Back in the days when Dustin Hoffman was a young man, before the tubs got him and the accusations of the last couple of years were on their alleged way, he covered himself in glory with a set of terrific performances. One such, oddly comic, but startling piece began with the deep tragedy of an ancient man’s face (excellent make-up for Hoffman as 121-year-old Jack Crabb) intoning, to a keen archivist with a two-reel tape recorder, his part in America’s history. Hoffman is excellent, jumping to sprightly youth in the flashbacks that follow, energising this cheery comedy with a ton of stings in its tail: Little Big Man.
Old Mrs Jack and I went to see it on our travels to the States in late 1970. Weirdly enough, it was the same week we caught John Wayne’s Rio Lobo (of which, more elsewhere). Wayne’s film loved America, Little Big Man had more than a touch of hippie disdain and the nervousness that hung over the place that year.
So, to the old man’s flashbacks. He goes right to his childhood, his family murdered by the Pawnee, his boyish sister disappearing and him being taken in by a wandering Cheyenne. Who takes him home. Ten-year old Jack is raised by Old Lodge Skins, the kind of complex, warm and funny old soul you’d not be meeting in Rio Lobo. For this is a film of contrasts, not only with the Duke’s America, but also between the lives of the “Human Beings” (the Cheyenne) and the people white America saw as human beings: themselves. It starts with the comedy of family: Old Lodge Skins is lovely; Younger Bear is a boy and reluctant peer of Jack Crabb who comes to hate him for accidentally saving Younger Bear’s life; in a later visit, when Younger Bear is a Contrary backward-walker, tribal women are characterised as lusty, lovely and keen for family. Funny and human.
In his teens, Hoffman’s Jack is captured by the cavalry and given to a vicar and his lascivious wife for good keeping. We bounce, through rather cheap laughs, from Human Beings of frailty and family to a venal, grasping world of hypocrisy and – as it’s Faye Dunaway – immensely pleasing sexiness. Reverend Pendrake proselytizes like a good-un, Mrs Pendrake hunts the boy and turns out to be banging the sweet shop owner.
And the film then flips between the two types of worlds as Jack becomes a snake-oil peddler, revisits the Cheyenne, becomes a mule-skinner in Custer’s cavalry, but abandons them in a chilling scene as they massacre the Cheyenne. Jack finds the wife of the man who saved him as a boy, taking on her, her new kid and the kindness of Old Lodge Skins. For a while that doesn’t end nicely.
There are more flips as the film revisits characters it meets along the way, showing up the coldness of the invaders and the destruction wrought upon those native to American land. Quite what the Duke would have said… But it all made sense at the time, and more gently so these days, to old Jack. History is not a pleasant story, and glorying in a version that mollifies the guilt of the knowing and hides it from the ignorant, really isn’t on.
Little Big Man makes its points with lovely cinematography, some beautiful performances (Hoffman is good, Dunaway flirtilicious, Chief Dan George the big, silly, lovely, absolute star of the thing) and a framework with a tart message to the old. For 121-year-old Jack Crabb is ragingly forgetful or a downright liar.
Our anecdotes are sometimes more real than the experiences we’ve had, perhaps better told, certainly reordered, edited and presented for effect. Just like a film, in fact. Little Big Man does the sorting to make a point about America’s culpability – and responsibility – for the wreckage of its birth. For us, sat in our homes, telling tales to our friends, kids, grandkids and exceptionally tolerant nurses…well, best we keep an eye out for what we don’t know we’re revealing. Or keep the stories this funny.
Try Amazon Prime for a pointed and funny history lesson.