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top 100 films
fourth movie

Little Big Man (1970, Arthur Penn)

Thoughts: I don’t know if I would be wrong to say this is the most flawed film of my top 100, and a movie that barely made my list. The problem is, when this movie works, it really works. When it doesn’t work, it’s too bad because Little Big Man has some of the best writing and some of the best scenes ever filmed. Many of Arthur Penn’s films tend to feel a bit unbalanced – striking an uneasy chord between drama and comedy, which is difficult to do. Before I get ahead of myself, I’ll give a brief synopsis.

Little Big Man is the “Forrest Gump” of the American western. It’s based on a book I’ve not read, but would like to when laziness subsides. The story deals with the fictional sole survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) and is a frame story with Crabb telling his story to an interviewer in the present at the ripe old age of 121. Sure, this requires a bit of dropping suspension of disbelief, but that’s alright. The film is a beautiful adventure/comedy/drama sort of affair with Crabb going through a who’s who and what’s what of the Old West. He meets buffalo hunters, Wild Bill, General Custer, Cheyenne chiefs, snake oil salesmen and on and on.

The film’s treatment of Native Americans is what shines. It’s not preachy or forceful like a Dances With Wolves, nor does it come across as disrespectful, despite showing Native Americans to be every bit as flawed and human as the whites – cleverly side-stepping the “noble savage” stereotype. In its truthful treatment of the Great Plains Indian tribes the film transcends a lot of other message and Vietnam allegory films, by having a heart and soul. I appreciate Little Big Man’s historical accuracy in presenting cultural elements such as the Native American’s views on homosexuality, taking coup, roles of men and women, and of course being a contrary. These are points in the film that somehow, despite being played for comedy, are not derogatory.

Actor Chief Dan George (The Outlaw Josey Wales) is the heart of the film and he is what makes it what it is. Without his character Old Lodge Skins, and his performance, the movie would not be the great feature it is. When a person talks about great supporting performances in cinematic history, his name in this film is bound to appear. His soft spoken, to the point demeanor is a joy to watch. Seeing the world through his eyes as spoken to Crabb (his adoptive grandson) is unique and funny. When he speaks of “The white black man” and “My eyes still see, my heart no longer receives it” even the “I’m invisible!” bit, the viewer can’t help but smile. This is the most sensitive treatment in presenting the most human portrait of an American Indian the screen has ever seen.

I could talk about the flaws of the film, but I won’t waste much time. The great bits are so brilliant and well done that I can forget the dismal attempt at comedy with Crabb marrying a non-English speaking Swedish woman, Olga. I can forget the horrible cliché’ acting from Carole Androsky (who? Yeah I know) as Crabb’s manly sister. I can even overlook a couple of the mishandled scenes with Bartin Balsam. If the movie was perfect it would be top 10 material for me. As it is, it ranks slightly below The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time Upon in the West, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller in ranking of the great revisionist westerns. Yet I think about this movie very often, and in my American Literature I class I culminate the Native American literature unit with this film, so it has a place in my top 100, regardless of the flaws.

I haven’t even touched on everything I want to, but I’ve already written more than what I planned. I do have to mention the other great supporting actor alongside Chief Dan George, that really makes this movie what it is; the homicidal portrayal of General Custer as played to aloof psychotic perfection by Richard Mulligan.

Best scene: Little Big Man arrives back in the Cheyenne camp after a murderous US Cavalry raid to find his Grandfather has lost his vision, and many of the braves have been “wiped out.” Old Lodge Skins proceeds to give his explanation of the difference between the Human Beings and White Man, in some of the most simplistic and emotional dialogue ever spoken on screen.

sorry, the sound and image are not in-sync but it's the only place I found the scene.