Little Big Man (Blu-ray Review)21 Nov, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Rated ‘PG-13’ for intense battle sequences and some sexual content.
Stars Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, Richard Mulligan.
After Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate significantly altered mainstream Hollywood in the second half of 1967, the two most cutting-edge directors around were probably their respective auteurs, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols (though, of course, each of those big-screen landmarks had famously outstanding screenplays as well). It’s a measure of how bountiful the 1970 movie year was that, following Penn’s follow-up success with 1969’s magnificent yet still somewhat underrated Alice’s Restaurant, both directors stumbled some with a pair of wobbly, large-scale literary adaptations of noteworthy comedic/dramatic ambition — but that despite this, the results elicit warmer than not feelings even today due to all the production currency was put into them.
The first of these two was Nichols’ stab at Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which came out in June. The second was Penn’s take on novelist Thomas Berger’s revisionist Western Little Big Man, which was part of the same year-end movie season that saw Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland, Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud, John Cassavetes’ Husbands and (if you like, though I never did) the commercially tough-to-ignore Love Story. All but the impersonal last were movies where any moderately engaged observer could correctly guess the director — though in Penn’s case, his tender-footed discomfort with the Western form (starting with 1958’s The Left-Handed Gun) was so transparent that critic Andrew Sarris ultimately penned a piece urging Penn to abandon the genre following 1976’s debacle The Missouri Breaks. But Little Big Man has its moments in addition to two or three outstanding performances — and is still clearly best of the trio.
The idea behind it is a beaut: Hoffman’s Jack Crabb character, something like 121 years old as the movie begins, spends most of his early life going back and forth between the white and Native American cultures, even taking an Indian wife at one point. Having also befriended Wild Bill Hickok and stumbled into several encounters with General Custer (including a final one at Little Big Horn), he has come out of the experience with a wealth of sardonic perspective by the time of the opening pre-flashback scene, which finds actor Hoffman buried under mounds of latex that make him look more like 921. By the way, you can see even as we speak — via Leonardo Di Caprio in J. Edgar — how far old-age makeup has come in 41 years.
Berger’s novel was a big favorite of mine at the time, and I can remember from opening night in New York City, 1970, being put off by how broadly Penn played Berger’s far more controlled and modulated humor (tone had been a big problem with Nichols’ Catch-22 as well). The early scenes with an eventual prostitute-to-be played by Faye Dunaway are distractingly overplayed, and much of John Hammond’s score is sledge-hammered irony. Earlier that year, Sam Peckinpah had taken a wonderful crack at his own comic/revisionist Western with The Ballad of Cable Hogue — a movie both modern yet totally authentic then and now, even though it was underappreciated (also then and now) despite its deserved show-up on the Sarris and Vincent Canby 10-best lists that year. Little Big Man, on the other hand, was one of those special movies that united Sarris and Pauline Kael: neither one was very crazy about it.
Yet to a certain extent, Hoffman’s performance holds it together, while Chief Dan George as Crabb mentor Old Lodge Skins was a stroke of casting gold. While stealing a movie that came out almost the same time as George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album, OLS is one hip-spiritual dude and absolutely does seem authentic. Both the New York Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics awarded the Chief its supporting actor citation that year, and his Oscar loss to John Mills for Ryan’s Daughter (probably intended as a “career” win) is one of major academy boo-boos of the era. Of course, this was the same year that Helen Hayes in Airport beat MASH’s co-nominee Sally Kellerman and Five Easy Pieces’ Karen Black.
There’s also good work by Richard Mulligan as a vainglorious General Custer, a portrayal likely closer to the truth than the Errol Flynn biopic They Died With Their Boots On (probably a better rah-rah movie than Little Big Man is a debunker, though I don’t feel like going to the mat about it). Penn’s handsome-looking epic — which looks decent, though not exemplary on Blu-ray — always felt as if it had the weight of the world on its shoulders, being a) like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, a reaction to Vietnam; and b) an attempt to right a lot of Hollywood wrongs in terms of Native American portrayals. Though after 1950’s Broken Arrow and Devil’s Doorway, you really didn’t see many major movies take the standard killing-Injuns approach unless it was something like The Searchers, which doesn’t count because it’s about racism. Filmmakers, or at least important ones, regarded the old-school approach as generally bad form.