Film / Little Big Man

Little Big Man is an 1970 film directed by Arthur Penn. The screenplay is by Calder Willingham, adapted from a novel of the same name by Thomas Berger.

Dustin Hoffman stars as Jack Crabb, a 121-year-old survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. But there's more to his life story than that: life as an adopted Cheyenne, a Snake Oil Salesman, an amateur gunslinger, and an attempt to go straight before he gets embroiled in the mad dreams of a general named Custer. Sometimes a parody of the Western genre, sometimes a Deconstruction.

Little Big Man contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Jack Crabb is a redhead and freckled in Berger's novel. Hoffman and the two younger actors who play the character are neither of those things.
  • Always Someone Better: Done completely by accident to Younger Bear through parts of the movie, including Jack saving Young Bear's life.
    Younger Bear: I'm an important person now. I have a wife, and four horses.
    Little Big Man: I have a horse... and four wives.
  • Aren't You Going to Ravish Me?: In an early scene where the narrator/protagonist is first captured by the Cheyenne, his sister is shown worrying and complaining about what all these natives might be planning for her in the strange language they're speaking and saying "They're going to rape me for sure!" As time passes and nothing happens to her, however, we see that they're planning no such thing, and that she's actually getting rather annoyed because no one's paying very much attention to her at all. Didn't help that they didn't realize she was a girl at first.
  • Black Comedy Rape: Old Lodge Skins, when learning of Crabb's white wife's "pleasant enthusiasm when [Crabb] mounts her", casually explains that when he tried a white woman, "she didn't show any enthusiasm at all."
  • Briar Patching: General Custer hires Jack Crabb as a scout, reasoning that because Crabb hates him and wishes to get revenge on him for killing the Cheyenne, everything he tells Custer will be a lie, thereby making him a perfect "reverse barometer". This leads to a Crowning Moment of Awesome for Crabb when they get to the Little Bighorn and Custer asks if they should attack:
    Crabb: General, you go down there.
    Custer: You're advising me to go into the Coulee?
    Crabb: Yes, sir.
    Custer: There are no Indians there, I suppose.
    Crabb: I didn't say that. There are thousands of Indians down there. And when they get done with you, there won't be nothing left but a greasy stain. This ain't the Washite River, General, and them ain't helpless women and children waiting for you. They're Cheyenne brave, and Sioux. You go down there, General, if you've got the nerve.
    Custer: Still trying to outsmart me, aren't you, mule-skinner? You want me to think that you don't want me to go down there, but the subtle truth is you really don't want me to go down there!
  • Brownface: Dustin Hoffman as a Cheyenne.
  • Cruel Mercy: General Custer spares Jack Crabb's life, after Crabb attempts to kill him in his tent but loses his nerve at the last second. Crabb states in narration that this is the worst thing Custer could have done to him.
  • Disney Death: Played with. Cheyenne chief Old Lodge Skins, Jack's blind mentor, has finally grown tired of life. He and Jack ascend a hill where Old Lodge Skins prays for his death and lies down with his eyes closed. It then begins raining. Old Lodge Skin blinks, then sighs. "Sometimes the magic works. Sometimes it doesn't." and they both go back to their village. In the book, Old Lodge Skins does die.
  • Framing Device: Crabb in the hospital.
  • Gilligan Cut: After Jack explains that his wife doesn't want to move West because she's afraid of the Indians, Custer says she can count on his personal guarantee that Indians will be no problem. Cut to the next scene of the wagon train under fierce Indian attack.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Gen. George Custer, Wild Bill Hickok
  • Hypocrite: Mrs. Pendrake, the wife of a fire-and-brimstone Preacher Man, adopts Jack Crabb and tries to see to his moral and spiritual instruction. After he catches her having sex with a shopkeeper in town, he swears off religion for good and joins up with Snake Oil Salesman Mr. Merriweather. As Crabb puts it in his narration, "After Mrs. Pendrake, his honesty was downright refreshing."
    • There's also Jack's sister, who, after finding him, tells him that he's now in the "bosom of family" again, only to immediately leave him when he decides that he doesn't want to be a gunfighter.
  • I Owe You My Life: The life-saving action of the eponymous character just amplifies Younger Bear's hatred of him, though he cannot do anything till he repays the debt.
    Younger Bear: I have saved your life. Now, the next time we meet, I can finally kill you without becoming an evil person. YAHOO!!
  • Idiot Ball: The historian in the frame story offends Crabb by calling Little Bighorn a Native American "adventure." A scholar of the time period really should have known his facts better.
  • Infant Immortality: Sadly averted; children, even newborns, don't fare well under attacks by the Pawnee tribe and the US army
  • Karmic Death: The 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn, especially after the Washita Massacre.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: The Historian at the beginning of the film.
  • Mighty Whitey: Averted. Crabb was adopted by the Cheyenne, but he was never their best warrior or their best leader. It could be argued that he was led by the events that unfolded around him, and could do little to change their outcome, being more an observer then anything else.
  • Moment of Silence: When Sunshine dies.
  • The Munchausen: As the film's poster states, Crabb was "either the most neglected hero in history or a liar of insane proportion".
  • Nostalgic Narrator
  • Of the People: Crabb used the term "Human Being" when referring to "The People".
  • The Oldest Profession: Crabb goes to deliver some money to Wild Bill Hickok's widow, who's working in a brothel, and is surprised to discover that she's Mrs. Pendrake.
  • Sarcastic Confession: Crabb tells General Custer in the final battle scene exactly what's going to happen if he charges forward. He gives Custer the information because he knows that he won't be believed, and he isn't.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: Mr. Merriweather. Crabb also becomes one of these as his assistant.
  • Shout-Out: to any Western (including Three Godfathers) that uses the hymn "Shall We Gather at the River."
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Towards the end when Custer's 7th Cavalry is massacring an entire Native American village, including the protagonist's family, in the background is the cheery strains of "Garry Owens" played by the regimental band. This was the actual marching song of the 7th cavalry.
    • Garryowen was also the regimental march of the British Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava and the famous Charge. Both battles are alluded to when it is used by Custer's bandsmen at the Little Big Horn: this could also be an example of Karma in action.
  • Tar and Feathers: Happens to Crabb when he's found out as a Snake Oil Salesman.
  • Timeshifted Actor: While a child actor had to portray the 10-year-old Crabb, Dustin Hoffman wore make-up to portray the character's centenarian self. He made his voice sound old by going into his dressing room and screaming at the top of his lungs for an hour.
  • Tomboy: Jack's older sister Caroline, to the point where Old Lodge Skins initially mistakes her for male.
  • The Trope Kid: For a while Crabb is a gunfighter known as "The Soda Pop Kid".
  • Unreliable Narrator: Crabb is quite likely one of these.
  • Unwanted Harem: After the army has killed off a lot of the village's men, Jack finds that he's expected to provide husband duty for his wife's three sisters.