The National Film Registry: Little Big Man (1970)

I was recently extremely honored to be contacted by an employee of the Library of Congress who told me that my 2010 essay on Arthur Penn’s controversial film LITTLE BIG MAN (1970) had been selected by the National Film Preservation Board to be included on the National Film Registry website as part of their ongoing work to “ensure the survival, conservation and increased public availability of America’s film heritage.” LITTLE BIG MAN was one of 25 films that the National Film Registry preserved in 2014 and it’s a film that’s near and dear to my heart. Not only is it my favorite Arthur Penn film but as the step-grandchild of a Native American grandfather who treated me as if I was his own flesh & blood and played an important part in making me the woman I am today, I have a very personal connection to LITTLE BIG MAN.

My essay (which I originally wrote for Turner Classic Movies) is highly critical of the U.S. Government’s treatment of Native Americans as well as the Vietnam War so I’m rather surprised that it was selected as a text that’s now officially associated with the film. And as a history buff who spends much of her time watching PBS specials & reading non-fiction books about America’s past I honestly can’t think of a higher honor than to have something I wrote affiliated with the Library of Congress and the important work done by the National Film Preservation Board.

So without further ado, I’ve decided to re-post my essay below and you can find my original text on the TCM website.

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LITTLE BIG MAN’S BIG IMPACT by Kimberly Lindbergs

Few film genres have captured the imagination of movie audiences with the same kind of power and persuasiveness as the American western. For decades Hollywood mixed facts with fiction and created a kind of celluloid mythology that made heroes out of cowboys, would-be settlers and the U.S. Cavalry. Unfortunately this myth-making led to the vilifying of Native Americans who experienced incomprehensible suffering and losses that went undocumented in our history books and were unseen in our movies. Occasionally Hollywood would offer up subtle suggestions of the injustices and racism that Native Americans experienced but the limited scope of these films often marred our general understanding of the people who once populated this beautiful country. In 1970 that all changed.

The decade began with an important event in Native American history. On November 20, 1969, 79 American Indians began a 19-month long occupation of the abandoned prison on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The occupiers demanded the return of Alcatraz Island and expressed their desire to have an Indian cultural center and university built there. The U.S. Government ignored their demands and on June 11, 1971 the occupation of Alcatraz came to an end but the event brought world-wide attention to the plight of American Indians and helped strengthen the resolve of AIM (American Indian Movement).

During the occupation of Alcatraz, Dee Brown published his unprecedented Indian history of the American west, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. This best-selling book detailed the genocide of the American Indians and changed the way Americans perceived their country’s complicated past. At the same time a new type of western was taking shape in Hollywood that challenged the way American Indians had been depicted in previous films. These revisionist westerns included A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970), SOLIDER BLUE (1970) and Arthur Penn’s LITTLE BIG MAN (1970).

LITTLE BIG MAN, which was based on Thomas Berger’s novel of the same name, chronicled the long and troubled history of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), a 121-year-old man whose family was killed by the Pawnee Indians when he was only 10. He’s saved by the Cheyenne Indians (longtime enemy of the Pawnee) who raise him as one of their own tribe members. Jack comes to love and respect the Indians who refer to themselves as “human beings.” Throughout the film Jack Crabb is torn between two worlds. The world of the white men who are often depicted as religious hypocrites, murderous gunslingers, racist brutes and money hungry capitalists willing to do anything in order to make a buck. And the more earth conscious world of the Native Americans who are trying to survive while their own way of life, identity and human dignity is being stripped from them by the U.S. Government.

If my description of the film seems heavy-handed it’s because LITTLE BIG MAN is often a very heavy-handed film. Arthur Penn wasn’t merely interested in making a movie that challenged the way Hollywood had mythologized the history of the American west. The director was also responding to the war in Vietnam that had led to well-publicized atrocities such as the My Lai Massacre that took place in 1968. Penn had never shied away from showing violence in his films before but the relentless brutality depicted in LITTLE BIG MAN bothered some of the nation’s leading film critics. The movie detailed an ugly and little seen side of war that often led to the killing of innocent civilians including unarmed mothers and their children but it didn’t stop there. Indians were shown viciously killing one another while children coldly murdered adults and animals were brutally slaughtered by the Indians for food as well as by fur trappers for mere profit. Death was usually depicted as violent, sudden and bloody in LITTLE BIG MAN, which led critics like Vincent Canby of the New York Times to say that the film “wears its social concerns so blatantly that they look like war paint.” And the respected critic Pauline Kael, who had championed Penn’s previous film BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), thought that LITTLE BIG MAN was “just crude, ideological filmmaking.”

Thankfully the movie did have its defenders and audiences flocked to it. The American public was eager to experience an anti-establishment western that questioned everything that had come before it, even if Penn’s sledgehammer approach to his subject was often seen as crude and self-conscious. The criticisms of LITTLE BIG MAN seem rather ridiculous now when you consider the decades of misrepresentation that Native Americans had to suffer through. Arthur Penn knew that he needed to hammer home his point in order to breakdown the seemingly impenetrable wall of ignorance that had been built around the history of the American west. But the film softened its bold attack on Hollywood myth-making with humor and human pathos.

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Penn shot LITTLE BIG MAN on location with help from cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. and their use of actual historic sites, including Little Bighorn as well as Indian Reservations in Montana, gave the film a realistic edge that was rarely seen in previous depictions of the west. Penn clearly enjoyed playing with the public’s perception of historical events in films like THE LEFT HANDED GUN (1958) which focused on the outlaw Billy the Kid as well as his critically acclaimed hit BONNIE AND CLYDE but LITTLE BIG MAN was a more urgent and angry movie. It illustrated an epic tragedy of immeasurable proportions but still managed to be one of the director’s most entertaining and personal films.

The film also provided its star with one of his most challenging roles. Dustin Hoffman had become a popular counter-culture figure thanks to parts in memorable movies such as THE GRADUATE (1967) and MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969). His impressive acting skills, short stature, self-depreciating humor and universal appeal had made him a world-wide star who didn’t fit neatly into Hollywood’s idea of a typical leading man. The role of “Little Big Man” seemed tailor-made for Hoffman and he is unforgettable as Jack Crabb. Unlike many films that turned their leading men into heroic outsiders who lead the Native Americans out of danger, Hoffman’s character is a fumbling, weak-willed anti-hero who rarely succeeds at anything that he attempts to accomplish. The 33-year-old actor had to age 88 years in the movie which was achieved by using the services of skilled makeup artist Dick Smith. Hoffman also spent an hour screaming at the top of his lungs before shooting so his voice would sound as ragged as he looked. As good as Hoffman is in LITTLE BIG MAN, his extraordinary performance in the film is occasionally eclipsed by his costars.

Faye Dunaway is well cast as a reverend’s wife who turns to prostitution after her husband dies and Martin Balsam does a terrific job of playing a resilient con man. I also appreciate Jeff Corey’s portrayal of Wild Bill Hickok and Kelly Jean Peters is very good as Hoffman’s Swedish wife. One of the film’s most memorable performances is delivered by Richard Mulligan who plays General George Armstrong Custer. Mulligan was a brilliant comic actor who depicted General Custer as an egocentric madman hell-bent on the destruction of Native Americans. In previous films Custer was typically presented as an untarnished hero but Mulligan’s crazed performance gave the public a very different version of Custer to consider.

What really set the film apart from so many previous westerns was its depiction of Native Americans. The Cheyenne are not merely noble savages or bloodthirsty Braves in LITTLE BIG MAN. The tribe that raises Dustin Hoffman’s character is made up of gay Indians (Robert Little Star), angry lunatics (Cal Bellini) and sexually motivated squaws (Aimée Eccles, Emily Cho, Linda Dyer, etc.). These would have been fringe characters in any Hollywood film made in 1970 but their appearance in a western was truly groundbreaking. Penn’s film humanized Indians in a way that few Hollywood films had dared to in the past and they suddenly seemed as complex and divided as their white brothers and sisters. They were our neighbors, our friends and family members.

If a film can have a soul, that part was played by Chief Dan George who portrayed Dustin Hoffamn’s adopted grandfather Old Lodge Skins. Originally actors as diverse as Marlon Brando and Lawrence Olivier had been considered for the role but thankfully they turned it down. Hollywood had rarely employed actual Indians in the past but Chief Dan George was the real Chief of the Burrard Band of North Vancouver in British Columbia. He brought his personal experience to the role and gave a voice to Native Americans everywhere. His sensitive and humorous portrayal of Old Lodge Skins won the hearts and minds of movie-goers around the world and he was nominated for many awards including an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Today LITTLE BIG MAN is often dismissed as a dated relic and when the movie is written about or mentioned it can’t seem to escape the shadow of the Vietnam war but Arthur Penn’s film is much more than just an angry anti-war tirade. It universally changed the way that audiences viewed Native Americans and it helped to broaden our understanding and interpretation of American history. Few films can make such lofty claims but I don’t think the importance of LITTLE BIG MAN should be underestimated. Sometimes a rare film comes along that actually changes the world and makes it a more interesting place to live in. Arthur Penn’s LITTLE BIG MAN is one of those films.