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Film / Little Big Man

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Little Big Man is a 1970 film directed by Arthur Penn. The screenplay is by Calder Willingham, adapted from the 1964 novel of the same name by Thomas Berger. It's in some ways a parody of the Western genre, in some ways a Deconstruction.

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 George Armstrong Custer. Faye Dunaway appears as Mrs. Pendrake.

Little Big Man contains examples of:

  • Action Survivor: Jack's primary motivation is always personal survival in part because he's caught between two cultures and torn between his loyalties to both sides but mostly because he doesn't particularly want to kill anybody, which is why he also failed as a would-be gunfighter.
  • 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.
  • Anti-Advice: Subverted, with General Custer suspecting that Jack will lie and provide him false intel, thus leading to walking straight into the Battle of Little Bighorn.
  • 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 compared to Jack, who is enthusiastically adopting their ways, 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.
  • Army Scout: Jack serves as a scout to General Custer at the battle of Little Bighorn.
  • Big Damn Reunion: This happens several times to Jack, with his captive wife Ogla (who has now remarried and doesn't recognize him), Louise Pendrake, Old Lodge Skins, and with Younger Bear on three occasions.
  • 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". When they get to the Little Bighorn, Custer asks if they should attack:
    Crabb: [internal narration] I had him.
    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 Washita 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!
  • Cavalry Officer: George Armstrong Custer's life and death became the subject of this film.
  • 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.
  • Death of a Child: Children, even newborns, don't fare well under attacks by the Pawnee tribe and the US army.
  • Debt Detester: Jack saves the life of his enemy Younger Bear. Years later, Younger Bear saves Jack's life at the Little Big Horn. He then tells Jack that he's planning to kill Jack the next time they meet.
  • 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.
  • Get Out!: After Crabb has finished his narrative, he gets fed up with the historian, criticizing his ignorance:
    Jack Crabb: Well, that's the story of this old Indian fighter. That's the story of the Human Beings, who was promised land where they could live in peace. Land that would be theirs as long as grass grows, wind blows, and the sky is blue.
    Historian: Mr. Crabb, I didn't know...
    Jack Crabb: Get out. Get out.
  • 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.
  • Going Native: Played with. Young Jack finds Cheyenne life very attractive (as he puts it, "I wasn't just playing Indian, I was living it.") before his Unwanted Rescue, then he spends the rest of his life caught between the two cultures, never fully belonging to either one.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • I Know You Know I Know: Jack Crabb tries to warn Custer about the Indians waiting to ambush him, urging him to go down if he's brave enough, leading to this great quote from Custer: "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!"
  • Insane Admiral: George Armstrong Custer is portrayed as a monomaniac whose delusional self-confidence blinds him to the very possibility of defeat.
  • 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!
  • 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.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The Seventh Cavalry ride into a Cheyenne village at Washita and rape, kill, and destroy everything in their path, with the mad Custer roaring encouragement. In the background, musicians are playing the regimental march "Garryowen". Indeed, the faint distant strains of "Garryowen" are the first sign that the cavalry are coming. The next time we hear "Garryowen", the Seventh are riding to their death and destruction at the Little Big Horn.
  • Medicine Show: Jack spends part of his adolescence working for Mr. Merriweather's Medicine show.
  • 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 Münchausen: As the film's poster states, Crabb was "either the most neglected hero in history or a liar of insane proportion".
  • Of the People: Crabb used the term "Human Being" when referring to "The People".
  • The Oldest Profession: Crabb goes to deliver some money to a friend of Wild Bill Hickok. It turns out she's working in a brothel and Crabb discovers that she's Mrs. Pendrake.
  • Peace Pipe: Old Lodge Skins smokes a peace pipe with Jack's older sister, under the impression that she is male. He is so embarrassed at having shared a pipe with a female that he covers his head and turns away, while the women of the tipi all laugh at him.
  • Raised by Natives: Jack's homesteader family is killed by Native Americans, and he is adopted into a Cheyenne tribe. He's later taken back into white society and spends the rest of his life caught between white society and Cheyenne society.
  • 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.
  • Serial Prostheses: Mr. Merriweather loses several minor body parts over the time that Jack knows him, usually to an angry mob. When Jack meets him a few years later, Merriweather comments that there isn't much more he could lose.
  • Shout-Out: To any Western (including Three Godfathers) that uses the hymn "Shall We Gather at the River".
  • Snake Oil Salesman: Mr. Merriweather. Crabb also becomes one of these as his assistant.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Towards the end, Custer's 7th Cavalry Regiment massacres an entire Native American village, including the protagonist's family to the cheery strains of "Garryowen" played by the regimental band. Garryowen was (and remains to this day) 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 their famous suicidal charge, making it an allusion to another famous military disaster. Little Big Man's Charge into Little Big Horn is The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) shorn of all heroic pretension.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Old Lodge Skins dies in the book, but not in the film. Arthur Penn explained the change:
    We thought long and hard about this and in the first draft of the script he does die, but this death would have introduced an element of sadness into the film and we didn't want this. The film would have become dramatic, even melodramatic, instead of being picaresque. I also wanted to show that not only were the Indians going to be destroyed, but they were also condemned to live. On the whole, audiences like their entertainment dramatically compact and homogenous, but I want the opposite. A film should remain free and open, not with everything defined and resolved."
  • Strolling Through the Chaos: The blind Cheyenne chief Old Lodge Skins believes himself to be magically Immune to Bullets and crosses a battlefield where his people are getting cut down all around him by the U.S. Cavalry. His attitude makes the scene almost comical, despite the terrible death and destruction occurring close by.
  • Tar and Feathers: While Jack is apprenticed to Mr. Merriweather, their "elixir" makes some people sick. The angry townsfolk put tar and feathers on them and ride them around the campfire on rails before kicking them out.
  • This Is My Story: "I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers. My name is Jack Crabb. And I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, uh, uh, popularly known as Custer's Last Stand."
  • Time-Shifted 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.
  • Translation Convention: Jack speaks like a hick as the aged narrator and in the company of whites, but speaks in clearer, nobler sounding English when in the company of Native Americans (presumably speaking in Cheyenne).
  • 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. In the original novel by Thomas Berger, the historian who transcribes Crabb's narrative expresses the opinion that most of his supposed exploits are pure malarkey. There are hints, however, that the historian may himself be something of an unreliable narrator.
  • 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.