Our review of Little Big Man (Blu-ray), published November 9th, 2011, is also available.
"I knowed General George Armstrong Custer for what he was. And I also knowed the Indians…for what they was."—Jack Crabb
121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), the last white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, relates his story to an at first skeptical, then rapt, reporter. Crabb spins himself as a jack-of-all-trades, born white, raised by the Cheyenne, recaptured by whites and accosted by the horny wife (Faye Dunaway) of the puritanical Reverend Pendrake, apprenticed to a snake oil huckster (Martin Balsam), then trained to be a gunfighter by his butch sister and legend Wild Bill Hickock. Falling into despair as a drunk and then a hermit trapper, he eventually rubs elbows with General Custer (Richard Mulligan) and finds himself at Little Big Horn, caught in a fight between the two races of people from whom he came. Crabb's story is equal parts revisionist history, tall tale, and comedy of errors, lent authenticity by his lack of self-aggrandizement. He's a little man swept up in the tide of big events.
When director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) tried his hand at a Western, the results were much like his forays into other genre pictures. He brought a unique perspective to a well-worn mode of storytelling, injecting it with new life in the process. Little Big Man works as comedy, social commentary, and a deconstruction of Indian-fighting Westerns of the 1950s and earlier. Admittedly, some of its impact has weakened over time. Most of the comedy remains funny, though the occasional gag feels as dated as shtick from Laugh-In. The recurring appearance of the Paul Lynde-style gay Cheyenne brave, for example, tends to grate now that we're out of the we-all-know-he's-gay-but-we-won't-acknowledge-it-openly era of comedy. The comedy hits its stride in the fine details, particularly Hoffman's reactions to his ever-shifting circumstances and the grotesques with whom he must constantly interact, often with his life in the balance. Penn also manages to slip moments of real tragedy and heartache among the comedy with striking smoothness, never sacrificing pacing or tonal integrity.
Though set in the 19th century, Little Big Man is clearly a product of the Vietnam era, and this dates it to a certain extent, but not unbearably so: anti-war films are nearly as timeless as war itself. Its examination of war and the hapless individual's role in it is nowhere near as incisive as Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, released the same year, but this is hardly an insult considering the cultural impact of Altman's work. Perhaps Little Big Man's quality would be more obvious if it hadn't ended up the little man next to Altman's hilarious, fiercely inventive film, which drew a far more stark parallel between the presents of and in the film than Penn ever could have with his chosen subject.
When it was released, some audiences responded with disgust at what Penn had done to the Western. He was attacking Eisenhower's America by applying progressive sensibilities to the Western, a genre at its height during the staid and stifling 1950s. Today, Little Big Man seems tame, nothing that could cause offense. The intervening decades have shown us, through films like Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves, that the Western is connected so intimately with the American psyche it assimilates progress and shifting sensibilities with ease, and can be most engrossing during its moments of self-examination. Ironically, Little Big Man was one of the first films to reveal that deconstructive potential. Penn breathed new life into a genre he must certainly have imagined on its deathbed.
The film itself is richly composed at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which Paramount preserves in this DVD release. The anamorphically enhanced transfer looks a lot like film. Colors are fully saturated for the most part, blacks are solid, and there's a fine layer of grain throughout. Some shots of the open plain are faded, especially in blue skies, which can flicker in hue.
Audio has been remixed to 5.1 Surround. At its most aggressive, it sounds like 2.0 Surround. The rear soundstage gets play, but there are no directional pans. There's also no hiss or crackle, and nothing to complain about from a track from 1970.
There are no extras.
Thirty-three years later, Little Big Man is still a good time, even if parts feel dated. The cast alone is worth the price of admission, with heavyweights Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway turning in fine and funny performances. The film also boasts maybe the finest performance by the late Richard Mulligan, who plays Custer perfectly, as funny as he is scary.
I know Little Big Man for what it is: not guilty.
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