Arthur Penn’s under-appreciated epic has everything a big-scale western could want — spectacle, interesting characters, good history and a sense of humor. Dustin Hoffman gets to play at least five characters in one as an ancient pioneer relating his career exploits — which are either outrageous tall tales or a concise history of the taking of The West.
Little Big Man
Region B Blu-ray
1970 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 139 147 min. / Available from Amazon.de / Street Date September 14, 2017 / Eur 17.99
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan, Jeff Corey, Aimée Eccles, Kelly Jean Peters, Carole Androsky, Ruben Moreno, William Hickey, Jesse Vint, Alan Oppenheimer, Thayer David.
Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr.
Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis
Art Direction: Angelo P. Graham
Special Makeup: Dick Smith
Special Effects: Logan Frazee
Film Editors: Dede Allen, Richard Marks
Original Music: John Hammond
Written by Calder Willingham from the novel by Thomas Berger
Produced by Stuart Millar
Directed by Arthur Penn
Arthur Penn’s film career was never a series of triumphs. An early western was dismissed when new as mannered and ineffectual. Much later, his marvelous The Miracle Worker earned a much-deserved positive reception, but it was followed by Mickey One, an artsy experiment that didn’t return its investment, and The Chase, an ambitious but highly visible flop. Then Bonnie and Clyde became the movie sensation of the decade, making instant legends of its stars and Penn as well. It was suddenly the new era of ‘the auteur.’ We all went to see Penn’s next movie Alice’s Restaurant ready to see the work of an artist. If we didn’t understand Penn’s artsy final shot, it was obviously our problem.
The director’s next big move was an enormous epic western, beautifully produced and directed. Rather underappreciated when new, Little Big Man sits outside and a little to the left of genre traditions. A folksy, ironic fable that takes one fictitious man’s memoirs and pretends that he experienced five or six lifetimes’ worth of pioneer adventures, it aims to disabuse us of our illusions about the mythic West while revisiting some of our favorite old-time thrills. It could be titled “How the West Was Stolen.” Jack Crabb is one of Dustin Hoffman’s best characters, and Little Big Man is one of Arthur Penn’s most entertaining movies.
The narrative uses the voiceover of the ancient Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), spoken into the microphone of a researcher (William Hickey), to hop, skip and jump through several decades of U.S. History in the western territories. As a boy Jack survives a Pawnee massacre and is raised by the kindly Cheyenne chief Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George). ‘Rescued’ by the U.S. Army, he spends the next years shuttling back and forth between white settlements and the remnants of the Cheyenne nation. By turns, he’s seduced by a Reverend’s wife (Faye Dunaway), enlisted as a snake oil salesman by Mr. Merriweather (Martin Balsam), becomes a storekeeper with a Swedish bride (Kelly Jean Peters), an Indian once again with a Cheyenne wife (Aimée Eccles), a gunslinger pal to Wild Bill Hickock (Jeff Corey) and a muleskinner for the mad General Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan). Every time Crabb concludes that life is too crazy to bear, the accepting philosophy of Old Lodge Skins brings him back to his senses.
Westerns were beginning to fade in the early ’70s, although they’d straggle on for another decade before becoming literal box office poison. In 1969 there were two bellwether films. George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid charmed audiences with its radical chic reinterpretation of the outlaw life along the lines of Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou. Then Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch all but announced that the classic Western was over, like the closing of an era. Violence and politics had overtaken the genre for good. Little Big Man is, strictly speaking, a revisionist comedy with ambitions – it may be in the form of a spoof, but it’s still more realistic than the movie heritage it demolishes.
Hollywood movies have been championing the cause of the Indian (Native American) since the silent days, without disguising the theme of ‘injustice to the red man’: Broken Arrow, Devil’s Doorway and some of the later films of John Ford come to mind. The Searchers (1956) and other Ford westerns gave us glimpses of Indian life, with various degrees of condescension. Anyone who had actually watched The Searchers with their eyes open could see that even John Ford had already touched on the notion of a cavalry massacre — he shows Indian braves running with children in their arms, and women being mercilessly ridden down.
But few films attempted to portray anything from the point of view of the red man. A major exception is Samuel Fuller’s agreeably savage Run of the Arrow, from way back in 1957. Little Big Man ladles on the new liberal view that the conquest of The West as a genocide in slow motion. The sullied image of the American military in Vietnam had a precedent in the Indian Wars of the Great Plains, which amounted to a systematic dismantling of the Indian nations. Published almost simultaneously, Dee Brown’s influential book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee would re-define previous Indian battles as massacres.
Jack Crabb’s verbal ramble into the historian’s tape recorder enables Little Big Man to jump around in time, skipping years across a single cut and maintaining a jaunty pace. Crabb’s outrageous story all but dares us to disbelieve him. It’s a classic American tall tale, except that Crabb doesn’t make himself out as a hero. Crabb doesn’t seduce all the females or win most of his battles. He’s also a self-acknowledged coward. He’s a passive loser hero, whose only major achievement is to have survived against all odds. Jack Crabb’s oddball humility makes us want to believe him. Frankly, he’s a lot more likeable than Kevin Costner’s John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, a derivative PC- fest that wants us to believe that the Plains Indians were in possession of some kind of social Utopia. Raised half ‘Injun’ and half white, Jack Crabb simply tells things as they were: an absurd tragedy about the incompatibility of the two cultures.
Little Big Man had a problem in 1970, in that its ‘everything you know is wrong’ messages can’t have charmed the average western fan. There was also the negative example of the same year’s Soldier Blue, a crass exploitation film that concentrates on sexual atrocities. Little Big Man’s liberal armband made audiences nervous. The substantial humor in Calder Willingham’s clever script didn’t lower resistance to his messages. About the time that Richard Mulligan’s gloriously deranged Custer shows up, wave-the-flag types may have thought that Little Big Man was a Kremlin Production. The average filmgoer still believed that Custer was Errol Flynn, a dashing hero who really loved Indians and died a great hero at the Little Big Horn.
Audiences amenable to the historical truth of Little Big Man had a jolly good time with its farcical sense of humor. Faye Dunaway bathes Jack Crabb in one hilarious scene, and in another he is tarred and feathered with Martin Balsam’s snake oil salesman. When Jack Crabb becomes a ruthless gunman known as ‘The Soda Pop Kid,’ Dustin Hoffman is able to exercise all of his mannered ‘give the character a funny walk’ acting gimmicks. Unless there’s some clever doubling going on that we didn’t catch, New York actor Hoffman convincingly rides a horse and fights with a knife as well. Yet we also enjoy the dismantling of the western-macho ethic. Jack Crabb is not only no John Wayne, the women in his life are much tougher than he is. His sister turns into a rough ‘n’ ready blacksmith. His nervous, yowling Swedish wife becomes a domineering Indian squaw, terrorizing her henpecked Cheyenne husband.
Chief Dan George received a lot of attention for portraying the old chief not as an ‘ugg-ugg’ wooden Indian, but as a spirited old man with a lively sense of humor. His shift from “Today is a good day to die!” to “Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t!” is touching, as is Crabb’s insistence that the old man had certain magic powers of clairvoyance.
Probably Arthur Penn’s biggest achievement is his picture’s effortless changes of tone, time and again, without warning. The ‘told story’ flashback format and Hoffman’s entertaining raconteur voice allow the film to change gears effortlessly — from outrageous slapstick to cutesy sex and finally to murderous tragedy. We see the drunken Crabb wallowing in the mud as a white man. When he’s functioning as a Cheyenne householder, Penn manages a wonderful bawdy scene as Crabb crawls from bed to bed to satisfy the sisters of his Indian wife. The Indian massacre scene is pure military horror, with long lines of cavalry horses advancing through the snow, playing music as they march in to murder men, women and children. It’s Apocalypse Now but in the 1800s. Unlike the exploitative Soldier Blue, Penn’s compassionate camera makes us bear witness.
The film’s overall production is truly impressive. The show displays enough hardware and action for four Westerns, yet never tries to intimidate us with its scale. The sets needed must number in the hundreds, and they all look sensationally good. Stagecoaches crash, riders tumble, and armies collide on the Dakota highlands when Custer makes his Last Stand. The most impressive scene is the massacre of that Indian village, which was filmed in sub-zero temperatures in frozen Alberta. Note that the snow is clear and clean when the U.S. Cavalry approaches – some of the action was filmed in near-blizzard conditions. The notable Special Effects veteran Logan Frazee told me that it was the most difficult scene his crew ever worked — in addition to doing their difficult tasks his experts were in danger of losing their toes and fingers. That really was Aimée Eccles running in the sub-zero snow, wearing little more than a blanket.
Although not an all-star affair like the uneven How the West Was Won, Penn’s film makes excellent use of its cast. Faye Dunaway, Jeff Corey, Martin Balsam and Richard Mulligan have the showoff roles. Chief Dan George garnered the film’s only Oscar nod, a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Granted, it was the year of Patton, Five Easy Pieces and M*A*S*H, but the other nominees were Love Story and Airport. Perhaps the Academy resented the film’s sarcastic attitude.
Finally, the film was lauded for Dick Smith’s elaborate age makeup for Hoffman, which Savant never liked until now. I thought it came off as a rigid mask. Seen in HD, revealing the delicate colors in Hoffman’s 120-year-old skin, it looks good again.
Koch Media’s Region B import Blu-ray of Little Big Man is an excellent HD encoding that betters by far an okay DVD released in 2003. I remember the show looking great on the big screen, and this viewing recreated the feeling of the original experience — very little grain, sharp and sparkling bright. The disc has languages in both Deutsch and English on the soundtrack and subtitle choices.
At 139 minutes the show is a full reel shorter than its official length when brand-new. One reader informed me about a ‘missing’ scene in which the Cheyenne Indians prove their mettle by running from a sauna-like lodge and jumping into a freezing river. I don’t know if the discrepancy in the running time can be accounted for by a road show overture; I didn’t see it in a major city, and it didn’t have an intermission.
This is a two-disc set. The only extra on the feature disc is an audio commentary in German by Lars-Olav Beier, not subtitled in English. I’m not aware of an available Region A Blu-ray — although a Paramount disc from 2011 appears on Amazon, it appears to be OOP, and carried no extras.
The rest of the extras are included on a second Blu-ray. A few months ago I saw my first interview with Arthur Penn, and here we get almost two full hours of the director on camera, explaining his craft. A 77-minute career overview called A Love Affair with Film sees Penn going through his entire filmography, backed by film clips from everything he’s done, even his short subject for The Olympics. The surprise for me was hearing Penn explain how that final long trucking zoom shot at the end of Alice’s Restaurant was filmed. Remember the moving trees in the foreground? The trees are wild props being rolled around on wheels!
Arthur Penn: The Director is specifically about Little Big Man, and gives us plenty of Behind-the Scenes footage from the movie, including the big battle scenes. The Many Faces of Dustin Hoffman is a shorter film with the actor talking about his newfound fame, while we see him being made up in Dick Smith’s complicated full-head + hands latex appliances. Hoffman then squats in a room and screams for several minutes, to wreck his vocal chords so that the voice of the 120-year-old Jack Crabb will register an appropriate creaky timbre.
An original trailer pushes the sex and comedy and is packed with fancy opticals. An art and photo gallery is included as well. Explosive Media also tags on a three-part German language Super 8mm digest version of the show, which is of course flat, fuzzy and looks pretty awful. 8mm digest versions are almost a standard extra on many German discs — I wonder why?
Remember, an All-Region player is required to watch this disc in the U.S..
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Little Big Man
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Trailer; audio commentary with Lars-Olav Beier; three documentaries (see above), art gallery, German Super-8 version in three parts.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only, but the docus are all in English language)
Packaging: Two Blu-ray discs in keep case
Reviewed: November 27, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson