spoken languages, and English captions for the hearing impaired. The only serious “extra” is a theatrical trailer in standard definition.
I’ve always liked “Little Big Man.” I think it’s one of Dustin Hoffman’s best films, one of Arthur Penn’s best films, and one of Hollywood’s best films. Seldom does a motion picture so delight and amuse the senses while presenting so strong and stirring a theme to the mind. Yet as powerful as its message is about the U.S. government’s injustice toward Native Americans, the movie never feels preachy or didactic. Large events or small, exaggerated or not, the film largely presents the facts and lets them speak for themselves. In the process it creates an inspiring cinematic experience, and what more can we ask of our movies?
“Sometimes,” says Old Lodge Skins, “the magic works; sometimes it doesn’t.” This time, in this movie, it works.