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There is an endless supply of White Men, but there has always been a limited number of Human Beings
on 12 July 2011
Recounting how the West was won through the eyes of a white man raised as a Native American, Arthur Penn's 1970 adaptation of Thomas Berger's satirical novel was a comic yet stinging allegory about the bloody results of American imperialism.
As a misguided 20th century historian listens, 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) narrates the story of being the only white survivor of Custer's Last Stand. White orphan Crabb was adopted by the Cheyenne, renamed "Little Big Man," and raised in the ways of the "Human Beings" by paternal mentor Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), accepting non-conformity and living peacefully with nature.
Violently thrust into the white world, Jack meets a righteous preacher (Thayer David) and his wife (Faye Dunaway), tries to be a gunfighter under the tutelage of Wild Bill Hickock (Jeff Corey), and gets married. Returned to the Cheyenne by chance, Jack prefers life as a Human Being.
Three years after the seminal "Bonnie and Clyde," Arthur Penn made the epic and revisionist Western, Little Big Man. Reflecting the times in which the movie was made the anti-Vietnam war era director Penn put white murderousness and racism at the center of his narrative. Politically speaking, the atrocities against the Native Americans were meant to signify those against Vietnam at the time.
For most of the film, the tone is comic and even satirical: all kinds of colorful characters turn up, disappear, and turn up again. Also, the film frequently shifts in tone, from farce to comedy to drama and tragedy - this may upset many viewers, who are not used to such a strategy. But despite that the amazing thing is that this mock epic Western came out as well as it did. You can credit that to the effortless acting and, also, there's a lot of meat in all those vignettes that offer social criticism against Native American genocide, religious and sexual hypocrisy, and the stupidity of revenge.
The chameleon perpetual adolescent character played by Hoffman has its appealing moments, but the film is stolen by the nonchalant Chief Dan George spouting wisdom and mixing in a stand-up comic routine and dishing out ladles of humanity. There's also a counter-cultural take on an effeminate homosexual named Little Horse, who is allowed to be himself by the Cheyenne and is even cherished by the chief. As for Hoffman? One of his best performances to date.
Easily one of the most entertaining (and overlooked) Westerns of the early 1970s.
DVD extras only include chapter selection and language options. Aspect ratio is 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.