Noteworthy for portraying Native Americans as the good guys and General Custer as the bad guy, Little Big Man is a blatant reversal of earlier Hollywood standards. But despite its admirable intentions, the movie hasn’t dated well.
Little Big Man is the story of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) as told by the man himself when he’s 121. (Whether he’s making up these stories or not is left up to the viewer to decide.) You can tell Little Big Man is adapted from a novel because it has that disjointed feel that comes from trying to cram too much of the original source into the screenplay. The movie jumps around as Crabb crosses and re-crosses the paths of various colorful characters, some historical, others not. It’s more like a series of vignettes, with far too much of Crabb’s narration being used to fill in the gaps. I’ve always found it difficult to connect to this kind of storytelling. It feels more like a summary instead of a full narrative.
– Dustin Hoffman can be a great actor, but here he plays it too broadly. That may be the result of the disparate nature of the film. It certainly wasn’t due to inexperience, since Hoffman had already proven himself in The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy.
– This was the era in which films were moving from the staginess of Old Hollywood to the more fast-paced style we’re used to today. Only a year earlier there was the kinetic editing of both The Wild Bunch’s climatic shootout and Easy Rider’s acid trip sequence. But Arthur Penn’s pacing is off, and many of the shots don’t flow together very well. You’re all too aware that they’re separate set-ups.
– I’m all for portraying General Custer (Richard Mulligan) as a bastard. But Little Big Man shows him as also being slightly crazy (or the Hollywood version of crazy), thereby diluting its criticism of the man. It’s almost as if the filmmakers wanted to step away from Errol Flynn’s romanticized version as Custer, but not too far away.
– As Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid showed, humour can work well in a Western without it having to be a full comedy. Little Big Man’s attempts to mix humour and drama, however, are often clumsy. Faye Dunaway’s Christian woman who hides her horniness with piousness is an obvious and tiresome character. Cal Bellini’s gay Native American, although a progressive idea, is a caricature. And Carole Androsky’s regret at not being ravaged by Indians is archaic “humour” at its worse (It unfortunately pops up as recently as 1980, in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories.)
– The climax, the Battle of Little Big Horn, could have been an exciting, even epical, scene, but it was poorly staged. Maybe more time and money were needed, but it feels flat and too much emphasis was put on Custer’s descent into complete madness.
The most effective scene in Little Big Man is the Washita River Massacre, in which Custer’s 7th Cavalry wipes out an entire village, including women and children. An unflinching and cruel scene, it evokes the American phase of the Vietnam War, specifically the My Lai Massacre. (ASIDE: In a morbid example of symmetry, the two massacres occurred exactly 100 years apart.)