Acid Westerns: Little Big Man (1970)

Like "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," Arthur Penn's "Little Big Man" is almost never included in lists of Acid Westerns, and I can't fathom why. I don't think there is another Western that is so clearly a product of the 1960s.

After all, Penn was the director of "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Alice's Restaurant," the former hailed by Roger Ebert as one that was likely to be seen as "the definitive film of the 1960s," addressing itself both to the violence of the era and the failings of the counterculture, while the latter film is, quite literally, a hippie Thanksgiving movie.

"Little Big Man" stars Dustin Hoffman, then one of the new breed of movie stars that came to prominence in the 60s (he was pegged by TIME magazine as being an "anti-star"), who then had both "The Graduate" and "Midnight Cowboy" behind him, and both films were caustic, arty, serio-comic dramas about alienation in the 60s.

"Little Big Man" was scripted by Calder Willingham, who coscripted "The Graduate," and features a showy role from Bonnie herself, Faye Dunaway. Additionally, while the film is based on the novel of the same name by the blackly humorous author Thomas Berger, the resulting film takes the material in a very precise, very Psychedelic Era direction: As a critique of the war in Vietnam.

First thing first: Little Big Man has often been compared to Woody Allen's "Zelig," in that both tell of a man who always seems to be part of significant events of history, and always turns into whatever character is required by that era. (This comparison irritated Berger, who pointed out that "Little Big Man" predated "Zelig.") A more contemporary comparison might be "Forrest Gump," but neither are really a good comparison.

Yes, Hoffman's character does interact with some of the significant characters in the West, including the gunslinger Wild Bill Hickock (he's present for the man's death) and General George Armstrong Custer (Hoffman is the lone survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn.)

And, yes, at one time or another Hoffman's character does seem to become every one of the archetypal characters of the West, including gunslinger, snake oil salesman, muleskinner, mountain man, and, for much of the film, adopted Indian brave.

But Hoffman's character (named Jack Crabb when among the Whites and Little Big Man when among the Cheyenne) is a far more active character than either Zelig or Forrest Gump, neither of whom have much agency in their own stories. Crabb is frequently thrown into a situation, but, whatever it is, he aggressively decides to embrace it.

When his family is killed by Pawnee at the start of the film and he is rescued and adopted by Cheyenne, he commits to being as good a Cheyenne as possible. When he is later rediscovered by his sister and taught to shoot guns, he commits to being as good a gunfighter as he can. He does this throughout the film, playing a scrappy youth with a can-do attitude who, unfortunately, quickly becomes discouraged by everything he tries when they turn out to be corrupt or harmful enterprises.

He has a religious phase, as an example, but it's a disaster, with him moving into the house of an abusive man and his nymphomaniac wife, the latter played by Dunaway with far more spark than the role required. He is tarred and feathered for selling snake oil, and the man he works with (played with comical insouciance by Martin Balsam) keeps losing parts of himself to the undertaking, an eye here, a hand there.

The scenes in the White world are presented as blackly satiric. The Indian world is generally treated better, although the film treats the Pawnee with the same sort of contempt Western movies always treat Indians. Still, the Cheyenne are represented in a way markedly different from other films, as having a real culture, with its own fine qualities as well as eccentricities and foibles.

The film briefly represents the Great Plains tribal tradition of the contrary, a tribal member who has decided to do everything opposite of what is expected, as well as a character who is what is now called "two-spirit," played by Robert Little Star as somewhat stereotypically gay (and acting transgender) in this film. I don't think either had ever been represented on film before, and the latter character, in particular, is treated with unusual affection by the other characters.

More importantly, the film's Natives do not exist simply to forward the plot, but as their own characters. This is consistent with the film as a whole, where, when Crabb returns from one of his various adventures, he meets people from earlier in the story to discover that they have had adventures of their own, and have been changed by them.

This is how stories should be told, as, after all, minor and supporting characters shouldn't just go into suspended animation when they are not onscreen, but should be treated as though, if we chose to, we could have followed them and seen a movie about their experiences instead. But for Indian characters to be treated this way in a movie is vanishingly rare, and "Little Big Man" deserves credit for doing so.

That being said, I will express a discomfort here that I have had with other Westerns that have used the era to address the Vietnam War, in that I don't think the Native experience is a very good parallel to Vietnam, and, more than that, I don't think their experiences should be used as proxies for another story.

The parallels were probably unavoidable at the time the film was made — "Little Big Man" contains two attacks on Native encampments that mostly kill women and children, and it was going to be impossible to show that without calling to mind the My Lai massacre. (Indeed, in a film that mostly uses actual Native actors, one of the most significant Indian roles goes to an Asian actress, and her brutal murder during one of the attacks inevitably visually recalls Vietnam.) I also can't fault the film for taking satiric jabs at Custer, who, played here by the marvelous Richard Mulligan, is a blustering popinjay who quite literally loses his mind on the battlefield.

But the Indian Wars were a war of genocide, with the goal of clearing the indigenous population to make room for White settlers, while the Vietnam War was largely the United States pushing a pathologically anitcommunist agenda onto the world stage. They are different, and that difference affects the film.

Because "Little Big Man" is deliberately inviting a Vietnam comparison, the Calvary's repeated attacks on the Indian population are painted as incomprehensible, the product of a berserk and pathological ambition, with the White race presented as being a sort of death cult. But the US war against the Indians wasn't the product of madness; there were merciless, cold, selfish calculations behind it. There is a case to be made that a sort of madness infected America and led to the Vietnam war; no such case can be made with the attempted extinction of America's Indian population.

Fortunately, the film accidentally undermines its own Vietnam parallels by repeatedly placing Crabb among the Cheyenne, and especially in the company of his adoptive grandfather, Old Lodge Skins. The role had been offered, stupidly, to both Lawrence Olivier and Marlon Brando, but ended up going to an actual Tsleil-Waututh Indian, Chief Dan George.

George wound up being nominated for a well-deserved Oscar for his performance, and would continue to be a spirited, wryly hilarious presence in 1970s movies, including another scene-stealing role in Clint Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josie Wales." His role in "Little Big Man" is smartly written — Old Lodge Skins is an odd and decidedly squirrely character, which constantly short-circuits the film's occasional attempts to squeeze him into a wise old mystic role. George is a marvel in the role, often impish but occasionally heartbroken, and utterly convincing at playing both.

During these scenes, and they are many, the film isn't about Vietnam, and can't be. Like Crabb, the film finds itself distracted by and at home among the Cheyenne, and seems like, if it had a choice, it would spend all its time with them.

It can't, though, because the White people keep riding over the hills and dragging the story into their mad world.


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