Little Big Man (1970)

“Do you see this fine thing? Do you admire the humanity of it? Because the human beings, my son, they believe everything is alive. Not only man and animals. But also water, earth, stone. And also the things from them… like that hair. The man from whom this hair came, he’s bald on the other side, because I now own his scalp! That is the way things are. But the white man, they believe everything is dead. Stone, earth, animals. And people! Even their own people! If things keep trying to live, white man will rub them out. That is the difference.”

‘Little Big Man’, directed by Arthur Penn in 1970, is an American comedy western starring Dustin Hoffman as a man born in 1849 who is raised by the Cheyenne nation then has a series of adventures in which he switches back and forth between the Native Americans and the US Army. Hoffman’s character Jack, narrates his unlikely story from a hospital bed in 1970, the events taking the form of an exotic series of flashbacks. The feel of the film is similar to ‘Forrest Gump’, the story of a man who is unwittingly involved in a major historical event and a number of dangerous encounters but somehow ends up unscathed. Jack, like Gump, is a survivor, and the only white person still alive after the Battle of Little Bighorn. It’s a picaresque movie, told with a scale that paradoxically focuses attention on the intimate lives of the characters. The film is packed with eccentrics on both sides of the Indian War and this is a key source of the humour of the film, from the snake-oil salesman Merriweather who, through the course of his work slowly loses limbs, to Jack’s adoptive grandfather Old Lodge Skins, played by Chief Dan George, who, in one poignant scene at the end of the film, lays down to die in the rain, then discovers that his body isn’t quite ready for death. It’s a subversive film, balanced more towards the Cheyenne than the Westerns, a stance similar to Kevin Costner’s ‘Dances With Wolves’, but ‘Little Big Man’ wins over Costner’s movie with its ironic, and at times downright surreal, comedy.

Would I recommend it? Yes – watch with John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ for a film with a similar plot but the opposite perspective.

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