at age 121
Jack Crabb and the
"Fallen Flower" Mrs. Pendrake
Little Big Man living on
the Cheyenne reservation--
just before Custer's massacre
Little Big Man
and his grandfather,
Old Lodge Skins
(Chief Dan George)
Custer's last speech
Custer's Last Stand
was the setpiece
of the film and was filmed
near the actual location)
Little Big Man and his wife,
Sunshine (Amy Eccles)
"Jack Crabb was either the most neglected hero in history or a liar of insane proportion!" At least the marketing got an accurate bead on this 31-year-old picaresque tale of the life of a 121-year-old veteran of the American West -- and of Custer's Last Stand. The film opens with Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman, fresh from The Graduate) browbeating an interviewer (William Hickey) who is looking into the lives of Plains Indians. It ends with Crabb dismissing the overwhelmed and apologetic historian -- he looked about as exhausted at the film's end as Richard Frank, the priest to whom Salieri tells his story, did at the end of Amadeus) -- as he finishes narrating less than a quarter of his life.
And what a life! The Pawnee Indians attack his family's wagon train and leave Crabb an orphan at age 10. He is adopted by the Cheyenne tribe and the chief of the "human beings," Old Lodge Skins (the late Chief Dan George, a Best Supporting Actor nominee), who he calls "grandfather." He saves the life of Younger Bear (Cal Bellini) in a raid on the Pawnee and earns the name, Little Big Man. He is re-adopted by a plains preacher and his libidinous wife, Louise Pendrake (the ever-so-belle-ish Faye Dunaway). At the end of his "religion period" he is employed by Allardyce T. Merriweather (the late, great Martin Balsam), a hawker of patent medicines. When the towspeople tar and feather them, he re-discovers his sister, Caroline (Carole Androsky) and begins a brief career as a gunfighter known as the "Soda Pop Kid." During this time he makes the acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey, who has been Jack Nicholson's acting coach), but discovers he doesn't have the stomach to actually shoot people.
There really was a Little Big Man but he was little like the character in the film. The real Little Big Man was an Oglala Lakota, a fearless and respected warrior who fought alongside Crazy Horse against Bear Coat Miles. He opposed the treaty and the commission that wanted to take the Black Hills from the Sioux. He was later made into an agency policeman by the white man.
He marries Olga (Kelly Jean Peters), a Swedish woman who never learned English well, and opens a store with a crook. When the store closes, Jack Crabb and his wife, take the advice of General George Armstrong Custer (the comic genius of the late Richard Mulligan) and go west. On the way, Olga is carried off by Indians, which forces Crabb to search throughout the plains, and join Custer's army as a muleskinner. Forced to participate in a raid on an Indian camp, Crabb deserts and discovers the daughter of one of his Cheyenne mentors, Sunshine (played with brilliant silliness by Amy Eccles) giving birth in the woods across the river. Her husband and father killed in the raid, Crabb decides to trade her for his wife, but ends up marrying her and rejoining the Cheyenne when his wife cannot be found.
A year later, as his own child by Sunshine is about to be born, Little Big Man discovers that Olga has become the shrewish wife of his rival, Younger Bear, and she sure had learned to speak Cheyenne! This is the occasion for two of the best exchanges in the film. While searching for Olga, Old Lodge Skins says he had a dream that Little Big Man would return to the tribe.
Old Lodge SkinsDon't worry my son, you will be back with us, I dreamed it last night. I saw you with your wives.
Later, Little Big Man learns that his wife's three sisters have been left widows in army attacks on the "human beings," and Sunshine asks for his help. When he hears Younger Bear boast, "I have a wife. And four horses," Little Big Man replies, "I have a horse... and four wives."
Little Big ManWives, Grandfather?
Old Lodge SkinsYes, there were three... or four, it was hard to tell. It was very dark in your teepee and they were under buffalo rugs as you crawled among them. But it was a great copulation!
Old Lodge Skins, blinded from a battle wound, explains the differing worldviews of the whites and the "human beings":
Little Big ManDo you hate them? Do you hate the White man now?
Old Lodge SkinsDo 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.
But Custer strikes at the settlement on the Washita River, killing Sunshine, her sisters, and a great many others. Little Big Man escapes with his blind grandfather by convincing him that he is invisible: "Invisible! I've never been invisible before!" exclaims the thrilled old man. Crabb is so enraged at this duplicitous ambush, he becomes a renegade and decides to take revenge on Custer, but at the last moment...
Gen. CusterYou came up here to kill me, didn't you? And you lost your nerve. Well, I was correct. In a sense, you are a renegade, but you are no Cheyenne Brave. (considers a moment) Do I hang you? I think not. Get out of here.
The humiliation drives Crabb to become a drunk. He encounters Wild Bill Hickok once again and is sent on an errand to pay off his mistress and get her out of town before his new wife catches on. But then Hickock is shot down (August 2, 1876), and Crabb discovers that the mistress is none other than the Rev. Pendrake's wife: "Well, Jack. Now you know. This is a house of ill fame, and I'm a fallen flower. This life is not only wicked and sinful. It isn't even any fun." Crabb leaves and becomes a hermit. One day he is confronted with the ceaseless cruelty and injustice of life and is about to throw himself off a cliff, when... he sees Custer's army marching on the plain below. He realizes then exactly how to get his revenge.
Jack CrabbYou're not going to hang me?
Gen. CusterYour miserable life is not worth the reversal of a Custer decision.
Unaccountably, Custer hires the muleskinner as a scout -- a "perfect reverse barometer," he tells his sergeant. When deciding whether or not to attack an Indian encampment at Little Big Horn, Custer asks,
Gen. CusterWhat do you think I should do, Muleskinner? Should I go down there or withdraw?
And so he does. And the Cheyenne, and thousands of other Indians, massacre Custer's forces (June 25, 1876 -- actually before Hickock was gunned down). As the soldiers are being wiped out, Richard Mulligan, as Custer, delivers one of his most hilariously insane speeches. Crabb, however, is rescued... by his rival, Younger Bear. As he is delivered once again to the "human beings," Little Big Man again sees the blind "grandfather," Old Lodge Skins, who is preparing to die. On his grandson's arm, he walks to the mountaintop burial site, shouts at the Great Spirit, then lies down meet his end. But it begins to rain, and Old Lodge Skins realizes that he has a few more years yet.
Jack CrabbGeneral, you go down there... There are thousands of Indians down there, and when they get done with you, there won't be nothin' left but a greasy spot. You go down there if you got the nerve.
Gen. CusterStill trying to outsmart me, aren't you, Muleskinner? You want me to think that you don't want me to go down there, but the subtle truth is, you really don't want me to go down there!
Because stories about ordinary men who rise to extraordinary events always touch me, Little Big Man is one of my all-time favorites. Arthur Penn has directed a vast ensemble of comedy mixed with tragedy, like life itself, and it is a shame the film is not available, in wide-screen format, on DVD.*
Little Big Man (1970) 147 mins. Directed by Arthur Penn. Written by Thomas Berger (novel of which only about 1/3 makes it to the screen) and Calder Willingham (screenplay). Cast: Dustin Hoffman as Jack Crabb, Faye Dunaway as Mrs. Pendrake, Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins (Chief of Cheyenne Tribe), Martin Balsam as Mr. Merriweather (traveling salesman), Richard Mulligan as General George Armstrong Custer, Jeff Corey as Wild Bill Hickok, Amy Eccles as Sunshine, Kelly Jean Peters as Olga Crabb, Carol Androsky as Caroline Crabb (Jack's Sister), Robert Little Star as Little Horse, Cal Bellini as Younger Bear, Ruben Moreno as Shadow That Comes In Sight, Steve Shemayne as Burns Red In The Sun, William Hickey as Historian, Thayer David as Reverend Silas Pendrake, Philip Kenneally as Mr. Kane (drug store proprietor), Jack Bannon as Captain, M. Emmet Walsh as Shotgun Guard, Emily Cho as Digging Bear, Cecelia Kootenay as Little Elk, Linda Dyer as Corn Woman, Dessie Bad Bear as Buffalo Wallow Woman.
—*The DVD version is now available!
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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.
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