"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Little Big Man (NGP, 1970)

Dangerous territory, pards...

This film is an "important" Western in the history of the genre and many people think it is great. For the present writer (that's me) it has certain merits but is a seriously flawed picture with many of the Arthur Penn mannerisms we have become used to. Brian Garfield, in his superb guide Western Films, calls the movie “arty, pretentious and self-conscious.”

And Brian was rarely wrong.

Coming at a time of revisionism as far as the American Indians were concerned, this was one of the films that described the plight of the tribes and their mistreatment at the hands of government and army that came out in the 1970s.

It is based on the fine book by Thomas Berger, one of the golden handful of the best Western novels, but unfortunately Penn and his screen writer Calder Willingham have changed the book radically, in tone more than anything. They have played it for laughs much of the time and the film becomes a burlesque, almost a parody of a Western (dangerous territory, pards). A good example is the book's moving death of Old Lodge Skins, who fails to die in the movie and walks back down to his tepee. He is made to look ridiculous.

Custer (Richard Mulligan) is way over the top, a megalomaniac dandy surrounded by lick-spittle officers. The book's Jack Crabb has a much more subtle relationship with Custer and nuanced opinion of him, ending with a final grudging respect. The films replaces it with that silly business of Jack's advice as to whether Custer should attack. The episode of the Soda Pop Kid, too, is invented for the movie for 'humorous' effect and largely fails. In the novel Wild Bill Hickok teaches Jack to shoot but then goes off to Deadwood without Jack and is never seen again (though this account is altered in the 1999 sequel The Return of Little Big Man).

The film is visually fine and the wide-screen photography by Harry Stradling Jr. of Montana and Alberta locations is extremely well done. A special mention ought to go to Dick Smith, who made Dustin Hoffmann up to be 111 years old in an old people’s home and to Hoffmann himself who acted that part superbly. (Hoffmann is a method actor and it is said that he screamed himself hoarse in his dressing room before the take so that his voice would be croaky and quavering). The historian, Snell, who tape-records his reminiscences, however, played by William Hickey, is far too nerdy, a caricature (he was also a bit silly in the book).

I liked the John Hammond music, bluesy and folksy - anachronistic, perhaps, but it’s rare to find a score that isn’t (what’s authentic about the greatest score of all, Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven?)

There is more broad humor in the sub-plot of Mrs. Louise Pendrake, later Lulu (Faye Dunaway). In the book Jack does not rediscover her in a whore house, nor would he; it was out of character. However, one improvement in the film over the novel, I thought, was the picaresque Mr. Merriweather (Martin Balsam), who has lost an appendage each time we meet him. He was a great Dickensian character who only appears once, briefly, in the book.

Chief Dan George as the central Indian character, the Cheyenne leader Old Lodge Skins, is superb and this role and his part in The Outlaw Josey Wales six years later mark him out as an outstanding actor. Had Marlon Brando made the movie (he had the option at one stage) he would, apparently, have played Old Lodge Skins himself. Thank goodness that never happened. Brando would have hammed it up unmercifully (he was hopeless in Westerns) and we would have missed Dan George.

This is a big, famous Western with top stars which went a long way to redress the wrongs of years of Hollywood misrepresentation of the American Indian. It also contains a lot of humor and is a colorful, vivid tale, if stretching the bounds of plausibility and often descending into low farce. But you would do much better to read the book.



  1. I remember this picture as being immensely popular upon its initial release (it was given the 'prestige' slow rollout marketing strategy), and having long legs in a sub run that seemed to last longer than a year. Yet, you don't hear much of it these days. I don't think it has much of a video track record.
    I think your critique pretty solidly nails it.

    1. Yes, I remember going to see it at the time and there was quite a hullabaloo about it. I've re-watched it a couple of times since but probably wouldn't again.