Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) makes a lot of claims - he claims to be one hundred and twenty-one years old, for a start. He is being interviewed in the retirement home where he lives by a journalist who is sceptical of his boasts, but when Jack thinks he is being disbelieved and his take on the Native Americans is regarded with cynicism, he demands the journalist turn on his reel-to-reel tape recorder and listen to the story of his life. Dutifully, the journalist records the tale which Jack begins by reminiscing about when his family were travelling across the plains and were attacked by the Indians. He was ten years old...
Little Big Man was one of the first of the revisionist westerns that found success around the time of Easy Rider and The Wild Bunch, although this had more of a point of view to share with the hippie bikers than the more conservative Sam Peckinpah movie, though it was no less bloody when it came to the battle sequences. Much was made of the Indians in this film representing the Vietnamese as the war in that Asian country was raging at the time, and the suspicion that many of the young and left wing had about the justification of that conflict was reflected in the massacres of the natives in America of a hundred years and more before.
Yet while you can draw parallels, and there are indications that director Arthur Penn was only too happy to allow that to be the case, quite simply the film is better judged on the level of what it's story is about, and that is because the portrayal of the Indians was startlingly novel in its day. These were not stony-faced warriors or worse, ignorant savages out to put a stop to the progress of the white man, here there was a true sense of a community that had a spectrum of personalities from the stoic to the humorous. Why they would have been so different from any other race of people is not something that seems to have crossed the minds of any of the non-Indians.
But Jack does not spend his whole time with the Cheyenne who adopt him, as he is bounced back and forth between the near-idyll of the natives and the harsher, more pessimistically presented world of the whites. After being brought up by the tribe, he is captured by a group of American soldiers who he makes realise that he is a white man before they kill him, and he is placed in the care of a religious couple who appear to think he is but a boy, so much so that the wife, Mrs Pendrake (Faye Dunaway), gives him a bath. Mind you, we find out later that she is actually sexually frustrated and had other motives for getting close to Jack, as if to underline the ghastly hypocrisy of the supposed civilisation.
But Mrs Pendrake is nothing compared to the monstrous General Custer; here Richard Mulligan portrays the famed military man closer to the way he probably was, that is very far from the Errol Flynn rendering in They Died with Their Boots On and more of a vain, despicable character whose high opinion of himself doesn't allow him to admit his hopeless decisions could in any way be flawed. Jack ends up planning to kill Custer after he orders the murder of his tribe (including Jack's wife), but history has other ideas. Wild Bill Hickok, played by Jeff Corey, also turns up to befriend the drifter, so naturally Jack has to be present when he is gunned down yet powerless to stop the incident occurring.
And here's the drawback of placing the protagonist at all these important events: because he is fictional and the others are real, he is never much of a participant. This places us in a strange position, because either we believe him and accept that his memory is mixing up various actual incidents, or we think Jack had a very good recall of history and old age has confounded his genuine experiences. So Little Big Man is as much about the manner in which our memories make us the people we are, and if they are not as true as we like to believe, then does that leave the majority of us sadly adrift in history and without much individual point, as the elderly Jack perhaps acknowledges at the end? After all, he may have had an adventurous life, but he has no proof that any of it happened the way he recalls, which means that once he will be soon forgotten, he becomes insignificant. For all its humour and suspense, this is a melancholy work, although Hoffman carries its mood swings superbly. Music by John Paul Hammond.
American theatre and film director whose depiction of the rebellious character in movies found its most celebrated example in Bonnie and Clyde, which was hugely important in ushering in a new style of Hollywood film, not to mention new styles in Hollywood violence. Before that he had helmed psychological Billy the Kid story The Left Handed Gun, the much acclaimed The Miracle Worker, and Warren Beatty-starring experimental flop Mickey One, which nevertheless led to the both of them making the gangster movie that was so influential.