Sunday, July 20, 2014

Little Big Man

Based on the comic novel by Thomas Berger, Little Big Man is the story of a white man who was raised by the Cheyenne Indian nation since he was a child in the 19th Century as he deals with prejudices that Native Americans face during the Indian Wars in America. Directed by Arthur Penn and screenplay by Calder Willingham, the film is a revisionist western that mixes satire with elements of tragedy where a man deals with his identity as well as a world that doesn‘t make any sense. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan, and Cal Bellini. Little Big Man is a whimsical yet engaging film from Arthur Penn.

The film is told from the perspective of a 121-year old man who recalls his life when he was raised by the Cheyenne Indians following the death of his parents in an ambush where he would eventually take on various roles in the course of life which would culminate in Battle of Little Big Horn. Yet, that 121-year old man would endure many prejudices and injustice in the course of his life as he is known as Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) yet his Cheyenne name is Little Big Man as he is known for being small but with a big heart as he is raised by the wise yet eccentric Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George). Throughout the course of his life, he encounters a horny preacher’s wife in Mrs. Pendrake (Faye Dunaway), a swindling salesman named Meriweather (Martin Balsam), Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey), and all sorts of individuals including General George Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan).

The film’s screenplay begins and ends with the elderly Crabb who tells his story to an interviewer (William Hickey) who starts doubting Crabb’s story until Crabb talks about everything he’s experienced. Though he would be raised by Old Lodge Skins and treated fairly by the tribe with the exception of a young Cheyenne in Young Bear (Cal Bellini) who would later owe a life debt to Crabb who saved his life. During a battle with the cavalry, Crabb would get wounded and later be sent to the world of the white where he would endure many adventures. One of which include marry a Swedish immigrant (Kelly Jean Peters) and later a Cheyenne woman named Sunshine (Aimee Eccles) along with her sisters. Still, he would also endure the atrocities that Armstrong and the cavalry would do where he would wait for some vengeance. At the same time, he also deals with the complications over the state of the world and questions into why Native Americans are being killed because they refuse to conform with the rest of society.

Arthur Penn’s direction is quite vast in terms of what he wanted to say about the American cavalry’s war with the Native Americans during the late 19th Century as it relates to some of the things that were happening in the Vietnam War. Much of it is played with humor and some dark humor as it is told from the perspective of a man stumbling around his surroundings as he would try to be religious, a gunslinger, aiding a crooked salesman, run a shop that goes wrong, and all of the things that white people do which makes him unhappy and desperate. Penn’s direction would include a lot of wide shots of the landscapes as much of it was shot in Montana along with some scenes in Alberta, Canada to play into that feel of the American West. It’s a world that is quite free whenever Crabb is with the Cheyenne though there’s moments that are quite absurd that includes the portrayal of General Custer. Custer is shown as an egotistical and offbeat lunatic who is so full of himself as he would be a sense of bafflement to everyone including his own soldiers.

The film would have some violent moments where Crabb watches the slaughters of women and children in the film as it would lead him to see Custer’s death happen. It’s aftermath would force Crabb to see that it would be a hollow victory as it would unveil a much bleaker future as the old Crabb would endure that sense of loss. Overall, Penn crafts a very sensational and provocative film about a man trying to find his identity as he endures prejudice and the horrors of humanity.

Cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. does excellent work with the film’s cinematography from the colorful yet vibrant daytime exteriors of the desert and plain locations to the use of lighting for some of the interior scenes as well as some shots set at night. Editor Dede Allen does brilliant work with the editing with its use of jump-cuts and other rhythmic cuts to play into the film‘s humor and drama. Production designer Dean Tavoularis, with set decorator George R. Nelson and art director Angelo P. Graham, does amazing work with the design of the soda pop shop that Crabb and Mrs. Pendrake go to as well as the teepees that the Cheyenne tribe stays in.

Costume designer Dorothy Heakins does fantastic work with the design of the lavish dresses that Mrs. Pendrake wears as well as the gunslinger suit that Crabb would wear for a brief moment. Makeup designer Dick Smith does superb work with the makeup design to showcase Crabbe as an old man who would tell his story. The sound work of Bud Alper and Al Overton Jr. do terrific work with the sound to play into the sound of gunfire as well as some of the moments that goes on in the battle scenes. The film’s music by John Hammond is wonderful for its mixture of folk and blues to play into the film’s quirky humor as well as some of the darker moments such as the cavalry cadence numbers.

The casting by Gene Lasko is phenomenal as it features some notable small performances from William Hickey as the skeptical interviewer, Thayer David as the very cruel Reverend Pendrake, Ruben Moreno as the Cheyenne warrior Shadow That Comes in Sight who would take Crabb to the Cheyenne tribe, Robert Little Star as the flamboyant Little Horse, Carl Bellini as the very eccentric yet unfriendly warrior Young Shadow, Carole Androsky as Crabb’s older sister Caroline who had become a bandit, Alan Howard and Ray Dimas as the younger versions of Crabb, Kelly Jean Peters as Crabb’s Swedish wife Olga, and Aimee Eccles as the Cheyenne woman that Crabb saves and later marries in Sunshine. Jeff Corey is terrific as Wild Bill Hickok who learns about Crabb’s reputation as a gunslinger only to reveal to him what it takes to be a true gunslinger. Martin Balsam is excellent as the oily salesman Meriweather who uses his disability to swindle people and such as he would play into Crabb’s encounter with the world at its worst.

Richard Mulligan is brilliant as General George Armstrong Custer as this very off-the-wall individual who thinks so highly of himself to the point that he is this moron that is unaware of what is going to happen to him. Faye Dunaway is fantastic as Mrs. Pendrake as this wife of a preacher who falls for Crabb as she shows him the ways of temptation while later appearing as a woman trying to find herself. Chief Dan George is great as Old Lodge Skins as this Cheyenne chief that had seen it all as he would guide Crabb into the ways of life as well as the troubles of the ways of the white man. Finally, there’s Dustin Hoffman in a remarkable performance as the titular character/Jack Crabb as this white man who is raised by the Cheyenne as he tries to deal with his identity as well as the ways of the world as it’s a performance that has Hoffman be funny but also full of humility and bewilderment as a man that deals with the horrors of humanity.

Little Big Man is a marvelous film from Arthur Penn that features a riveting performance from Dustin Hoffman. It’s a film that showcases the world of the American West and some of the atrocities that happened to Native Americans where it’s told with some satirical humor and some dark moments. Overall, Little Big Man is a phenomenal film from Arthur Penn.

Arthur Penn Films: (The Left-Handed Gun) - (The Miracle Worker) - (Mickey One) - (The Chase (1966 film)) - (Bonnie & Clyde) - (Flesh and Blood (1968 film)) - (Alice’s Restaurant) - (Visions of Eight) - (Night Moves (1975 film)) - The Missouri Breaks - (Four Friends) - (Target (1985 film)) - (Dead of Winter) - (Penn & Teller Get Killed) - (The Portrait) - (Inside (1996 film))

© thevoid99 2014


ruth said...

I haven't heard of this before but boy, the cast is pretty darn good. Come to think of it, I don't think I've seen anything by Arthur Penn, either.

thevoid99 said...

The only other film of his that I've seen is Bonnie & Clyde which is a classic. This is just as good as someone I knew told me to see this. Now, I finally did...

Unknown said...

Great film! I saw this after DANCES WITH WOLVES came out and it blew my mind and made me look at Costner's film in a new light when I realized just how MUCH he ripped off this film only a watered down version there of.

thevoid99 said...

@J.D.Lafrance-Yeah, I never really liked Dances with Wolves because I thought it was too dramatic and at times, took itself way too seriously. This film however, is way better because it made the Native Americans more engaging and it was also quite funny.

Chris said...

I liked it, didn't love it. Agree gave a voice to the Indians, and is a more human and nuanced depiction of Native Americans, than other (older) westerns I’ve seen.
To me, the tone of the story is larger than life, in a Forrest Gump kind of way. Different to most westerns, but as a whole original and entertaining. Glad you enjoyed the film!

thevoid99 said...

@Chris-It is meant to be something is off the wall and doesn't play with convention as I found the portrayal of General Custer to be very hilarious. Especially for the fact that the guy in real life was a fucking prick.