Little Big Man (1970)

Little Big Man (1970)

“Little Man was small — but his bravery was big.”

121-year-old Jack Crabbe (Dustin Hoffman) tells a young historian (William Hickey) tales from his storied life, including being adopted as an orphan by a Cheyenne chief (Chief Dan George), then being “rescued” by a preacher’s wife (Faye Dunaway) before working for a snake oil salesman (Martin Balsam); sharpshooting with his long lost sister (Carole Androsky); meeting Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey); becoming a married storeowner; working as an Indian scout for mad General Custer (Richard Mulligan); and returning repeatedly to his adopted tribe of Cheyenne “human beings” before ending up the sole remaining White survivor at Little Big Horn.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Arthur Penn Films
  • Cavalry
  • Dustin Hoffman Films
  • Faye Dunaway Films
  • Flashback Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Martin Balsam Films
  • Native Americans
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Arthur Penn’s Brechtian western, with a script by Calder Willingham, does justice to Thomas Berger’s marvelous epic tale” (a 1964 novel) of a man “who tells a skeptical interviewer his recollections of his early life.” While much has been said about the “tall tale” nature of Crabbe’s storytelling, it’s actually not hard to imagine he may have lived out the stories he tells here — especially given that he’s not self-aggrandizing by any stretch; rather, like Forrest Gump, he simply finds himself bouncing across the landscape of history and landing in different pockets time and again.

Peary argues that “While not everything Crabbe tells us is [necessarily] true, the gist of the story, about Custer and the Indians, is true. Through the horrifying scenes of the cavalry massacring Indians, Penn and Willingham obviously were trying to draw parallels to the systematic genocide being carried out by equally arrogant American soldiers on yellow-skinned villagers in Vietnam” — thus making this “a political film about the chauvanism and brutality of white American imperialists.”

Peary points out that the “portrayal of Indians” in this film “should be commended — it’s so sympathetic and insightful that it allows for some humor about Indians (i.e., Chief Running Nose; the Indian who walks backward).”

To that end, I was pleased to see Chris Eyre — director of Smoke Signals (1998), and of Cheyenne and Arapaho descent — introducing this film for the AFI Movie Club as “one of his favorites,” and to know that Chief Dan George was rightfully nominated as Best Supporting Actor (the first Native American to garner this designation).

Hoffman’s performance, meanwhile — Peary nominates him as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars — is truly impressive; this role exhausted him to the point that he took up cigarettes again after an 8-month hiatus.

Also noteworthy is Mulligan’s “bravura” portrayal as “monstrous, conceited, insane General Custer”.

While I’m not a fan of all the film’s humor:

… I can understand its inclusion, and it all comes across as part of the wacky panorama of Penn’s attempt to subvert the genre. This unsung western remains well worth a look.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Dustin Hoffman as Jack Crabbe and Little Big Man

  • Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins
  • Richard Mulligan as General Custer
  • Refreshing inclusion of a “two spirits” character (Robert Little Star)
  • Fine production design (by Dean Tavoularis), art direction (by Angelo P. Graham), set decoration (by George R. Nelson), and costumes (by Dorothy Jeakins)
  • Impressive aging make-up (by Dick Smith)
  • Harry Stradling, Jr.’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as an unusual modern classic. Nominated as one of the Best Movies of the Year in Alternate Oscars, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2014.


  • Genuine Classic

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Little Big Man (1970)

  1. Rewatch (12/3/20). Must-see – for the subject matter, Penn’s direction, Willingham’s richly textured script, and the performances by Hoffman and George.

    This sprawling travelogue of Jack Crabb’s life is a constant eye-opener, a rare look inside this 19th-century world which is, by turns, funny, sad, compassionate, savage, bleak but balanced. LBM’s ability to adjust to any situation, one way or the other, is probably what allows him to live as long as he does. He’s basically reticent and tentative, self-contained with a basic morality which keeps foolishness in check. Each of his experiences may seem hapless but low-level fortune always seems to find him, giving him the strength to (barely) survive. His main source of inspiration comes from his grandfather (George) – who understandably holds a dim view of white men. It’s heartbreaking when George compares the life-celebrating Cheyenne to the white man: “If things keep trying to live, white man will rub them out. That is the difference.” (George’s ‘death scene’ is unexpectedly hilarious.)

    Also notable in the cast are Jeff Corey as a laconic Wild Bill Hickok and Carole Androsky as Jack Crabb’s equally durable sister Caroline.

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