Little Big Man

Little Big Man, released in 1970, was director Arthur Penn’s ninth film in a career that began in 1958. Throughout the 1970s, his career as a director would continue to flourish for a time before steeply declining in the early 80s. The result being that Arthur Penn would only direct another nine films after Little Big Man over the course of the remaining 32 years of his career. Of the 18 feature films he directed in the course of that career, all seem worth watching and interesting in their own rights. But only two are absolutely necessary for any self-respecting film buff or critic of American filmography to study.

The first of these two films is 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. A hyperviolent tale of a nihilistic and amoral lovers on the run, the film was heavily inspired the French New Wave’s brazen approach the filmmaking and established Penn, for a time, as first and foremost amongst the auteurs of American cinema. More importantly, the film is often considered to be the first in a series of rogue films by American auteurs that would come to comprise the American New Wave, or the New Hollywood Movement, and would bring the counterculture and its concerns to the forefront of American pop culture through the films of other directors like Mike Nichols, Sam Peckinpah, George A. Romero, Dennis Hopper, and Walter Hill amongst many, many others.

The second is Little Big Man, which is one of the first Revisionist Westerns to infuse irreverence and comedy with the nihilism and moral relativity typically at home within this sub-genre of the American Western. It stars Dustin Hoffman as a 121-year old man named Jack Crabb, and likewise known by his Cheyenne Indian name Little Big Man, who is being interviewed by a presumptuous young newspaper man who has pegged the old timer as a problematic Native American hating, stalwart racist and wishes merely to write a thinkpiece on changing attitudes to Native American sovereignty over their lands over the ages. The young man has another coming, however, as Crabb exhorts him for labeling Crabb before even hearing his story or gaining his perspective on the past of which he apparently played a large part.

Although there was a historical Jack Crabb and a Little Big Man, the film fuses the two personages and present their stories in a wildly inaccurate, albeit extremely interesting manner as a Picaresque tale of a roguish young man born into difficult circumstances who overcomes the hand dealt him by the world through his cunning and wit, as well as a fair bit of luck. Jack Crabb of Little Big Man was born a white man to a group of settlers heading West in mid-1850s. Along the way, a group of Pawnee Indians attacked their stagecoach group and killed everyone in sight. However, Jack and his sister hid out underneath a toppled cart and were eventually found by a group of peaceful Cheyenne Indians who took them in. His sister quickly ran off into the night first chance she got, leaving her brother behind in the process, but Jack remained with the Cheyenne and grew up to be a promising young warrior.

As fate would have it, his group was attacked by a marauding legion of American soldiers and Jack, instead of being killed, pretended to be a white man sympathetic with America and its cause, instead of a boy raised by the Cheyenne. Through absolutely unbelievable machinations, which are obviously the construction of Jack Crabb’s imagination rather than mere recounting of historical truth, he makes his way through the home of a preacher, consorts with the man’s wife, becomes a travelling salesmen of snake oil, suffers tarring and feathering for selling faulty products to townsfolk, joins up and leaves General Custer’s men on numerous occasions, meets back up with and lives with the Cheyenne many times, makes friends with Wild Bill Hickok, marries a Swedish woman who is abducted by Cheyenne, eventually marries four Cheyenne women simultaneously, and finally leads Custer to his doom at the Battle of Little bighorn.

Although a comedy, the film is often relatively somber, especially when portraying the loss of land and life experienced by Native American peoples throughout the 1800s, ad the constant breaking of promises and legally binding treaties by the U.S. Military that pushed Native Americans farther and farther West and into increasingly smaller tracts of land. Although a nihilistic picture that recognizes the fact that there is no ontological basis for morality within this world, and that there is no god to save us or to reign in our evil, Little Big Man remains steadfastly hopeful that the natural feeling of outrage, in all properly socialized people, regarding injustice could prevent people from harming one another and disrupting each other’s ways of life when avoidable. And although a Picaresque text wherein our hero subverts the evil of the American Military by leading Custer directly into his own death and defeat, it is also a traumatic text wherein this same hero may in fact be lying about his involvement as a way to overcompensate for his inability at the time to have any effect whatsoever in making the world a better place for his people by blood (the whites who became increasingly bloodthirsty and morally corrupted throughout this period) or by upbringing (the Native Americans who lost much land and many lives that can never be returned).

Little Big Man in this manner was Arthur Penn’s attempt to personally come to terms with what America was doing in Vietnam at the time. Another immoral war fought for no purpose except to ‘contain’ communism (meaning to subvert the political structures of another people who were increasingly choosing it for themselves of their volition as the more moral option) and thereby ‘protect’ American business interests (meaning open more foreign markets to the possibility of buying useless American goods that they could just produce on their own for far cheaper and with less attendant consequences of continuing to help prop up the imperialist American war machine). It was a time when the average citizen, and even the average artist (like a filmmaker), felt helpless in the face of the evils of the world (then brought on specifically by the evils of American Empire).

And what was worse, WWII and the writers and philosophers speaking about that time rung home the absolute truth that there was no god, that there was no basis for morality in metaphysics, that we were just children left alone to govern this planet by ourselves, and that we were really doing a shit job of it. And every filmmaker and artist and writer and politician with any ounce of humanity recognized all of this and screamed out from the core of their beings for all of this to stop, but they had no effect. All their screaming and fighting and production of materials to combat the dark impulses within the human heart and all to no avail. The result was traumatic and the war was ongoing in 1970, and no primal scream seemed then to have the strength to end it. The result was that all those with a kernel of humanity in their hearts felt impotent in the face of the war machine, just as Little Big Man felt impotent in the face of 19th century Manifest Destiny.

But the film was prescient, and all those who opposed Vietnam and American Empire felt vindicated when Nixon pulled us out and when the Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops took Saigon and claimed Giai phong mien Nam, thong nhat dat nuoc. And they started building these narratives of self-importance, of how their particular protest had the most decisive effect on the decision, and how they were right there man. Right there fighting when it mattered. Right there pushing the sycophantic president toward his final decision to end the war. And like Little Big Man, they needed these narratives to prove to themselves that they did have power, that they did have strength, that they did fight hard enough, even though they did not. And none had the truly decisive power of a Gavrilo Princip or a Mahatma Gandhi to single-handedly ignite the tensions or douse the flames, when it mattered, and when millions of lives could have been saved. Because if they didn’t have these stories, the myth of human will as power would be extinguished, as would all hope of a future for a civilization based on mere brute strength and might is right real politics.


Cody Ward

[Next up: Dead Man]


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