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Arthur Penn's vaguely loopy revisionist Western, Little Big Man (1970), is mainly remembered today for the carefully crafted, seriocomic performance delivered by its star, Dustin Hoffman. But Hoffman's character, Jack Crabb, has a great deal in common with a far more popular big-screen creation named Forrest Gump. Like Forrest, Jack is a chameleonic everyman who stumbles through pivotal moments in American history, always surviving when many others die. He's also brimming over with a sense of humanity that's beyond the reach of the people surrounding him...unless they're Native Americans. And that last part makes Little Big Man a landmark in movie history.
The film opens with Jack - at this point an ornery 121-year-old who insists he's the only white person who survived the Battle of Little Big Horn - being interviewed by an incredulous young historian (William Hickey). Jack gets all huffy and tells the misinformed interviewer to just sit back and shut up- he has a few things to say about Gen. Custer, and about assorted historic events from the 19th century. He was there, you see. He experienced them.
The saga that follows touches upon such concepts as manifest destiny, the government-sanctioned genocide of Native Americans, religious and sexual hypocrisy, and the sheer idiocy of revenge. Jack's surrealistic embellishments of each story are a particular highlight, because you're never really sure, in fact, if they're really embellishments or the truth. If history proves anything, after all, it's that crazier things have happened. Over the course of the film, Jack spends time as a Western settler who's kidnapped and raised by peaceful Cheyenne Indians, as an orphan being pursued by a lecherous preacher's wife (Faye Dunaway), as a snake-eyed gunfighter, as a medicine show con artist, as a down-and-out drunk, and as a scout for the egotistical, utterly buffoonish General Custer (Richard Mulligan).
Not surprisingly, Little Big Man is far more political than the studiously benign, and studiously commercial, Forrest Gump (1994). Jack has strong opinions about the events that unfold around him, and he's tormented by what he's experienced. Penn and his screenwriter, Calder Willingham, took Thomas Berger's source novel and turned it into a commentary on how Native Americans have been treated by this country's government, as well as how they've been portrayed in our motion pictures. Despite the number of belly-laughs it contains, Little Big Man is a righteously angry film, and that dichotomy of emotions makes for a very memorable ride.
Little Big Man's production was no small undertaking. The film was shot on location, and often outdoors, in Montana, California, and Alberta, Canada, with an increasingly exhausted cast. The Canadian portion was especially grueling, as large pieces of it needed to be filmed in the bitter cold, with snow on the ground. At one point, when snow seemed out of the question, Penn even tried to convince a medicine man to do a dance and stir up some precipitation! That's what you call thinking of everything.
Dunaway writes about Hoffman and Little Big Man in her autobiography, Looking for Gatsby. She and Hoffman knew each other as struggling New York actors in the early 1960s, but had never worked together before this picture. And she was fascinated by his acting process on the set.
"Dusty was always reaching for a way to make each take fresh," she writes. "He wanted to make the performance different and unique every time. Everyone develops their own way of getting that freshness, but his, I think, goes down as one of the most entertaining." Hoffman's ritual before the cameras rolled undoubtedly made sense to no one but Hoffman himself. Apparently, he was a fan of the old Earl Scheib car-painting commercials that peppered radio and TV airwaves in the 1960s, and he utilized them in a patently strange manner.
"Dusty would get just the right nasal sound," Dunaway writes, "and promise, as Earl had done for years, that 'I'll paint any car, any color for $29.95...guaranteed.' When the assistant director called 'Rolling,' before Arthur said 'Action,' Dusty, to keep himself loose, would go into these ads, rattling off their corny, hard-sell spiels- you hear it on the printed takes. And then on 'Action,' he'd go from unabashed commercialism to high art, moving right into the heart of Jack Crabb. It was an amazing thing to watch."
Director: Arthur Penn
Producer: Stuart Millar
Screenplay: Calder Willingham (based on the novel by Thomas Berger)
Editor: Dede Allen
Cinematographer: Harry Stradling, Jr.
Music: John Hammond
Production Design: Dean Tavoularis
Art Design: Angelo Graham
Special Effects: Dick Smith, Logan Frazee
Set Design: George R. Nelson
Stunts: Hal Needham
Costume Designer: Dorothy Jeakins
Makeup: Terry Miles
Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Jack Crabb), Faye Dunaway (Mrs. Pendrake), Martin Balsam (Allardyce T. Merriweather), Richard Mulligan (Gen. George A. Custer), Chief Dan George (Old Lodge Skins), Jeff Corey (Wild Bill Hickok), Aimee Eccles (Sunshine), Kelly Jean Peters (Olga), Carol Androsky (Caroline), William Hickey (Historian).
by Paul Tatara