"A society would be wise to pay attention to the people who do not belong if it wants to find out ... where it's failing." Arthur Penn
Little Big Man purports to be a Tall Tale, a humdinger. It even states on the back of the DVD cover that everything its main wandrin' hero in his own story- Jack "Little Big Man" Crabb- could be an elaborate hoax or fiction. Maybe it is myth. That's what's so brilliant in Arthur Penn's film is taking on mythology and storytelling, what happens to the rituals of time and the legends of old and how they're viewed in the scope of history. Wild Bill Hicock. General Custer. The Cheyenne. This character is sometimes a fly on the wall, and other times an active participant, or both, or just passing through. But whatever it is, Crabb is Penn's figure of history who in his own way has enough truth in his "lies" to counterbalance the lies of history, or the facade of it.
It's one of the first great examples of the de-mythologizing canon of Western films, most notably to follow in the 1970s' with Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Buffalo Bill & the Indians. It doesn't totally denounce the West as horrible, but it does show that it wasn't so pretty and serene and wonderful as American books and movies and history paint it to be. To be sure by now some of this isn't news. Yes, the "White Man" killed many, many, many Indians, making many tribes and nations either extinct or endangered species. And yes, some of the characters on both sides were not as pretty or good or clean as they could be. As a Tall Tale, however, some things do have to be embellished upon, and it's through instinctive and creative humor and on the flipside stone-faced tragedy that Penn is able to carve a new page in history with his elaborate, epic fiction.
It also helps that Dustin Hoffman, who puts in a performance that ended up on the Guinness Book of World Records for Greatest Age Span for a Movie Actor, is so perfect for a role like this and pulls it off so smashingly. He tells the story, with a face not unlike Saito in his limbo state in Inception (albeit not too much filled with regret, maybe), with a clear vision of the past. He was taken by a tribe of Indians, the Cheyenne, and raised up in their ways after his sister deserts him. He is dubbed the name of the title due to being so short, but "filled with heart". But then after another attack on the Indian tribe as a teenager he's brought into the realm of the "White Man" (or not "Human Beings" as the tribe calls its people) and brought up in his "religious period" by a Mrs. Pendrake (hilariously rigid Christian-type played by Faye Dunaway). Then he leaves from there, meets up with a bootleger and swindler. He moves on from that to his own business and wife. Then she's kidnapped buy the Indians. Then he goes back to the tribe. Then he goes back to he white people. And so on, and so it goes.
Perhaps its not befitting of the nature of the narrative to go on about the plot specifics. It's akin to a Big Fish or even Forrest Gump story where it takes so many turns into unexpected and riotously funny short-cuts, and always one knows the main character will be fine except to the extent he can get out of situations buy the skin of his teeth. Crabb is not real 'hero', but he's not an anti-hero either. He's like a side character one scoffs away at- or, depending on point of view, pays a little more attention- in a John Wayne movie. And incidentally the big White Hero of the story- General Custer- is one of the biggest bastards in all of history, what George Carlin would dub a "blonde blue-eyed criminal fuck". He's amusingly, though dangerously, adept at getting his way, not reversing a "Custer Order" unless under extreme circumstances, and listens to the advice he wants to hear at a pivotal moment from Crabb.
|Mirror, mirror, in my hand, who has the curviest mustache in the land?|
Indeed on both sides there is complexity to the Western mythos. Not all of the white people are 'bad', and not all of the Indians are 'good'. Some go through their bizarre paths in life like the swindler Mr. Merriweather who is seen at one point tarred and feathered and later appears looking like a pirate. Others fall from grace like Mrs. Pendrake, but there's still a humanity there that is aching and true. And then there's Grandfather, the one Little Big Man looks up to the most, who is so in tune with nature he's able to see himself getting out of a murderous jam by being "invisible" (with a little help from his Son of course).
Penn shoots his film, from a script by The Graduate scribe Calder Willingham, with a clarity and entertaining swagger that is astounding. I was completely drawn into this film from start to finish, and its the kind of work that defines what's best about the director. There's the sympathetic but humorous treatment of its outsider protagonist who by luck catches breaks. There's the violence, shot with a directness that is shocking (some of the killing in this film, by the amount of it and how it comes about, is a logical progression from the end of Bonnie and Clyde). And classical storytelling is mixed-around wonderfully with a playful and serious attempt at breaking down the genre. In its own right, though not acknowledged as much, Little Big Man does as much to breathe new life and celebrate its Western roots the way Bonnie and Clyde did the gangster film. Only here, for my money, it stands up better over time, has dynamite acting all around, and assumes people can keep up with its episodic narrative.
And, again, Hoffman steals scenes practically without trying. Actually, that's not entirely fair. He works a helluva lot to make Jack Crabb/Little Big Man into a character who starts an innocent and becomes a man who must find redemption. His comic timing is precise and instantaneous when its called upon, and his serious, tragic reactions bring out some deeper emotions (watch when a character is killed, and how he, and Penn with an audio drop-off to momentary silence, make it a powerful sequence). Director and star combine with this film, which is delightfully full of its own central mythos and satirical about history and the how we look at our country in general (or maybe what Herzog might call 'ecstatic truth'). A knockout really as subversive Hollywood genre entertainment.