Little Big Man (1970)
Arthur Penn is a great director, no body is denying that. He has a way of infusing a very dark sense of borderline slapstick humor into his films. He is a storyteller. But with "Little Big Man" I find that Penn bit off way more than he can chew.
The film, told by an older man looking back on his younger years, has all the right characteristics to be a tall tale. Yet for its "Big Fish" quality, "Little Big Man" is a movie about the Native Americans and the horrors that they endured at the hands of the white man.
There are two movies included in "Little Big Man"—the light-hearted yarn, and the deadly serious art film. Because of these two sides of the same coin, the larger picture seems as confusing as a Picasso painting.
So yes, some people would consider this to be a masterpiece...I'm not one of them.
At the beginning of the movie, in a classic, borderline deathbed fashion, an old man is being interviewed by a brash reporter. This reporter is doing a story on the genocide of the Native Indians, he doesn't expect an "old timer" like this man to agree with his hypothesis—he wants the old man's opinion because he was the only survivor of Custer's Last Stand. But don't judge a book by its cover, or in this case, a really old man by the prejudices of his contemporaries.
The old man starts talking, taking the viewer and the reporter back over a hundred years—a fact that doesn't help the off-kilter, zany taste of the film.
Not all Indians were bad, but not all Indians were good. While traveling out West with his family, a young boy's family is killed by the Pawnee tribe. He and his sister, a rough-tough girl, are the only survivors. They are picked up by a Cheyenne Indian and taken back to their camp. The chief, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George in an Oscar nominated role) decides to let both the white children live. The boy's name is Jack and his sister is Caroline—she runs off during the night and leaves Jack behind. But Jack has a natural aptitude for Indian activities.
He grow up with the Cheyenne and considers them to be his real family, of course this doesn't last that long. As an adolescent he saves a bully from a Pawnee Indian and then earns himself the name Little Big Man.
While waging war with the white man, Jack is almost killed but his finds himself begging for mercy from a calvary man by unleashing his secret—he's white.
Taken back into "the civilized world", Jack is raised by the preacher and his wife, Mrs. Pendrake (Faye Dunaway). There is an incestuous longing between mother and adoptive son. She is beautiful and he is youthful. This, added onto the fact that Mrs. Pendrake doesn't seem like a "wholesome woman" gives us a platter of odd behavior.
From here on out, Jack rocks between the Indians and white society. He goes back to the Cheyenne many times and returns many times...every time with a sense of finality. It just makes the viewer not trust Jack's narration, which is maybe what we're supposed to do.
Still, there is so much weirdness going on here that it's impossible to keep score—the gay Cheyenne boy who makes advances on Jack, the bully who turns into a warrior who does everything backwards, the orgy of sisters, and the portrayal of Custer.
Custer is an evil, pretentious, close-minded, egotistical, insane character in "Little Big Man". The film makes pains to dehumanize him even throughout the gags and jokes.
For me, "Little Big Man" is a confusing work that has strokes of genius. It is a compelling movie to watch and it does have some resemblance to "Bonnie and Clyde". The music feels like folk-bluegrass. The camera captures the Western landscape almost as beautifully as John Ford did.
But to what end? "Little Big Man" is ready to make a statement...but it doesn't.
It's a movie that is far too full of itself.
Posted by Micah Jones