All month long TCM will be running a series of films under the banner Race & Hollywood: Native American Images On Film. It’s a broad and complex topic so I decided to write about a broad and complex film, Arthur Penn’s extraordinary Little Big Man (1970). While watching it again recently after a 20 year hiatus I was taken aback by how much the movie had influenced other films like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) and Robert Zemeckis’s less interesting Forest Gump (1994). I also got the urge to hunt down a copy of John Hammond’s wonderful soundtrack for Little Big Man since Hammond’s score got lodged in my head while I was watching the movie. I didn’t mention this in my review, but I think Little Big Man is probably my favorite Arthur Penn film. It’s a sentimental movie that I first saw in a drive-in with my parents when I was just a kid. Obviously this colored my view of the film along with other personal experiences.
Long before I was born my own grandfather and grandmother were divorced. My grandmother remarried a wonderful man by the name of Willie who happened to be a Native American. Although Willie was only my mother’s step-father he never let me know it. For years I assumed Willie was my real grandfather and he treated me with the kind of love and tenderness that you’d expect from a member of your own family.
Willie lived in a trailer right outside Nevada where he had created a makeshift farm and he surrounded himself with chickens, goats and an occasional cow or two. He also had vast gardens where he planted corn, squash and other delicious vegetables. In the summertime my mother would often leave my brother and myself with Willie and we’d spend the warm summer months sleeping in his crowded trailer home, feeding the chickens, milking the goats and cows, and picking vegetables. He was a quiet and reserved man who liked watching The Lawrence Welk Show and he smelled like gasoline. When he wasn’t at home he was working at a gas station and his hands were stained from oil. I grew up loving the smell of gasoline and the sweet taste of goat’s milk thanks to my grandfather.
As laid-back as my grandfather was, he wasn’t afraid to be aggressive if the need arose and he didn’t suffer fools lightly. I may even owe him my life. One hot summer day I was on my way to feed the chickens when I heard the sound of a rattlesnake close by. I froze in fear and was afraid to shout for help as I watched the rattler make its way towards me. Suddenly my grandfather seemed to appear out of nowhere with a shovel in his hand and in a blink of an eye he threw it right at the snake and took off its head. I’ll never forget that moment and I’ll never forget Willie.