At once the goofiest and angriest of all revisionist Westerns, Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) seems today less notable for its formal qualities than for its (counter)cultural content. This outraged reconfiguration of an all-American genre may be set in the Wild West, but it’s also very much a bulletin of its time. Released midway through Nixon’s first term and in the heat of the Vietnam War, the film is reflective of the darkening mood — both the nation’s and the movies’.
Penn’s animating metaphor may seem musty to contemporary eyes, but one can only imagine its revelatory jolt back in the day. In lockstep with leftist thought on American imperialism and Western civilization, Penn casts the U.S. adventure in Indochina as a logical extension of its expansionist policy and the white man’s rapacious appetite. Vietnam was simply the next frontier, the Viet Cong the new Indians, an analogy that the 1969 release of The Green Berets, directed by and starring John Wayne, only encouraged.
Wayne’s movie notwithstanding, Hollywood actually didn’t delve into the Vietnam quagmire until after Saigon’s fall. Instead, it turned to the Western. Fount of myths and mirror of the national mood, the genre became a proxy canvas for the protest movement’s apocalyptic vision. The country’s decline from Eisenhowerian optimism (or obliviousness) to Nixonian cynicism can be traced in the ongoing war on the screen between cowboys and Indians. By Nixon, it was no longer clear who the good guys were supposed to be.
Penn’s oater didn’t just dispel the cloudless America of Westerns past — it dismembered the genre, threw the parts in a trench, and spit on the tombstone. Little Big Man was by no means the first of its kind, but it seems from this vantage to be the most vitriolic of the wild bunch of Westerns that came out during the period. Unlike Sam Peckinpah’s epitaphs to the genre, there is no hint of reverence in Penn’s version of the West. How could there be when genocide is revealed to be the national project?
The movie exposes the lies of U.S. history via a tall tale. Unrecognizable under Terry Miles’ masterful makeup, Dustin Hoffman plays 121-year-old Jack Crabb, the only white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. Bookended by scenes of Crabb in the present day recounting his life story to a historian, the narrative is a far-fetched picaresque that offers nothing less than a survey of the American conquest of the West.
Penn takes us back with a beautiful pan of a grassy expanse… that ends on the smoky remains of a plundered caravan. Little Jack and his sister, Caroline (Carol Androsky), cower under a wagon’s canopy, their parents murdered, but are soon found by a wandering Cheyenne. The two are taken back to camp, which eventually becomes home to the orphaned Jack. (His sister, ever in fear of being raped by the savages, skedaddles unscathed.)
Dubbed Little Big Man because of his slight stature, Crabb grows up learning the ways of the “Human Beings,” as the Cheyenne call themselves. The source of a few aphoristic riffs, the “Human Being” theme immediately pegs the movie as a product of its time. It’s a monicker that subverts the story of the white man’s civilizing influence, even as it reduces the white race to something other than, if not beneath, human — a worldview that comes right out of the period’s radical ideologies.
Bearing witness to the defining moments of his era, Crabb recalls a more recent unreliable historian: Forrest Gump. The resemblance is accentuated by Crabb’s penchant for bumping into famous people unwittingly (Custer, Wild Bill Hickok), not to mention his seeming lack of agency. Blown around by the winds of history and fate, Crabb is not so much a character as a tabula rasa on which the saga of how the West was won can be rewritten.
His blank-slate quality is only amplified by the lifelong identity crisis that afflicts him. Raised by the tribal chief, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), a teenage Jack finds himself “rescued” by cavalry officers who turn him over to a sanctimonious preacher (Thayer David) and his wife (Faye Dunaway). After a brief detour as an assistant to a mountebank (Martin Balsam) and an aborted career as a gunslinger under Hickok’s (Jeff Corey) tutelage, Jack settles down and marries a Swedish bride — only to lose her after an Indian raid. His search for her eventually leads him back to the Cheyenne, who welcome him with open arms. And so it goes for Jack, who flits back and forth between the white and Indian worlds, each switch bringing him deeper into isolation and schizophrenia.
For all the material’s gravity, an absurdist spirit leavens the proceedings. Beguilingly shambolic and relentlessly anarchic, the movie is filled with anecdotal incidents, as befitting a possessed raconteur’s yarn. Not all of it works. The old-school slapstick and rim-shot punchlines have a whiff of condescension, aside from being less funny than they should be. Hoffman, playing against type, doesn’t help either. He may be right for the part physically, but he lacks the spontaneity and adroitness of the great physical comedians. (There’s too much thinking in that feathered head.) All the mugging and anachronisms prove alienating, no doubt deliberate on Penn’s part. His Brechtian approach seeks to distance the audience and invite contemplation at the same time.
The embodiment of the film’s cartoonish impiety is Custer himself. As played by Richard Mulligan, Penn’s Custer seems the distant ancestor of George C. Scott’s General Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove: outsized, hubristic, and utterly mad. The general berates an officer who implores him to turn the army around as they approach Little Big Horn. Impossible, says Custer — such a move would in effect reverse a “Custer decision,” which by definition is unthinkable. The parallels to U.S. Indochina policy and the Kissingerian obsession with “credibility” are hardly hidden.
If the movie’s absurdist comedy yields inconsistent results, it isn’t quite a miscalculation. After all, disbelieving laughter may have been the only adequate response to holocausts past and present. In a way, Little Big Man feels like the inevitable end product of the Western’s steady corrosion. Completely devoid of romance, consumed by contempt, it’s an unabashedly crude screed, the culmination of a decade of upheaval and revisionism.
Penn may consider his movie to be free of illusions, but that wouldn’t be entirely true either. Pandering to its youth audience, Little Big Man practically contains cues for the crowd to go, “Right on!” Particularly glaring is the movie’s substitution of a discredited myth with one no less dubious: the myth of the noble savage. Genial, wise, embattled, and peaceful, these Cheyenne are as lovable as their white conquerors are abhorrent. Even more pernicious is the movie’s depiction of the tribe’s lone homosexual member, a limp-wristed flake who elicits cheap laughs.
Alternately enlightening and myopic, piquant and facile, Little Big Man is less genre masterwork than curious manifesto — which doesn’t make it dismissible by any stretch. Penn’s strength was always his knack for capturing the cultural moment. As critic Robert Philip Kolker writes, Penn’s ’60s films “make up a patchwork of generic experiments, ideological reflections, guides to the culture’s malaise, its best and worst fantasies” (A Cinema of Loneliness, 1988). In its cynicism and unreasonableness, Little Big Man may be the definitive Vietnam Western. Like old Crabb himself, it asks that its story be remembered, its lessons heeded. Fiery at first, both Crabb and the movie slump in exhaustion by the end, neither of them too hopeful that their pleas will be heard.