Little Big Man’s Big Impact

Few film genres have captured the imagination of movie audiences with the same kind of power and persuasiveness as the American western. For decades Hollywood mixed facts with fiction and created a kind of celluloid mythology that made heroes out of cowboys, would-be settlers and the U.S. Cavalry. Unfortunately this myth-making led to the vilifying of Native Americans who experienced incomprehensible suffering and losses that went undocumented in our history books and were unseen in our movies. Occasionally Hollywood would offer up subtle suggestions of the injustices and racism that Native Americans experienced but the limited scope of these films often marred our general understanding of the people who once populated this beautiful country. In 1970 that all changed.

The decade began with an important event in Native American history. On November 20, 1969, 79 American Indians began a 19-month long occupation of the abandoned prison on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The occupiers demanded the return of Alcatraz Island and expressed their desire to have an Indian cultural center and university built there. The U.S. Government ignored their demands and on June 11, 1971 the occupation of Alcatraz came to an end but the event brought world-wide attention to the plight of American Indians and helped strengthen the resolve of AIM (American Indian Movement).

During the occupation of Alcatraz, Dee Brown published his unprecedented Indian history of the American west, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. This best-selling book detailed the genocide of the American Indians and changed the way Americans perceived their country’s complicated past. At the same time a new type of western was taking shape in Hollywood that challenged the way American Indians had been depicted in previous films. These revisionist westerns included such films as A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970), SOLIDER BLUE (1970) and Arthur Penn’s LITTLE BIG MAN (1970).

LITTLE BIG MAN, which was based on Thomas Berger’s novel of the same name, chronicled the long and troubled history of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), a 121-year-old man whose family was killed by the Pawnee Indians when he was only 10. He’s saved by the Cheyenne Indians (longtime enemy of the Pawnee) who raise him as one of their own tribe members. Jack comes to love and respect the Indians who refer to themselves as “human beings.” Throughout the film Jack Crabb is torn between two worlds. The world of white men who are often depicted as religious hypocrites, murderous gunslingers, racist brutes and money hungry capitalists willing to do anything in order to make a buck. And the more earth conscious world of the Native Americans who are trying to survive while their own way of life, identity and human dignity is being stripped from them by the U.S. Government.

If my description of the film seems heavy-handed it’s because LITTLE BIG MAN is often a very heavy-handed film. Arthur Penn wasn’t merely interested in making a movie that challenged the way Hollywood had mythologized the history of the American west. The director was also responding to the war in Vietnam that had led to well-publicized atrocities such as the My Lai Massacre that took place in 1968. Penn had never shied away from showing violence in his films before but the relentless brutality depicted in LITTLE BIG MAN bothered some of the nation’s leading film critics. The movie detailed an ugly and little seen side of war that often led to the killing of innocent civilians including unarmed mothers and their children but it didn’t stop there. Indians were shown killing one another, children murdered adults and animals were brutally slaughtered by the Indians for food as well as by fur trappers for mere profit. Death was usually depicted as violent, sudden and bloody in LITTLE BIG MAN, which led critics like Vincent Canby of the New York Times to say that the film “wears its social concerns so blatantly that they look like war paint.” And the respected critic Pauline Kael, who had championed Penn’s previous film BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), thought that LITTLE BIG MAN was “just crude, ideological filmmaking.”

Thankfully the movie did have its defenders and audiences flocked to it. The American public was eager to experience an anti-establishment western that questioned everything that had come before it, even if Penn’s sledgehammer approach to his subject was often seen as crude and self-conscious. The criticisms of LITTLE BIG MAN seem rather ridiculous now when you consider the decades of misrepresentation that Native Americans had to suffer through. Arthur Penn knew that he needed to hammer home his point in order to breakdown the seemingly impenetrable wall of ignorance that had been built around the history of the American west. But the film softened its bold attack on Hollywood myth-making with humor and human pathos.

Arthur Penn shot Little Big Man on location with help from cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. and their use of actual historic sites, including Little Bighorn as well as Indian Reservations in Montana, gave the film a realistic edge that was rarely seen in previous depictions of the west. Penn clearly enjoyed playing with the public’s perception of historical events in films like THE LEFT HANDED GUN (1958) which focused on the outlaw Billy the Kid as well as his critically acclaimed hit BONNIE AND CLYDE but LITTLE BIG MAN was a more urgent and angry movie. It illustrated an epic tragedy of immeasurable proportions but still managed to be one of the director’s most entertaining and personal films.

The film also provided its star, Dustin Hoffman, with one of his most challenging roles. Hoffman had become a popular counter-culture figure thanks to parts in memorable movies like THE GRADUATE (1967) and MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969). His impressive acting skills, short stature, self-depreciating humor and universal appeal had made him a world-wide star who didn’t fit neatly into Hollywood’s idea of a typical leading man. The role of “Little Big Man” seemed tailor-made for Hoffman and he is unforgettable as Jack Crabb. Unlike many films that turned their leading men into heroic outsiders who lead the Native Americans out of danger, Hoffman’s character is a fumbling, weak-willed anti-hero who rarely succeeds at anything that he attempts to accomplish. The 33-year-old actor had to age 88 years in the movie which was achieved by using the services of skilled makeup artist Dick Smith. Hoffman also spent an hour screaming at the top of his lungs before shooting so his voice would sound as ragged as he looked. As good as Hoffman is in The film also provided its star, Dustin Hoffman, with one of his most challenging roles. Hoffman had become a popular counter-culture figure thanks to parts in memorable movies like “The Graduate” (1967) and “Midnight Cowboy” (1969). His impressive acting skills, short stature, self-depreciating humor and universal appeal had made him a world-wide star who didn’t fit neatly into Hollywood’s idea of a typical leading man. The role of “Little Big Man” seemed tailor-made for Hoffman and he is unforgettable as Jack Crabb. Unlike many films that turned their leading men into heroic outsiders who lead the Native Americans out of danger, Hoffman’s character is a fumbling, weak-willed anti-hero who rarely succeeds at anything that he attempts to accomplish. The 33-year-old actor had to age 88 years in the movie which was achieved by using the services of skilled makeup artist Dick Smith. Hoffman also spent an hour screaming at the top of his lungs before shooting so his voice would sound as ragged as he looked. As good as Hoffman is in LITTLE BIG MAN, his extraordinary performance in the film is occasionally eclipsed by his costars.


Faye Dunaway is well cast as a reverend’s wife who turns to prostitution after her husband dies and Martin Balsam does a terrific job of playing a resilient con man. I also enjoy Jeff Corey’s portrayal of Wild Bill Hickok and Kelly Jean Peters is very good as Hoffman’s Swedish wife. One of the film’s most memorable performances is delivered by Richard Mulligan who plays General George Armstrong Custer. Mulligan was a brilliant comic actor who depicted General Custer as an egocentric madman hell-bent on the destruction of Native Americans. In previous films Custer was typically presented as an untarnished hero but Mulligan’s crazed performance gave the public a very different version of Custer to consider.

What really set the film apart from so many previous westerns was its depiction of Native Americans. The Cheyenne are not merely noble savages or bloodthirsty Braves in LITTLE BIG MAN. The tribe that raises Dustin Hoffman’s character is made up of gay Indians (Robert Little Star), angry lunatics (Cal Bellini) and sexually motivated squaws (Aimée Eccles, Emily Cho, Linda Dyer, etc.). These would have been fringe characters in any Hollywood film made in 1970 but their appearance in a western was truly groundbreaking. Penn’s film humanized Indians in a way that few Hollywood films had dared to in the past and they suddenly seemed as complex and divided as their white brothers and sisters. They were our neighbors, our friends and family members.

If a film can have a soul, that part was played by Chief Dan George who portrayed Dustin Hoffamn’s adopted grandfather Old Lodge Skins. Originally actors as diverse as Marlon Brando and Lawrence Olivier had been considered for the role but thankfully they turned it down. Hollywood had rarely employed actual Indians but Chief Dan George was the real Chief of the Burrard Band of North Vancouver in British Columbia. He brought his personal experience to the role and gave a voice to Native Americans everywhere. His sensitive portrayal of Old Lodge Skins won the hearts and minds of movie-goers around the world and he was nominated for many awards including an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Today LITTLE BIG MAN is often dismissed as a dated relic and when the movie is written about or mentioned it can’t seem to escape the shadow of the Vietnam war but Arthur Penn’s film is much more than just an angry anti-war tirade. It universally changed the way that audiences viewed Native Americans and it helped to broaden our understanding and interpretation of American history. Few films can make such lofty claims but I don’t think the importance of LITTLE BIG MAN should be underestimated. Sometimes a rare film comes along that actually changes the world and makes it a more interesting place to live in. Arthur Penn’s LITTLE BIG MAN is one of those films.

LITTLE BIG MAN airs on TCM at 9:30PM (ET) May 20th as part of TCM’s month-long series, RACE & HOLLYWOOD: NATIVE AMERICAN IMAGES ON FILM.

16 Responses Little Big Man’s Big Impact
Posted By Graham Rye : May 6, 2010 9:31 pm

All notion of ‘Little Big Man’ as an allegory of the Vietnam War should be ignored and the film viewed purely for what it is – an epic story of the American West and the savage and violent place it was as seen through the eyes of an ordinary human being with the failings we all share. To this day I am still amazed by the number of people I’ve met who have no knowledge of this outstanding movie, in my opinion, Arthur Penn’s masterwork and Dustin Hoffman’s greatest role ever.
Made a full 20 years before Kevin Costner’s epic ‘Dances With Wolves’, ‘Little Big Man’ I feel shows a far more believable, realistic and less cosmetic view of the American Indian, and ultimately is a far more moving film because of it. Penn’s film draws you in and makes you laugh, cry, and become very angry at the ignorant butchery meted out in perfunctory fashion to Native Americans as though they were little more than the Indian herd of ponies the cavalry kill at the Washita River in one of the most disturbing scenes in the movie, which is made even more effective by being heard off-screen and letting the sound effects create a mental image of the appalling carnage taking place. Penn cleverly intertwines a comedic thread throughout the film which is both entertaining and at times very funny, so when the drama takes over it has more impact, often to devastating effect, and leaves you really feeling for the characters on screen. The relationship between Crabb and his adopted Grandfather Chief Old Lodge Skins is one of cinema’s most endearing duos and gives much of the film its humour and pathos.
By the time the reporter who is being told the story by the 121-year old Jack Crabb in his retirement home, and at the end of the film is told to get out by the old man, the audience shares the effect of Crabb’s memories being rekindled and the pain it has caused him to relate them. I remember leaving the cinema 40 years ago in silence because of the effect of what I’d seen and heard. Few films have affected me as much before or since, which for me is the true test of a cinematic masterpiece.
The time is long overdue for a retrospective of Arthur Penn’s work to be shown in a season on big screens around the world, to introduce his films to whole new audiences who I believe will find them as fresh and brilliant as when they were first released, and because Arthur Penn is without doubt America’s greatest living film director.

Posted By Graham Rye : May 6, 2010 9:31 pm

All notion of ‘Little Big Man’ as an allegory of the Vietnam War should be ignored and the film viewed purely for what it is – an epic story of the American West and the savage and violent place it was as seen through the eyes of an ordinary human being with the failings we all share. To this day I am still amazed by the number of people I’ve met who have no knowledge of this outstanding movie, in my opinion, Arthur Penn’s masterwork and Dustin Hoffman’s greatest role ever.
Made a full 20 years before Kevin Costner’s epic ‘Dances With Wolves’, ‘Little Big Man’ I feel shows a far more believable, realistic and less cosmetic view of the American Indian, and ultimately is a far more moving film because of it. Penn’s film draws you in and makes you laugh, cry, and become very angry at the ignorant butchery meted out in perfunctory fashion to Native Americans as though they were little more than the Indian herd of ponies the cavalry kill at the Washita River in one of the most disturbing scenes in the movie, which is made even more effective by being heard off-screen and letting the sound effects create a mental image of the appalling carnage taking place. Penn cleverly intertwines a comedic thread throughout the film which is both entertaining and at times very funny, so when the drama takes over it has more impact, often to devastating effect, and leaves you really feeling for the characters on screen. The relationship between Crabb and his adopted Grandfather Chief Old Lodge Skins is one of cinema’s most endearing duos and gives much of the film its humour and pathos.
By the time the reporter who is being told the story by the 121-year old Jack Crabb in his retirement home, and at the end of the film is told to get out by the old man, the audience shares the effect of Crabb’s memories being rekindled and the pain it has caused him to relate them. I remember leaving the cinema 40 years ago in silence because of the effect of what I’d seen and heard. Few films have affected me as much before or since, which for me is the true test of a cinematic masterpiece.
The time is long overdue for a retrospective of Arthur Penn’s work to be shown in a season on big screens around the world, to introduce his films to whole new audiences who I believe will find them as fresh and brilliant as when they were first released, and because Arthur Penn is without doubt America’s greatest living film director.

Posted By suzidoll : May 7, 2010 11:24 am

A wonderful tribute to the film. Not only is it a masterwork by Penn (the intertwining of comedy, sincerity, and tragedy is something few directors even try to do today), it is also reflective of Dustin Hoffman’s talents as an actor. Actors from the film school generation seem adrift in our shallow contemporary cinema.

Posted By suzidoll : May 7, 2010 11:24 am

A wonderful tribute to the film. Not only is it a masterwork by Penn (the intertwining of comedy, sincerity, and tragedy is something few directors even try to do today), it is also reflective of Dustin Hoffman’s talents as an actor. Actors from the film school generation seem adrift in our shallow contemporary cinema.

Posted By susankay54 : May 7, 2010 12:56 pm

I am Native American, & when Little Big Man came out, at the time you couldn’t drag me to a western…but my father & mother insisted we go…& imagine my teenage surprise to find a movie that portrayed Native Americans in a positive light, that we weren’t crazy, that we had heart and loved our children. By the time that Sunshine & her baby are killed, I was a weeping mess. The movie as a whole changed my mind on what a good film could do, & Dustin Hoffman became a personal hero. As I got older & moved out into the world, I was amazed at how many Indians I ran into who could quote whole passages from the film, as I & my brothers & sisters could. It almost became a sort of shorthand & cause for laughter as Indians from all different tribes would say to each other, “you go down there” with the same inflection of Jack Crab as he tells Custer to go down to the Little Big Horn. This movie still holds up today, I don’t find it dated at all. This film opened the door a crack, opened the American mindset a crack, & we Native Americans have been going thru it ever since. I am past middle age now, but I so gratefully look at the new crop of Native American filmmakers (like Sterlin Harjo), many coming from the Sundance Institute workshops, and I know its because of films like Little Big Man.

Posted By susankay54 : May 7, 2010 12:56 pm

I am Native American, & when Little Big Man came out, at the time you couldn’t drag me to a western…but my father & mother insisted we go…& imagine my teenage surprise to find a movie that portrayed Native Americans in a positive light, that we weren’t crazy, that we had heart and loved our children. By the time that Sunshine & her baby are killed, I was a weeping mess. The movie as a whole changed my mind on what a good film could do, & Dustin Hoffman became a personal hero. As I got older & moved out into the world, I was amazed at how many Indians I ran into who could quote whole passages from the film, as I & my brothers & sisters could. It almost became a sort of shorthand & cause for laughter as Indians from all different tribes would say to each other, “you go down there” with the same inflection of Jack Crab as he tells Custer to go down to the Little Big Horn. This movie still holds up today, I don’t find it dated at all. This film opened the door a crack, opened the American mindset a crack, & we Native Americans have been going thru it ever since. I am past middle age now, but I so gratefully look at the new crop of Native American filmmakers (like Sterlin Harjo), many coming from the Sundance Institute workshops, and I know its because of films like Little Big Man.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 7, 2010 3:00 pm

Graham Rye – I’m surprised by the number of people I’ve heard from since writing this piece who haven’t seen the film as well. I had assumed it was “standard viewing” for film fans, critics, etc. but obviously I was wrong. As I mentioned in my piece, I do think it’s a shame that the Vietnam War has become such a central talking point for critics when they’re discussing Little Big Man. It makes it easy to forget the film’s real focus as well as its important historical context.

Suzidoll – Thanks! Little Big Man is my favorite Penn film and it really gave Dustin Hoffman the role of a lifetime. I couldn’t agree with you more when you said, “Actors from the film school generation seem adrift in our shallow contemporary cinema.” Sadly, it’s very true. Films like Little Big Man just don’t get made anymore. Modern “message pictures” tend to be devoid of original ideas and they lack the kind of power and intensity that can be found in Penn’s film.

Susankay54 – Thank you for sharing your personal story about the film. I really appreciate it and I couldn’t agree with you more. I don’t find Little Big Man dated at all. In fact, it still feels like a very modern film to me and its power has not been diminished with age. I haven’t seen any of Sterlin Harjo’s films but I’m glad you mentioned his name. I’ll keep an eye out for them.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 7, 2010 3:00 pm

Graham Rye – I’m surprised by the number of people I’ve heard from since writing this piece who haven’t seen the film as well. I had assumed it was “standard viewing” for film fans, critics, etc. but obviously I was wrong. As I mentioned in my piece, I do think it’s a shame that the Vietnam War has become such a central talking point for critics when they’re discussing Little Big Man. It makes it easy to forget the film’s real focus as well as its important historical context.

Suzidoll – Thanks! Little Big Man is my favorite Penn film and it really gave Dustin Hoffman the role of a lifetime. I couldn’t agree with you more when you said, “Actors from the film school generation seem adrift in our shallow contemporary cinema.” Sadly, it’s very true. Films like Little Big Man just don’t get made anymore. Modern “message pictures” tend to be devoid of original ideas and they lack the kind of power and intensity that can be found in Penn’s film.

Susankay54 – Thank you for sharing your personal story about the film. I really appreciate it and I couldn’t agree with you more. I don’t find Little Big Man dated at all. In fact, it still feels like a very modern film to me and its power has not been diminished with age. I haven’t seen any of Sterlin Harjo’s films but I’m glad you mentioned his name. I’ll keep an eye out for them.

Posted By Kingrat : May 7, 2010 4:13 pm

Kimberly, thanks for highlighting this fine and surprisingly neglected film. I agree with all of you who think this is Dustin Hoffman’s finest performance. Though a contemporary audience would not have the same reaction, in 1970 the My Lai massacre was very much on people’s minds, and there is no question that Arthur Penn wanted the audience to draw a parallel with My Lai.

Another revisionist western of the time is Abraham Polonsky’s TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE, featuring great cinematography by Conrad Hall and a fine performance by Robert Blake in the title role. Unfortunately, the film as a whole is politically correct in the deadening way that LITTLE BIG MAN avoids. Robert Redford as the one good white person delivers putdown lines to everyone else (insufferable), and Susan Clark has the truly horrible role of the “flabby liberal” who won’t stand up for her principles. Willie Boy’s Indian girlfriend is played by the least likely Indian of all time, Katharine Ross.

Posted By Kingrat : May 7, 2010 4:13 pm

Kimberly, thanks for highlighting this fine and surprisingly neglected film. I agree with all of you who think this is Dustin Hoffman’s finest performance. Though a contemporary audience would not have the same reaction, in 1970 the My Lai massacre was very much on people’s minds, and there is no question that Arthur Penn wanted the audience to draw a parallel with My Lai.

Another revisionist western of the time is Abraham Polonsky’s TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE, featuring great cinematography by Conrad Hall and a fine performance by Robert Blake in the title role. Unfortunately, the film as a whole is politically correct in the deadening way that LITTLE BIG MAN avoids. Robert Redford as the one good white person delivers putdown lines to everyone else (insufferable), and Susan Clark has the truly horrible role of the “flabby liberal” who won’t stand up for her principles. Willie Boy’s Indian girlfriend is played by the least likely Indian of all time, Katharine Ross.

Posted By franko : May 7, 2010 5:11 pm

I saw Little Big Man when it first came out. I was 15 years old. It has remained to this day one of the most important and powerful films of my life. I am so glad TCM will be showing it and that it will be seen, as they say, uncut and commercial-free. There can be no other way to see this amazing movie.

Posted By franko : May 7, 2010 5:11 pm

I saw Little Big Man when it first came out. I was 15 years old. It has remained to this day one of the most important and powerful films of my life. I am so glad TCM will be showing it and that it will be seen, as they say, uncut and commercial-free. There can be no other way to see this amazing movie.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 8, 2010 4:17 am

Kingrat – Thank you. It’s surprising that Arthur Penn’s films aren’t better known outside of Bonnie & Clyde.

I’m familiar with Tell Them Willie Boy Here but I’m afraid I haven’t seen the film in its entirety in about 25 years. I believe it finally came out on DVD recently so I should give it another look soon since I don’t remember it all that well. Thanks for reminding me of it!

Franko – It seems like most people who saw the movie when they were growing up were profoundly touched by it. Hopefully more people will get the opportunity to experience Little Big Man when it plays on TCM in a few weeks.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 8, 2010 4:17 am

Kingrat – Thank you. It’s surprising that Arthur Penn’s films aren’t better known outside of Bonnie & Clyde.

I’m familiar with Tell Them Willie Boy Here but I’m afraid I haven’t seen the film in its entirety in about 25 years. I believe it finally came out on DVD recently so I should give it another look soon since I don’t remember it all that well. Thanks for reminding me of it!

Franko – It seems like most people who saw the movie when they were growing up were profoundly touched by it. Hopefully more people will get the opportunity to experience Little Big Man when it plays on TCM in a few weeks.

Posted By la pergrina : May 14, 2010 8:04 pm

I also saw Little Big Man when it first came out. The Irish tune Garry Owen is one of my favorite songs but at the time I did not know it was the marching song for Custer’s Seventh Calvary. That bright happy song being played while the troopers attacked the Cheyenne camp horrified me. I could not stand to listen to it for a long time after watching this movie.

Posted By la pergrina : May 14, 2010 8:04 pm

I also saw Little Big Man when it first came out. The Irish tune Garry Owen is one of my favorite songs but at the time I did not know it was the marching song for Custer’s Seventh Calvary. That bright happy song being played while the troopers attacked the Cheyenne camp horrified me. I could not stand to listen to it for a long time after watching this movie.

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