Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Little Big Man (1970)

En god dag at dø
Instead of writing a grim story about the advance of the pandemic I want to be a little more optimistic this time. There are limits to how much bad news and dire prospect anybody can take. I keep looking for something positive and I found two things to lift the spirit a little. These days we are following the number of new hospitalizations here in Denmark closely and the rate does seem to get less steep. That is good news because that means the lockdown is working. It is too early to say for certain, but the curve does seem to be bending the right way. Secondly, the hospitals are testing new medicine that may be working. Again, too early to really know, but on the short term, this is what we need.

The movie today is Arthur Penn’s “Little Big Man”. Maybe the 1970 movie I have been looking forward to the most. It has been many years since I watched it last, probably not since the nineties. I remember my parents had it on VHS tape recorded from television and watching it again I realized I had forgotten almost everything about it. Even the wry humor of it.

Dustin Hoffman is Jack Crab who, wearing impressive make up, is an ancient man telling his life story to a journalist. That is a story with many episodes and phases, not unlike the later “Forest Gump”. As a child, Jack’s parents were killed by Pawnee Indians and he was adopted by Cheyenne Indians. He developed a close tie to the chief, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), whom he calls Grandfather. During a skirmish with the Cavalry he was captured and turned “white” again as he was fostered by the strict reverend Pendrake and his promiscuous wife. Jack became assistant to a  fraudulent medicine salesman, turns gunslinger, shopkeeper, got married, lost his wife in a Indian raid, returned to his tribe, got new wives etc.

The returning feature is that he shifts between a life with the Indians who calls themselves Human Beings and Whites who are generally a bunch of dicks. Jack is repeatedly knocked down and bounce back, but the true blows, the massacres against Indians he is witnessing, are not so easy to recover from. While Jack rarely actually does anything, he usually lacks the courage, he is a witness to everything.

What “Little Big Man” does is telling the sad story of the destruction of a people and culture but combining it with an unreliable and comic witness. The combination is bitter-sweet and you never really know whether to laugh or cry. Dustin Hoffman’s Jack Crabb is naïve but curious, a pacifist yet resolute and through his eyes the world is a weird place. The Indian are noble and civilized of mind, while the Whites are low and cunning and not a little stupid. As such it fits the anti-establishment sentiment of the period, finding a parallel between the atrocities against the Indians in the nineteenth century and “imperialist” America’s doings in 1970.

To me it was not so much the politics of the movie but the sheer adventure of Jack Crabb’s life that was the catch. It is fast paced and imaginative, surprising and quirky. At every turn Jack gets involved in something new and it is never boring. Western legends like Wild Bill Hickok and General Custer are presented as fools and western tropes are turned upside down. It is very entertaining indeed and the more than two hours of running time passes very quickly. For a tragedy this is really very amusing.

The only negative is that the fun and the silliness sometimes go too far into the ridiculous. It is difficult to believe that Custer was this much of a moron and it feels wrong to laugh with so many slaughtered women and children.  

Still, in the bigger picture this matters little. I would recommend this movie any day, particularly during lockdown.



  1. I think you liked this a little more than I did, although I didn't hate it.

    1. I will read your review, then we shall see.
      I did like it quite a bit, though.