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Little Big Man

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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.)

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About Paul De Angelis

  • ctrl-z

    “Little Big Man” is a great movie classic. If your train of thought gets derailed by anything longer than a scene in an MTV video…don’t bother writing a review.

  • D

    There was no massacre at Washita, Penn’s movie isn’t accurate. Please read books about US history such as Jerome Greene “Washita 1868″, University of Oklahoma Press, 2004

  • Mihos

    This was the second movie I saw in a theatre. The first was A Man Called Horse.
    I guess it will always be a favorite. Interesting that you write about its aging.
    Never thought of that before a movie aging.
    I seem to recall there being good guys and bad guys in both camps. A great film and a classic in my opinion.

  • Bennett

    “Little Big Man” has long been on my Greatest Movies Of All Time list. I think your review is a shallow misrepresentation of an incredible entertaining, and profoundly sad film.

    The scene before the battle of Little Big Horn is a perfect example of Hoffman in total control of his craft.

    I find it difficult to imagine anyone thinking that this work of art “jumps around”.

    But wait… the date of this review is from January, and you haven’t posted since….

    Never mind.

  • http://raven_woods Raven Woods

    Ah, excuse me…there was no massacre at the Washita River in 1868? I think that thousands of Cheyenne men and women would beg to differ with you. If there is any account that states othewise, it is nothing but more propaganda intended to whitewash American history in favor of Europeans. The Cheyenne chief Black Kettle, his wife, and many hundreds of others, including women and children, died as a result of that attack, which incidentally was led by Custer. This is not a falsehood or inaccuracy, but a fact.