Little Big Man (Theaters – December 1970; Streaming – April 2003) Rated: PG — Runtime: 139 minutes
Genre: Adventure – Comedy – Satire – Western
Amazon: 4.5/5 stars
Rotten Tomatoes Critics: 7.9/10
Rotten Tomatoes Audience: 3.8/5
Metacritic Metascore: 63/100
Metacritic User Score: 8.0/10
Directed by: Arthur Penn
Written by: Calder Willingham (screenplay), Thomas Berger (book)
Music by: John Hammond
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, Richard Mulligan
Film Locations: Calgary, Morely, Alberta, Canada; Billings, Crow Indian Reservation, Hardin, Lame Deer, Little Big Horn Battlefield, Nevada City, Virginia City, Montana – Agoura Hills, Los Angeles, Thousand Oaks, California, US
Worldwide Box Office: $31,600,000
An ancient and time-worn Jack Crabb (Hoffman), spending his final days in a nursing home, relates his incongruous life of farce and fate to an interested historian. At the age of 10 a Pawnee raiding party attacks his family and kills his parents. Later a Cheyenne brave finds him and his sister hiding in their destroyed wagon and takes them back to his tribe. The tribe’s chief, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) raises the boy and thus begins a series of improbable events that punctuate Jack’s long and full life. Indian on Indian battles, white on red battles, sexually repressed preacher’s wife battles, gunfighter playing, snake oil selling, drunken despondency; all in a day in the life of a western meme.
Arthur Penn creates a movie of contrasts that is labeled revisionist history but is no more than a comedy situated in the late 19th century American west, incorporating events of historical interest but not necessarily accurate or correct. The contrasts are established through the lives of the story’s actors, their happenstance encounters and experiences highlighting life’s hypocrisy and charades. Jack as a natural gunfighter that cannot stomach killing, a preacher’s wife that seeks pleasure over salvation, a narcissistic general searching for fame through folly. A tragedy’s lessons told through tongue-in-cheek schtick. An effective delivery of farce that unfortunately passed as truth for millions of viewers.
Hoffman takes top billing as lead actor and he delivers a masterful performance both on-screen and as the voice-over narrator, but it is Chief Dan George who shines, turning an ok script into a wonderful exhibition of cheerful existence in the face of our inhumanity. George was nominated for an Academy Award but unfortunately lost out to John Mills in the totally forgettable Ryan’s Daughter. Richard Mulligan, as Custer, turns in a performance that is remarkable in its absurdity, an under-dog role elevated to a tour-de-force of parody. Faye Dunaway’s hilarious representation as a sexually needy whore and preacher’s wife sets the standard for urgency over love, a role reprised brilliantly by Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtupp in the 1974 romp, Blazing Saddles.
Little Big Man is a fun chuckle of a movie that should not be confused for history but as a satire of the past. A movie encompassing a large swath of all western tales encapsulated into a few hours of humor and jest.