Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on May 6, 2010
Few film genres have captured the imagination of movie audiences with the same kind of power and persuasiveness as the American western. For decades Hollywood mixed facts with fiction and created a kind of celluloid mythology that made heroes out of cowboys, would-be settlers and the U.S. Cavalry. Unfortunately this myth-making led to the vilifying of Native Americans who experienced incomprehensible suffering and losses that went undocumented in our history books and were unseen in our movies. Occasionally Hollywood would offer up subtle suggestions of the injustices and racism that Native Americans experienced but the limited scope of these films often marred our general understanding of the people who once populated this beautiful country. In 1970 that all changed.
The decade began with an important event in Native American history. On November 20, 1969, 79 American Indians began a 19-month long occupation of the abandoned prison on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The occupiers demanded the return of Alcatraz Island and expressed their desire to have an Indian cultural center and university built there. The U.S. Government ignored their demands and on June 11, 1971 the occupation of Alcatraz came to an end but the event brought world-wide attention to the plight of American Indians and helped strengthen the resolve of AIM (American Indian Movement).
During the occupation of Alcatraz, Dee Brown published his unprecedented Indian history of the American west, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. This national best-seller detailed the genocide of the American Indians and changed the way Americans perceived their country’s past. At the same time a new type of western was taking shape in Hollywood that challenged the way American Indians had been depicted in previous films. These revisionist westerns included such films as A Man Called Horse (1970), Solider Blue (1970) and Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970).
Little Big Man chronicled the long and troubled history of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), a 121-year-old man whose family was killed by the Pawnee Indians when he was only 10. He’s saved by the Cheyenne Indians (longtime enemy of the Pawnee) who raise him as one of their own tribe members. Jack comes to love and respect the Indians who refer to themselves as “human beings.” Throughout the film Jack Crabb is torn between two worlds. The world of white men who are often depicted as religious hypocrites, murderous gunslingers, racist brutes and money hungry capitalists willing to do anything in order to make a buck. And the more earth conscious world of the Native Americans who are trying to survive while their own way of life, identity and human dignity is being stripped from them by the U.S. Government.
If my description of the film seems heavy-handed it’s because Little Big Man is often a very heavy-handed film. Arthur Penn wasn’t merely interested in making a movie that challenged the way that Hollywood had mythologized the history of the American west. The director was also responding to the war in Vietnam that had led to well-publicized atrocities such as the My Lai Massacre that took place in 1968. Penn had never shied away from showing violence in his films before but the relentless brutality depicted in Little Big Man bothered some of the nation’s leading film critics. The movie detailed an ugly and little seen side of war that often led to the killing of innocent civilians including unarmed mothers and their children but it didn’t stop there. Indians were shown killing one another, children murdered adults and animals were brutally slaughtered by the Indians for food as well as by fur trappers for mere profit. Death was usually depicted as violent, sudden and bloody in Little Big Man, which led critics like Vincent Canby of the New York Times to say that the film “wears its social concerns so blatantly that they look like war paint.” And the respected critic Pauline Kael who had championed Penn’s previous film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) thought that Little Big Man was “just crude, ideological filmmaking.”
Thankfully the movie did have its defenders and audiences flocked to it. The American public was eager to experience an anti-establishment western that questioned everything that had come before it, even if Penn’s sledgehammer approach to his subject was often seen as crude and self-conscious. The criticisms of Little Big Man seem rather ridiculous now when you consider the decades of misrepresentation that Native Americans had to suffer through. Arthur Penn knew that he needed to hammer home his point in order to breakdown the seemingly impenetrable wall of ignorance that had been built around the history of the American west. But the film softened its bold attack on Hollywood myth-making with humor and human pathos.
Arthur Penn shot Little Big Man on location with help from cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. and their use of actual historic sites like Little Bighorn as well as Indian Reservations in Montana gave the film a realistic edge that was rarely seen in previous depictions of the west. Penn clearly enjoyed playing with the public’s perception of historical events in films like The Left Handed Gun (1958) which focused on the outlaw Billy the Kid and in his critically acclaimed film Bonnie and Clyde but Little Big Man was a more urgent and angry movie. It illustrated an epic tragedy of immeasurable proportions but still managed to be one of the director’s most entertaining and personal films.
Little Big Man also provided its star, Dustin Hoffman, with one of his most challenging roles. Hoffman had become a popular counter-culture figure thanks to his parts in memorable movies like The Graduate (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969). His impressive acting abilities, short stature, self-depreciating humor and universal appeal had made him a world-wide star who didn’t fit neatly into Hollywood’s idea of a typical leading man. The role of Little Big Man seemed tailor-made for Hoffman and he is unforgettable as Jack Crabb. Unlike many films that turned their leading men into heroic outsiders who lead the Native Americans out of danger, Little Big Man’s star is a fumbling and weak-willed anti-hero who rarely succeeds at anything that he attempts to accomplish. The 33-year-old actor had to age 88 years in the movie which was achieved by using the services of the skilled makeup artist Dick Smith. Hoffman also spent an hour screaming at the top of his lungs before shooting so his voice would sound as ragged as he looked. As good as Dustin Hoffman is in Little Big Man, his extraordinary performance in the film is occasionally eclipsed by his costars.
Faye Dunaway is well cast as a reverend’s wife who turns to prostitution after her husband dies and Martin Balsam does a terrific job of playing a resilient con man. I also enjoy Jeff Corey’s portrayal of Wild Bill Hickok and Kelly Jean Peters is very good as Hoffman’s Swedish wife. One of the film’s most memorable performances is delivered by Richard Mulligan who plays General George Armstrong Custer. Mulligan was a brilliant comic actor who depicted General Custer as an egocentric madman hell-bent on the destruction of the American Indians. In previous films Custer was often presented as an untarnished hero but Mulligan’s crazed performance gave the public a very different version of Custer to consider.
What really set the movie apart from so many previous westerns was its depiction of Native Americans. The Cheyenne are not merely noble savages or bloodthirsty Braves in Little Big Man. The tribe that raises Dustin Hoffman’s character is made up of gay Indians (Robert Little Star), angry lunatics (Cal Bellini) and sexually motivated squaws (Aimée Eccles, Emily Cho, Linda Dyer, etc.). These would have been fringe characters in any Hollywood film made in 1970 but their appearance in a western was truly groundbreaking. Little Big Man humanized Indians in a way that few Hollywood films had dared to and they suddenly seemed as complex and divided as their white brothers and sisters. The Native Americans presented in Little Big Man could have been our neighbors, our friends and our family members.
If a film can have a soul, that part was played by Chief Dan George who portrayed Dustin Hoffamn’s adopted grandfather Old Lodge Skins. It’s easy for modern audiences to dismiss Chief Dan George’s portrayal of a wise old Indian as being outdated and cloying today but he was a revelation to film audiences in 1970. Originally actors as diverse as Marlon Brando and Lawrence Olivier had been considered for the role of Old Lodge Skins but thankfully they turned it down and the part was given to Chief Dan George. Western movies rarely employed real Indians but Chief Dan George was an actual chief of the Burrard Band of North Vancouver in British Columbia. He brought his personal experiences as well as a lot of feeling to the role of Old Lodge Skins and he gave a voice to Indians everywhere. His sensitive portrayal of a Native American won the hearts and minds of movie-goers around the world and he was nominated for many awards including an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that I think he should have won.
Today Little Big Man is often dismissed as a dated relic and when the movie is written about or mentioned it can’t seem to escape the shadow of the Vietnam war, but Arthur Penn’s film is much more than just an angry anti-war film. It changed the way that audiences viewed Native Americans and it helped to broaden our understanding and interpretation of American history. Few films can make such lofty claims but I don’t think the importance of Little Big Man should be underestimated. Sometimes a rare film comes along that actually changes the world and makes it a more interesting place to live in. Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man is one of those films. Little Big Man airs on TCM at 9:30PM (ET) May 20th as part of TCM’s month-long series, RACE & HOLLYWOOD: NATIVE AMERICAN IMAGES ON FILM.
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
Popular terms3-D Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Beer in Film Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Blu-Ray Books on Film Boxing films British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Fan Edits Film Composers Film Criticism film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs Guest Programmers HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Leadership Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Magazines Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals New Releases Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Russian Film Industry Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Serials Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Spaghetti Westerns Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller Swashbucklers TCM Classic Film Festival Tearjerkers Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood The Russians in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies