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Arts & Culture

DVD Review: 'Little Big Man'

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Paramount Pictures/CBS video
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“I am the last remaining white survivor of the battle of Little Big Horn...popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand,” croaks the 121-year-old Jack Crabb at the beginning of Arthur Penn’s sprawling satirical epic, “Little Big Man.”  Over two hours long, but never dull, Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) out-Gumps Forrest as his life becomes intertwined with history.

Told in flashback, “Little Big Man” opens as the young Jack Crabb is abducted by Cheyenne on the American plains.  He is adopted by one of the tribe’s elders, Old Lodge Skins, and is named Little Big Man because of his bravery despite being small in stature.
 
From there, Jack eventually finds his way back into white society, to become:

  • raised by a minister’s wife (Faye Dunaway)
  • apprentice to a huckster (Martin Balsam)
  • a sharpshooting friend of Wild Bill Hickcok (Jeff Corey),
  • a general store owner
  • a hermit trapper
  • a drunk
  • a scout for General George Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan).

 There are homecomings back to the Cheyenne, where Jack seems happiest, and where he takes a wife who is tragically killed in the Battle of Washita. Old Lodge Skins sadly intones there is an endless supply of white men, and only a limited supply of Human Beings, as the Cheyenne call themselves.
 
“Little Big Man” was released in 1970, three years after Arthur Penn’s own “Bonnie and Clyde,” and one year after the violent Western, “The Wild Bunch.” Penn’s film was one of the first to both take Native Americans seriously as a culture and as characters in a story. The movie is also upfront about the role the United States played in Native American’s forced exodus from their lands, and the genocide of the peoples themselves. As a modern parallel, Penn’s aforementioned staging of the Battle of Washita bears resemblance to the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, which took place just two years before this film. It hardly seems coincidental that several of the women that play Cheyenne in the sequence are Asian actresses.

But “Little Big Man” expertly balances these weighty issues with humor. As characters in the film reappear throughout Jack’s life, it’s akin to seeing an old friend at your high school reunion and finding they’ve turned out exactly as you thought they would.  Snake-oil salesman Mr. Merriweather (Balsam) keeps losing little bits of himself throughout the picture. Jack’s first wife, Olga, turns up later, henpecking a new husband. Only Old Lodge Skins seems to grow wiser. Chief Dan George, a real-life chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in Canada, brings a quiet dignity to the role, but with a glint in his eye, even after he’s been blinded in battle. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Speaking of Oscar, why the heck wasn’t Dustin Hoffman nominated for this role? We all could have easily lived without Ryan O’Neal’s “Love Story” nomination, but look--and listen--to what Hoffman does in “Little Big Man.” The 121-year-old Jack Crabb notwithstanding, he’s required to age himself in the picture, and transform physically and emotionally. I noticed his voice this time around. There’s the craggy, croaking sound of the elderly Jack Crabb that narrates the picture. As a teenager, Hoffman raises his voice into a higher register to connote youth. And then, with each character he takes up with, Hoffman uses a slightly different accent. For example, he adopts a modified southern drawl when in the company of General Custer. There’s a bit of a “dumb yokel” sound to his voice when he’s in the company of Mrs. Pendrake (Dunaway); he loses it after he leaves her home, but when he runs into her later on the picture, the voice returns.

Hoffman is also brilliant at physical mannerisms, whether humorously trying to adopt the style of a gunfighter, or tearing up after betraying his Cheyenne heart to save his skin. Though I’ve always admired Hoffman’s skills, I confess I’ve never thought of him as one of my favorite actors, but the other day I began to count the movies in my collection in which he has a starring role, and... well, there you go.
 
Arthur Penn would go on after “Little Big Man” to make one more critically acclaimed film, “Night Moves” (1975), followed by a dog, “The Missouri Breaks,” and a handful of hit and miss films before returning to his roots in television, producing several episodes of “Law & Order.” Penn, who died in 2010, will forever be remembered for “Bonnie and Clyde,” a landmark film in the history of American cinema, but “Little Big Man” deserves to be more well-known, too.

Perhaps this month “Little Big Man” will see some new life. Dick Smith, the legendary makeup artist who worked on the film, will be awarded an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement on November 13, 2011. Smith’s credits include demonizing Linda Blair in “The Exorcist,” helping Marlon Brando get under the skin of “The Godfather,” staging the bloody “Taxi Driver,” and aging F. Murray Abraham into the elder Salieri in “Amadeus.”  But before all of those films, Smith revolutionized the use of prosthetics on “Little Big Man,” transforming the 32-year-old Hoffman into a 121-year-old man.  Even with this new high definition Blu-ray release of “Little Big Man,” you can see Hoffman clearer than ever, but it’s still tough to tell just how Smith made that movie magic happen.  Congratulations to Dick Smith for his life’s work.

“LITTLE BIG MAN” ON BLU-RAY
 
“Little Big Man” has sadly been neglected on home video over the years. The Blu-ray release, like the previous issue on DVD years ago, includes only the film’s trailer as an extra feature. The color is improved over the previous DVD release, but there are times during the first 20 minutes and last 10 minutes of the movie that I noticed specks and blemishes on the screen that could have been cleaned up with a more careful restoration for high-definition. Still, this is one film I would easily recommend you add to your collection, for the movie itself is splendid entertainment.