Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man opens with a young historian’s first encounter with Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), a 121-year-old man whom the scholar believes to be the last surviving Indian fighter of the old West. The historian is right — but as Crabb begins telling his story, he reveals that he also fought with the Cheyenne, who adopted him and raised him as one of their own. The rest of the movie traces Crabb’s journey through many key events and movements of the 1860s as he grows up to try out a variety of identities. After he is “rescued” from the Cheyenne, he falls in with an abusive preacher and his libidinous wife; before long, he moves on to work as a con artist, gunfighter, shopkeeper and mule skinner, all the while continuing to bridge the two worlds between the Cheyenne and the whites.
This plot description gives little sense of Little Big Man’s truly unique style, which incorporates the majestic imagery of the traditional Western but blends it with pointed social satire, lowbrow slapstick and a poignant sense of loss. It is hard to think of many American films that veer so wildly among so many tones without ever running off the rails; some of Quentin Tarantino’s work pulls off a similar trick, but even Tarantino has rarely succeeded at generating such extremes of raucous comedy, brutal violence and total and absolute heartbreak in one movie. The structure allows Penn to pay tribute to (as well as poke fun at) a wide variety of Western films, including Rio Bravo, the Jimmy Stewart classic Broken Arrow and John Ford’s Stagecoach. The result is a film buff’s delight — the references are clever and work on multiple thematic levels, and the very notion of the nebbish Hoffman taking on the roles of both John Wayne and the Indians in The Searchers is hilarious.
For all its playfulness, however, Little Big Man is also an angry political commentary on its own time. A few years earlier, films like The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch implicitly justified the American counterinsurgency overseas by substituting Mexico for Vietnam; Little Big Man uses the same iconography to different ends, invoking tragedies such as the My Lai incident in the staging of the 1868 Washita Massacre. (Little Big Man was not the only Western of its era to take this approach — the controversial Soldier Blue directly recreated images of My Lai in its presentation of the Sand Creek Massacre.) The anti-establishment perspective of Calder Willingham’s screenplay (based on Thomas Berger’s novel) extends to other aspects of the American culture of the time as well, raising issues relating to feminism and gay liberation in a manner that was both extremely contemporary in 1970 and more historically accurate to the 1800s than many more traditional, serious Westerns.
Yet Little Big Man is rarely preachy — as in Penn’s earlier Bonnie and Clyde, the maverick sensibility is embedded in the film’s DNA. The film also shares with Bonnie and Clyde plenty of sly jabs at sexual repression; in Little Big Man, heroism and wisdom are linked to a healthy sex life even as characters like Custer and the preacher and his wife are characterized by their hang-ups and hypocrisy. Much of this material is utterly loopy, but the underlying moral seriousness of the piece sneaks up on the viewer and packs a big, emotional wallop — the sense of loss at the end of the movie makes it clear that the material is no joke to Penn and his collaborators.
One of the most important of those collaborators was director of photography Harry Stradling Jr., ASC, who was already a veteran of the Western form when he signed on for Little Big Man. Having collaborated with Burt Kennedy on several iconic Westerns, including Welcome to Hard Times and Support Your Local Sheriff, Stradling was an expert at both delivering the conventional satisfactions of the Western and subverting the genre although Kennedy’s riffs on the classical form were a mere warm-up for Penn’s all-out deconstruction. In any case, the broad historical and emotional scope of Little Big Man inspired Stradling to produce some of the finest work of his career as he used the anamorphic frame as an expressive tool capable of conveying both mythic scale and emotional intimacy.
Paramount’s new, high-definition transfer of the film provides an often beautiful representation of Stradling’s palette, which tends toward warm earth tones in interiors but also includes rich, deep blacks and striking snow-white landscapes. The reproduction of the night exterior work is particularly impressive as the transfer reveals minute details in even the darkest scenes without compromising or brightening the blacks. The clarity and sharpness are exemplary throughout and allow one to really appreciate the attention to detail not only in Stradling’s cinematography, but also in the period set design and Hoffman’s flawless old-age makeup. The audio is excellent as well although the 5.1 mix does not do much with the rear channels; the sound is mostly spread across the front speakers, with clarity in the dialogue and a nice balance between ambient effects and music. Unfortunately, the disc falls short in terms of its source material as the print contains a more-than-average quantity of dirt and scratches; the lack of bonus materials, aside from a trailer, is also disappointing. Yet overall, this is still a fine presentation of an important and entertaining American film, one of those rare movies that remain fresh while also serving as a fascinating time capsule.