Little Big Man (1970) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

In drawing a parallel to more recent films, I'd suppose that the single most comparable film to Little Big Man is Forrest Gump. Just as Forrest passed through our times and mirrored them, encountering every important movement and every significant person in each era, Jack Crabb lived through the Wild West, met the most famous characters, and had his own version of the whole saga in which he kept encountering the same people again and again.

Hey, the West was a small place.

The film starts in 1970, with a reporter interviewing Mr Crabb (Dustin Hoffman, in one of his great performances), the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, a wrinkled visage who is 121 years old at the time of the interview. In the course of his tall tale about the taming of the west, he recounts his career as a Cheyenne Indian, a bible thumper, a snake-oil salesman, a gunfighter, a drunk, and just about everything else one could be in those days. Since he was a white man raised by the Cheyenne, and spoke both languages fluently, he moved back and forth between the two worlds.

His story is great when it is being funny. I laughed out loud at the sight of Dustin Hoffman dressed as a gunfighter. He really was the fastest gun in the West, and also the surest shot. Only one little thing kept him from achieving gunfighter immortality. He didn't like shooting at any living things.

The strangest comic portrayal in the film, in moments both hilarious and sad, was ol' George Armstrong Custer. Richard Mulligan brought all his usual pomposity and nervous mannerisms to the role, playing Custer as a man who was not merely self-absorbed, but just plain insane. In this way, the film actually manages to treat the battle of Little Big Horn as a comic event, with Custer walking around on foot in his buckskins, babbling away at the endless hordes of Sioux and Cheyenne attacking him, oblivious to the fact that he had just led the U.S. Army to what is still the most complete defeat in its history.

On the other hand, the film turns completely serious at times, the most affecting moments coming during its portrayal of the massacre of Washita, or as it is sometime called, the Battle of the Washita. Unlike the Battle of Little Big Horn, which is not portrayed with any historical accuracy, the portrayal of the Washita incident is quite faithful to the generally accepted historical account. Custer and his men attacked a sleeping Indian village on Indian lands. The chief of this group, Black Kettle, had always been peaceful, and had been assured by the commanding officer of the territory that he had nothing more to fear when on reservation land. Black Kettle flew a Stars and Stripes over his teepee, as well as a white flag of peace.

General Sheridan, Custer's immediate superior and friend, did not see the Indian situation in quite the same light as the territory commander. He wanted to take a preventive action to impair the Cheyenne's ability to wage war. So Custer's men rode into Black Kettle's village one day before dawn, with the Garryowen playing, and created a swath of destruction, which included the slaughtering of about 900 Indian ponies. The film portrays the horse-killing accurately, but leads the viewer to see the action as some kind of incomprehensible madness on Custer's part. In fact, killing the ponies actually made complete military sense to Custer. It would be like destroying their tanks in modern terms. Custer also destroyed or expropriated all their ammunition (even arrows), and all their winter food supplies. Those Indians who were not killed or captured were stranded without food and ponies, somewhere in a snow-bound plain.

Custer claimed that something like 90 Cheyenne braves were killed that day. The Indian account was 11 dead warriors, with all the rest of the corpses being women, old people, and children. Custer was a brave warrior, but was no mental giant (he graduated last in his class at West Point). A peaceful village of 51 lodges would be unlikely to hold enough warriors to produce 90 casualties even at a 100% kill rate, so his claim was ludicrous, but the Indian version probably also leaves plenty of room for dispute. Certainly the villagers were not just as completely peaceful as they pretended to be in their accounts, since the 51 tents were accompanied by an arsenal large enough to defeat France (4000 arrows, 500 pounds of lead, 500 pounds of gunpowder, and 875 horses).

Despite the fact that it was a surprise attack against peaceful Indians, Washita was not an especially successful military engagement. Custer's lack of control of one of his flanks led that group into a precarious encounter with a large band of different Indians camped nearby, who had responded to the sounds coming from Black Kettle's camp. Overall, in a pre-dawn attack on a sleeping village of fifty tents filled with women and children, Custer managed to lose the lives of two officers and 19 enlisted men. Not only was it not much of a battle, but it wasn't even a very efficient massacre!

NUDITY REPORT

There's Dustin Hoffman's butt and some nudity from unidentified Indian women, including a distant non-sexual frontal.

If you aren't familiar with Custer's career, he earned his reputation in the Civil War. He still remains to this day the youngest man ever to win the ranks of Brigadier General (age 23) and Major General (age 25) in the U.S. Army, by his aggressive tactics in the War Between the States. He must have been genuinely impressive in that conflict, because he was considered important enough to be present in the courthouse at the Appomatox surrender, and was later presented the actual table upon which the surrender document had been executed.

Those lofty ranks he attained were wartime ranks, however. After the war ended, he went back to the rank of Captain, and never reached a higher rank than Lieutenant Colonel in the regular peacetime army. (He was still entitled to use the title of "General" in certain situations). In about a decade on the plains, he did nothing significant on the battlefield in the struggles against the Indians. His only memorable contribution to the army after the Civil War was his addition of a musical band to the 7th Cavalry, and his selection of the Garryowen as the official regimental air.

Our popular notions of history are often significant distortions of reality, for one reason or another. In our hazy recollection and popular retelling of the incident, we've extracted and immortalized some broad images of the famous Battle of Little Big Horn, but your current impressions may not be very accurate unless you are a history buff. It seems to me that most people imagine this battle as an Indian encirclement of Custer's valiant troops. In fact, it was a surprise attack by Custer, an unprovoked act of aggression like the Battle of Washita, in which he led his men in a charge on an Indian encampment. This time, however, he had not attacked peaceful Black Kettle, but two warrior chiefs named Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who were actively resisting the U.S. Government's attempts to place white settlers on Sioux land. The nature of the enemy was not the worst news, however. Custer knew, or should have known, that these particular Indians could be formidable enemies, but it might have been possible to defeat them if Custer had stayed with the original plan. Ol' Yellowhair was supposed to lead one prong of a three-pronged attack. Unfortunately, the other two prongs were nowhere to be seen. The impetuous Custer had outraced the infantry, and the third unit had been detoured by battles with hostiles. Given the circumstances, Custer shouldn't have stirred up a battle that day. He could have waited for the other units, or he could have sent back for instructions, but instead he chose to lead his 264 troopers into battle - against 5000 armed and skilled Sioux and Cheyenne horsemen.

Oops.

By the way, Custer was wearing buckskins that day, not Cavalry Blues (a detail which the movie got right), and his hair was cut short that day for battle (a detail which the movie got wrong, perhaps intentionally, since the long blond hair made for more impressive cinema).

One of the interesting elements of the film is that the Indians are not really portrayed as romantic noble savages, as you might expect from a less nuanced script. They are every bit as fucked-up as the whites. Old Lodge Skins, the old man who is the only real hero of the film, is peaceful and compassionate, but also dotty and feckless. The Indians in the film, like the whites, are troubled by nagging wives, homosexuality, arguments, jealousy, weakness, lust, and all other human characteristics.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen letterboxed 2.35:1.

  • bare-bones

In fact, although this film is essentially a comedy, and Crabb's version of the Wild West is supposed to be a tall tale, it is possible to feel that what he has revealed is "truer" than many versions which pass as history. Custer wasn't really anything like the way he was portrayed here, but it's eminently reasonable to argue that many people could have seen him that way, including Jack Crabb (and, by the way, President Grant, who fought with Custer in the Civil War, and thought he was a schmuck).

The Critics Vote

  • Although now considered a classic, the film was nominated for only one Oscar - Chief Dan George as Best Supporting Actor.

The People Vote ...

  • It was a hit. The $31 million gross was a lot of money in 1970, roughly equivalent to $100 million today.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this film is a B-. Very entertaining film. A hilarious revisionist look at the legends of the Old West, great performances by Dustin Hoffman and Richard Mulligan, and also some heart-rending moments which will get deep inside of you. It's hard to keep your eyes dry when Crabb watches his sweet-natured Indian wife get gunned down at Washita, just hours after giving birth.

Return to the Movie House home page