The kind of cinematic oddity that could only have been made on this lavish a scale during the New Hollywood era, Arthur Penn’s revisionist Western Little Big Man is as entertaining as it is completely bizarre. Based on a novel by Thomas Berger, the film tells the story of 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), who claims to be the only white survivor of the Little Big Horn massacre that claimed the life of notorious Indian fighter Gen. George Custer. As the ancient Crabb relates his story to a doubting interviewer (William Hickey), the picture flashes back to Crabb’s childhood and then presents wild episodes from his life leading up to the slaughter at Little Big Horn. Along the way, Crabb spends time personifying virtually every archetype of the Old West, from gunfighter to snake-oil salesman to town drunk. Most of Crabb’s recollections detail his upbringing by Cheyenne Indians—after his parents were killed during a Pawnee raid, young Crabb was adopted by a Cheyenne elder named Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George).
Crabb’s story is outrageous, and part of the charm of Little Big Man is that it doesn’t matter whether you buy into the myth or even the possibility of the myth—the point is reconsidering Old West iconography from the fresh perspective of the Plains Indians, rather than the usual viewpoint of the “civilized” whites who systematically eradicated those Indians.
Hoffman’s casting is pure genius, not only because he gives such a funny and humane performance, but also because the sight of him slathered in war paint is so incongruous; the juxtaposition that Hoffman creates in every single frame underscores the film’s mischievous intentions. And even if Jack is ultimately somewhat of a cipher—the blank screen onto which the film’s political agenda is projected—other major characters are presented so clearly and cleverly that a full emotional experience emerges.
Several Native American actors lend authenticity to featured roles, with Robert Little Star adding absurd humor as a flamingly gay Indian, and Ruben Moreno lending intensity as Crabb’s main rival in the Cheyenne community. Chief Dan George’s deadpan line deliveries are perfect for the vivid character of Old Lodge Skins, a man utterly at peace with his understanding of the universe (“I’ve never been invisible before!”); George was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Faye Dunaway, at her most beautiful, gives a nuanced performance by playing a woman in her prime and, later in the story, gone to seed; she appears as the wife of a religious nut who takes in an adolescent Crabb after he’s separated from the Cheyenne. Jeff Corey is sly as a twitchy but endearing Wild Bill Hickock, and Martin Balsam lends campy amusement as Mr. Merriweather, Crabb’s unlucky mentor in the snake-oil business.
Best of all is Richard Mulligan as Custer—he plays the general as a megalomaniacal loon given to pronouncements like, “Are you suggesting the reversal of a Custer decision?” Since Mulligan has to, in essence, personify the theme of white hubris, it’s impressive that he delivers such an individualistic performance while playing a symbol. (At the time of the picture’s release, Little Big Man was seen as a veiled indictment of America’s involvement in Vietnam; the film’s thematic content is a bit more malleable when viewed with modern eyes.) Plus, even though Crabb is an intentionally chameleonic character, Hoffman is terrific in a wild range of settings. He’s sweet as a young man trying to find his way in a new world, ridiculous as a duded-up gunfighter called “The Soda Pop Kid,” and finally resolute once tragedy drives him to ensure that Custer meets an unhappy end.
Little Big Man moves at an impressive pace throughout its 139 minutes, and it pulls off that special New Hollywood trick of blending wild tonal extremes into a weirdly coherent whole. Alternately harrowing and hilarious, it’s as unique as its protagonist.
Little Big Man: RIGHT ON