Paramount // 1970 // 139 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // November 9th, 2011
Little Big Man was either the most neglected hero in history, or a liar of insane proportions!
"Whatever else you can say about them, it must be admitted, you can't get rid of them. There is an endless supply of white men, but there has always been a limited supply of Human Beings." -- Chief Old Lodge Skins summary of the Cheyenne war against the whites.
An unnamed historian (William Hickey, My Blue Heaven) records an interview with the 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman, Lenny), who claims to be the only white survivor of the battle of the Little Big Horn. Jack relates his fabulous and possibly embroidered tale of triumphs and setbacks in the Old West, culminating in his small but decisive role in Custer's Last Stand.
In an ironic tribute to conventional Hollywood westerns, Jack Crabb's narrative begins with the iconic image of burning covered wagons and slaughtered Caucasians sprawled amongst and upon their scattered belongings. The ten-year-old Jack and his sister Caroline miraculously elude their attackers. After the departure of the Pawnee marauders, a lone Cheyenne finds the hidden boy and girl and escorts them to a nearby encampment. Caroline, at first fearful of being raped, later feels scorned when she is ignored by her captors. She slips away during the night, leaving her brother to fend for himself. Thus begin Jack's adventures as he is raised by an Indian tribe of the Great Plains who call themselves the Human Beings, and finds his greatest tutor to be the Cheyenne Chief, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George, The Outlaw Josey Wales). As Jack says, "For a boy, it was a kind of paradise. I wasn't just playing Indian; I was living Indian."
Jack, renamed Little Big Man by the Cheyenne, might have remained with the tribe forever, but for a disastrous fight against a U.S. cavalry detachment. During the rout, Jack is knocked off his pony and almost killed. He convinces the soldier that he is a white man, and is forthwith delivered to the Reverend Pendrake and his coyly lascivious wife (Faye Dunaway, Network) for moral instruction and a civilizing influence.
The movie proceeds in an episodic manner as Jack Crabb later finds employment with a snake oil salesman, reunites with his sister, meets Wild Bill Hickok, rejoins the Cheyenne, witnesses the massacre of Indian women and children at the Battle of Washita River, becomes a drunk, lives alone in the wilderness, and finally ends up as a scout for General Armstrong Custer.
Little Big Man is an almost perfect Western, but it breaches the wall of the genre -- the tropes of rugged individualism, vengeance, vigilantism, and frontier justice -- to become something grander than the usual cinematic take on the Old West. The film encapsulates the American experience in all its sordid and tarnished glory -- the lie of Manifest Destiny; the tradeoff of a hard but free life for the bloodless comforts of civilization; the contrary nature of humans (both European colonizers and Native Americans) in a wild, unspoiled country that seems boundless in its geography and possibilities.
Little Big Man does not fall into the trap of portraying Indians as romanticized Noble Savages, although Thomas Berger's novel is more hard-nosed than the movie in its presentation of Indian culture and mores. In the book, for instance, it is the Cheyenne -- not the Pawnee -- who, in a fit of drunken revelry, murder young Jack Crabb's family and traveling companions. Nor does the movie depict anything like the ghastly scene of Cheyennes rounding up a gigantic herd of antelopes and slaughtering them with hatchets, stones, and bare hands (by twisting the horns until the antelope's neck breaks). However, director Arthur Penn and screenwriter Calder Willingham stated they were aiming for a picaresque rather than a tragic story. As much as I admire the novel, the film works superbly on its own terms thanks to Penn's cinematic interpretation. Ultimately, much of the spirit of Berger's vision is manifest in the film, and though the mood is lighter there is enough realism to counterbalance the comedic moments.
I've touched on only a few of the events and ideas in this long and multifaceted film because an exhaustive list of Jack Crabb's wanderings and travails would spoil the story arc for the first-time viewer. It's a wonderful cinematic journey that amuses, saddens, and angers in almost equal measure -- a tough formula to mix properly, but the actors, sets, and story flow together in a seemingly effortless brew. My one disappointment with the Blu-ray is in the extras department.
As with the earlier DVD release, the only extra is a trailer. It's a shame that no interviews or commentaries are included. The one silver lining to the lack of extras is that nearly all of the 25GB disc is devoted to the film and soundtrack -- and the transfer does not disappoint. It's the best picture I've seen since the 1970 theatrical showing, easily outstripping the 2003 DVD in both color and detail. Rich earth tones abound in the sweeping vistas of prairie grass, autumnal foliage, and rolling hills; interior sets of barroom, brothel, house, or general store -- and all the historical props therein -- display amazing detail. The fine 1080p MPEG-4 AVC Video reveals the painstaking work that must have gone into creating the authentic period sets. One short scene, in the snowy Washita camp with Old Lodge Skins leaning against his teepee, contains a vertical scratch and looks overly soft, as though it was inserted from a later generation print. Otherwise, aside from a few minor specks, the transfer is gorgeous, with good flesh tones and no color over-saturation or obvious digital artifacts.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio does not provide much in the way of surround, but the dialogue is solidly anchored in the center and easily understood. Gunshots, the rattle of wagon wheels, and the beat of horse hooves are well reproduced for a forty-one-year-old soundtrack. John Hammond's score -- composed of bluesy, old-time harmonica, slide guitar, and high keening, wordless vocals -- sounds as sweet and clear as wind rustling through the cottonwoods, just the right tone for Little Big Man's exploits.
Despite its lack of extras, Little Big Man (Blu-ray) is a major visual upgrade over the DVD, and we probably won't see a better version of this classic come down the pike for some time. Because it's worthy of multiple viewings, a purchase would be preferable to a rental.
In light of all he experienced, Jack Crabb's parting words are a heartbreaking elegy and lament for a long-gone America: "Well, that's the story of this old Indian fighter. That's the story of the Human Beings, who was promised land where they could live in peace. Land that would be theirs as long as grass grow, wind blow, and the sky is blue."
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 139 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13