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Little Big Man Movie Essay Samples

Little Big Man, the film adaptation of Thomas Berger's epic comic novel, is Arthur Penn's most extravagant and ambitious movie, an attempt to capture the essence of the American heritage in the funny, bitter, uproarious adventures of Jack Crabb, an irritable, 120-odd-year-old gentleman who may or may not have been the sole survivor of Custer's Last Stand.

The film, which opened yesterday at the Paramount and Sutton Theaters, tries to cover too much ground, even though Calder Willingham's script eliminates or telescopes events and characters from the Berger novel. Often it is not terribly funny, at just those moments when it tries the hardest, and it sometimes wears its social concerns so blatantly that they look like war paint.

There is little lyricism in it of the kind that bewildered criticism of Bonnie and Clyde and that blurred the bleak edges of Alice's Restaurant.

All of these things are true, and yet Little Big Man—both in spite of and because of these failings—is an important movie by one of our most interesting directors. It is also one of the maybe half-dozen American movies of this year that won't make you ponder the possibility of a subsidy plan to pay filmmakers not to work.

Little Big Man is Mr. Penn's tough testament to the contrariness of the American experience as witnessed by the durable Mr. Crabb, played mostly by Dustin Hoffman in various amounts of makeup, and by two younger actors who impersonate Crabb while growing up.

It was Crabb's quite extraordinary fate to be captured by the Cheyennes at the age of ten, raised by them as a brave, rescued by the whites at the age of fifteen, and then to spend the next twenty years surviving two marriages, bankruptcy, sometime careers as an Indian scout and con artist, alcoholism, a brief period as a suicidal hermit, and, finally, General Custer's ill-timed decision to push on into the territory of the Little Big Horn.

The film has the circular form of encounters with friends or relatives that Jack has somehow lost earlier along the way. Thus his huge, gritty sister Caroline, who had abandoned him in the Cheyenne camp years before when she learned (to her disappointment) that she wasn't going to be raped, later turns up to teach him to be the fastest gun in the West. Mrs. Pendrake (Faye Dunaway), the not-so-respectable wife of a preacher, is met again in a Black Hills bordello, where she philosophizes about her work: "This life is not only sinful, it's not much fun."

Met again too are his first wife, a quiet Swedish girl who reappears as an Indian's noisy squaw, and Allardyce T. Merriweather (Martin Balsam), a patent-medicine salesman who loses parts of his body (an ear, a hand, a leg) the way other people lose small change. Most important, however, are the re-encounters with his Cheyenne family, presided over by the ancient chief, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), through whose eyes Jack Crabb watches the virtual extinction of "human beings," which is what the Cheyennes call themselves.

These sequences, beautifully photographed (for a change, in the American West and not Spain), are both the most significant and, at times, the least successful. Mr. Willingham never quite gets the hang of how Indians should talk in English meant to represent Cheyenne. "My son," says Old Lodge Skins to a recently returned Jack, "to see you again makes my heart soar like a hawk," and the movie, which has been putting down a romantic view of history, seems to be putting down itself, and all movies in which Indians talk movie English.

Mr. Penn obviously takes seriously the vanishing of the race that managed to give Jack "a vision of a moral order in the universe," but he is more likely to end a scene with pratfall than a prayer, often going even further than Mr. Berger did to secure laughs, which are not always there. It is apparently Mr. Penn's aim to be more outrageously comic than the novel in order to be as essentially serious.

When the mixture of violence and something akin to slapstick does work, as it does in the climactic battle at the Little Big Horn (with Custer, amid the bodies, ranting on about General Grant's drinking habits), it is lovely and sad and profoundly crazy. When Old Lodge Skins can't quite succeed in willing his own death ("Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't"), the effect, like the inflection in which the speech is read, is that of borrowed Yiddish humor.

Mr. Hoffman is one of our two best young character actors (the other is Jon Voight) and although there are peculiar traces of both Ben Braddock and Ratso Rizzo in his Jack Crabb, he is fine, as is just about everybody in the huge cast, including the Indians, some of whom are real and some of whom are aspiring members of the Screen Actors Guild.

Little Big Man is a movie composed of such contradictions, about epic contradictions, as at some middle period of life, when Jack finds himself being attacked by his Cheyenne family. An American soldier shoots Jack's attacker and, on the soundtrack, the ancient Crabb says simply, "An enemy had saved my life by shooting my best friend." The old man and the movie then move on to other things.


Directed by Arthur Penn; written by Calder Willingham, based on the novel by Thomas Berger; cinematographer, Harry Stradling, Jr.; edited by Dede Allen; music by John Hammond; production designer, Dean Tavoularis; produced by Stuart Millar; released by National General Pictures. Running time: 147 minutes.

This article is about the film. For other uses, see Little Big Man (disambiguation).

Little Big Man is a 1970 American western film directed by Arthur Penn and based on the novel Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. While broadly categorized as a western, or an epic, the film encompasses several literary/film genres, including comedy, drama and adventure. It is about a white male child raised by the Cheyenne nation during the 19th century. The film is largely concerned with contrasting the lives of American pioneers and Native Americans throughout the progression of the boy's life. It stars Dustin Hoffman, Chief Dan George, Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam, Jeff Corey and Richard Mulligan.

It is a revisionist Western: Native Americans are depicted sympathetically, and the United States Cavalry are depicted as villains. The revision uses elements of satire and tragedy to examine prejudice and injustice. Little Big Man is an anti-establishment film of the period, indirectly protesting America's involvement in the Vietnam War by portraying the U.S. military negatively.

In 2014, Little Big Man was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.[2]


In the present day (1970), 121-year-old Jack Crabb, the oldest living man in the world and residing in a hospice, recounts his plentiful life story to a curious historian. Among other things, Crabb claims to have been a captive of the Cheyenne, a gunslinger, an associate of Wild Bill Hickok, a scout for General George Armstrong Custer, and the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Jack begins his story in a flashback to 1859 when he was 10 years old where he and his older sister Caroline (Carole Androsky) survive the massacre of their parents by the Pawnee, and are discovered by a Cheyenne brave who takes the pair to his village. Caroline escapes, but Jack is reared by the goodhearted tribal leader Old Lodge Skins. As Jack gets older, he unwittingly makes an enemy of another boy, Younger Bear; however, Younger Bear eventually owes his life to Jack since he saved his life from a Pawnee brave. Jack is given the name "Little Big Man" because he is short but very brave. In 1865, when Jack is 16, he is captured by U.S. cavalry troopers during a skirmish and renounces his Cheyenne upbringing in order to save himself. He is put in the care of Reverend Silas Pendrake and his sexually frustrated wife, Louise, who tries to seduce Jack. When he witnesses Mrs. Pendrake having sex with the soda shop owner, Jack leaves the Pendrake household, and religion.

The following year, Jack becomes the apprentice of the snake-oil salesman Meriweather. The two are tarred and feathered when their customers realize that Meriweather's products are fraudulent. One of the angry customers is Jack's now-grown sister, Caroline, with whom he reunites. She attempts to mold her brother into a gunslinger named the Soda Pop Kid. Jack meets Wild Bill Hickok at a saloon, and Hickok takes a liking to the young man. When Hickok is forced to kill a man in self-defense, Jack loses his taste for gunslinging and Caroline deserts him.

Another year or so later, Jack becomes a partner in a general store and marries a Swedish woman named Olga (Kelly Jean Peters). Unfortunately, Jack's business partner turns out to be a thieving scoundrel. The famous cavalry officer George Armstrong Custer suggests the couple restart their lives further west and assures them they have nothing to fear of Indians. They set out, but their stagecoach is ambushed by Cheyenne warriors. Olga is abducted and Jack sets out in search of her. He is reunited with Old Lodge Skins. Younger Bear has become a Contrary, a warrior who does everything in reverse. Jack makes friends with the Heemaneh Little Horse, but continues on his search for Olga.

Jack eventually becomes a "muleskinner" in Custer's 7th Cavalry, only because Custer incorrectly determines that was Jack's past job. He takes part in a battle against the Cheyenne, but when the troopers begin killing women and children, Jack turns on them. On the outskirts of the massacre, Jack is attacked by Shadow, the Cheyenne brave who saved him as a child but now does not recognize him. Shadow is killed by a cavalryman, and Jack discovers his daughter, Sunshine (Aimée Eccles), giving birth while hiding from the onslaught. He returns with her to Old Lodge Skins's tribe. Sunshine becomes his wife and bears him a child. Jack again encounters Younger Bear, not a Contrary anymore, who is now the henpecked husband of the long-lost Olga. Olga does not recognize Jack, who makes no attempt to make her remember him. Sunshine asks Jack to take in her three widowed sisters as wives and to father children with them. He is reluctant at first, but finally agrees.

In November 1868, Custer and the 7th Cavalry make a surprise attack on the Cheyenne camp at the Washita River. A now-blind and elderly Old Lodge Skins is saved by Jack, but Sunshine, their child, and her sisters are killed. Jack tries to infiltrate Custer's camp to exact revenge, but loses his nerve to kill Custer.

Disheartened, Jack withdraws from life and becomes the town drunk living in Deadwood, South Dakota for the next several years. While in a drunken stupor, he is recognized by Wild Bill Hickok, who gives him money to get cleaned up. Hickok is shot and killed while playing cards and, with his last breath, asks Jack to bring some money to a widow he was having an affair with. Jack visits the widow, now a prostitute who turns out to be Louise Pendrake. Jack gives her the money that Hickok intended for her to use to start a new life, but again rebuffs her sexual advances. This scene provides an homage to Hoffman's role in the movie The Graduate and his seduction by Mrs. Robinson.

Jack soon becomes a trapper and hermit. His mind becomes unhinged after coming across an empty trap with a severed animal limb. He prepares to commit suicide, but sees Custer and his troops marching nearby, and decides to return to his quest for revenge. Custer hires him as a scout, reasoning that anything Jack says will be a lie, thus serving as a perfect reverse barometer. Jack tricks Custer into leading his troops into a trap at the Little Bighorn by truthfully telling Custer of the overwhelming force of Native Americans hidden within the valley. As Custer's troops are slaughtered by the combined Sioux and Cheyenne group, he begins to rave insanely. The mad Custer attempts to shoot Jack who is wounded, but is killed by Younger Bear, who then carries Jack away from the battlefield. Having thus discharged his life debt, Younger Bear tells Jack that the next time they meet, he can kill Jack without becoming an evil person.

Back at the Indian camp, Jack accompanies Old Lodge Skins to a nearby hill, the Indian burial ground, where the old man, dressed in full chief's regalia, has declared "It is a good day to die", and decides to end his life with dignity. He offers his spirit to the Great Spirit, and lies down at his spot at the Indian Burial Ground to wait for death. Instead, it begins to rain. Old Lodge Skins is revealed to still be alive, and says, "Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't". They return to his tepee to have dinner.

Back in the present, Jack's narrative ends and he dismisses the historian. The final shot shows the elderly Jack thinking with sadness about the memories of a world which is no more.


Historical basis[edit]

The historical Little Big Man was a Native American leader bearing no resemblance to the Jack Crabb character. Little Big Man is known for his involvement in the capture and possible assassination of Crazy Horse at Fort Robinson in 1877.

The movie's portrayal of the Battle of Washita River as a Custer-led massacre of women and children (which Penn compares to the Holocaust) is not entirely accurate as the camp was partially occupied by tribal warriors. The film, however, is consistent with historical records of other encounters between Indians and the U.S. Cavalry; the Cavalry's common tactic was to wait until the warriors had left the camp to hunt, or to lure the warriors away with assurances of good hunting, and then to attack the unprotected village. The two massacre scenes are historically reversed, the Sand Creek massacre occurring first in 1864, where Colorado militia (not including Custer) attacked a peaceful contingent of Native Americans, killing more than 150 women, children and elderly men. (The Sand Creek Massacre was depicted in another 1970 Western, Soldier Blue.) The Custer-led raid on the Washita occurred in 1868.

The film also presents an inaccurate representation of the death of Wild Bill Hickok. Hickok was actually killed nearly two months after the Battle of the Little Bighorn on August 2, 1876, while playing poker at Nuttal & Mann's Saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota. Uncharacteristically, Hickok had his back turned to the door. At 4:15 p.m., a gunslinger named Jack McCall walked in and shot Hickok in the back of the head. Hickok was famously holding two pairs—of black aces and black eights—when he was shot, a set of cards thereafter called the "Dead Man's Hand".[3]

The film's depiction of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer as a lunatic at the Battle of the Little Bighorn was intended as satire, though many of his quirks and vanities were inspired by contemporary observations. Custer's fatal tactics at the Little Bighorn were far more complex than portrayed in the film, which portrays him as having a searing hatred of Indians and acting ruthlessly towards them in battle. In truth, while his actions before and during the battle remain controversial, some historians suggest that he was somewhat sympathetic to the cause of the Indian population and publicly opposed, to the detriment of his own career prospects, the Grant administration's policy of expansion into Indian lands.

The character of Jack Crabb is partially based on Curley, one of Custer's Native American scouts from the Crow tribe. Curley rode with Custer's 7th Cavalry into the valley of the Little Bighorn, but was relieved of duty before the final attack, retreating to a nearby bluff and witnessing much of the action. Many conflicting stories of the era embellished Curley's participation, stating in several cases that he disguised himself with a Cheyenne blanket to escape the immediate field of battle. He was interviewed many times, with some writers claiming him to be the only surviving witness from the U.S. side of Custer's Last Stand. Curley gave several variations of his participation in the battle, and the accuracy of his later recollections has been questioned.[4]


To obtain the hoarse voice of a 121-year-old man, Hoffman sat in his dressing room and screamed at the top of his lungs for an hour. The makeup for the ancient Crabb was created by Dick Smith from foam latex and included revolutionary false eyelids that could blink along with the actor's. Due to editing, and much to Smith's chagrin, no blinks were visible in the finished film. Of the makeup, Hoffman was quoted in Life as saying, "I defy you to put on that makeup and not feel old".[5] The role of Chief Old Lodge Skins was initially offered to Marlon Brando, Paul Scofield, and Laurence Olivier, all of whom turned it down. The Little Bighorn battle scenes were filmed on location at Crow Agency, Montana near the actual battle site. Some of the town scenes were filmed in Nevada City, Montana, a town that by 1970 consisted predominantly of historic 19th-century buildings brought from elsewhere in Montana. All outdoor Indian scenes other than the Little Bighorn battle were filmed near Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Some interior and various footage was shot on Hollywood sets. All Indian extras were North American Indians. Aimée Eccles, who played Sunshine, is actually of Chinese descent.[6] And Cal Bellini, who played Younger Bear, is actually a Malay originally from Singapore.[7]

The old Indian chief dies at the end of the novel but not in the film. In an interview Arthur Penn explained the change: "We thought long and hard about this and in the first draft of the script he does die, but this death would have introduced an element of sadness into the film and we didn't want this. The film would have become dramatic, even melodramatic, instead of being picaresque. I also wanted to show that not only were the Indians going to be destroyed, but they were also condemned to live. On the whole, audiences like their entertainment dramatically compact and homogenous, but I want the opposite. A film should remain free and open, not with everything defined and resolved."[8]


Little Big Man received widespread acclaim from film critics. It is among AFI's 400 movies nominated to be on their list of America's greatest 100 movies[9] Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 24 of 25 professional critics gave the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7.9/10; in total, the film has a 96% rating on the website.[10]

In his December 15, 1970 review, Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the movie, "Arthur Penn's most extravagant and ambitious movie, an attempt to capture the essence of the American heritage in the funny, bitter, uproarious adventures of Jack Crabb."[11]Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times, agreed, giving the film four stars out of four stars, and describing Little Big Man as "an endlessly entertaining attempt to spin an epic in the form of yarn."[12]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Chief Dan George was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor in a Supporting Role. He won many honors for his performance, including the Producers Guild of America Award, the National Society of Film Critics Award and the New York Film Critics Circle Award. He was also nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor.

Hoffman won third place for his performance with the Producers Guild of America and was nominated as Best Actor by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. The screenplay by Calder Willingham was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award as Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium.

The film won a Special Mention at the 7th Moscow International Film Festival in 1971.[13]

In 2014, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.[2]


Arthur Hiller's 1984 comedy-dramaTeachers features Richard Mulligan partially reprising his Custer role as Herbert Gower, an outpatient from a mental institution who is accidentally put in charge of a U.S. history class and teaches his pupils while impersonating historical figures such as Custer, but also Abe Lincoln and Ben Franklin amongst others.[14]

Home media[edit]

As of 2016, Little Big Man has been released worldwide on VHS and DVD, and in the US on a region free Blu-ray.

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

  1. ^"Little Big Man, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 29, 2012. 
  2. ^ ab
  3. ^"Wild Bill Hickok is murdered — This Day in History — 8/2/1876". 1953-08-05. Retrieved 2013-09-21. 
  4. ^"Curley is buried at Little Big Horn — This Day in History — 5/23/1923". Retrieved 2013-09-21. 
  5. ^Life, November 20, 1970, volume 69 number 21, interview with Richard Meryman
  6. ^Wood, Robin, "Arthur Penn," Praeger Film Library (1969), p. 120-123
  7. ^Cal Bellini
  8. ^Penn, Arthur (2008). Arthur Penn: interviews. University Press of Mississippi. p. 84. ISBN 978-1-60473-104-0. 
  9. ^[1]Archived August 7, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^Little Big Man. Rotten Tomatoes. Flixter. Retrieved 24 October 2012.
  11. ^Canby, Vincent (Dec 15, 1970). "Little Big Man (1970)". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 May 2010. 
  12. ^Ebert, Roger. "Little Big Man". Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved 8 June 2010. 
  13. ^"7th Moscow International Film Festival (1971)". MIFF. Archived from the original on 2014-04-03. Retrieved 2012-12-23. 
  14. ^"Reference to Mulligan reprising his Custer role in Teachers". Retrieved 2013-09-21.