Sunday, October 23, 2016

Little Big Man

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

This 1970 film directed by Arthur Penn is the first major revisionist Western movie that reverses the view of the Native American as a savage and the white man as civilized. It delivers its theme by having a 121-year-old protagonist who is the only living survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn tell the story of how he moved back and forth between living with the whites and the Indians.

Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), in person altering makeup and raspy voice, relates his adventures to a historian (William Hickey). Jack and his sister, Caroline (Carole Androsky), are the only survivors after Pawnee Indians attack their wagon train (later Jack has no use for the Pawnee because they pandered to the whites, allowing themselves to be used as scouts for the cavalry). A Cheyenne brave rescues them and takes the children back to his village. Jack’s sister’s attitude is the accepted notion of the time that the Red Man is a savage and will rape her. In fact, they do not even realize she is a girl, and offer her the peace pipe as the eldest male family member. She seems a bit insulted that she wasn’t assaulted. Jack says that the Indians treated him as a special guest. His sister escapes, and the 10-year-old Jack innocently believes that she was going for help. But, it is the white person who abandons him and the Indians who adopt Jack as their own. They teach him to hunt, to use red paint to protect his skin, and how to read a trail. He is considered a grandson by the Chief, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George).

The Chief gives him the name of Little Big Man because even though he is small in stature, he has a big heart, and Old Lodge Skins tells him a mythic story about a small warrior whose courage was big. The positive moral here is that it is what is inside a person that matters. The whites don’t try to understand the Native Americans, but instead lump them all together and condemn them because they look and act differently. When Jack punches one of the older braves, the older boy is startled because the so-called barbaric tribe members don’t know how to beat another, as whites do. The bruised Indian, Younger Bear (Cal Bellini as the adult), is shamed because Jack says he is sorry for him, indicating pity. Jack later kills a Pawnee and saves Younger Bear’s life, forcing him to owe Little Big Man a life.

The accepting nature of the Cheyenne (which is translated as “human being,” ironically contrasting the nature of the Indians with that of the whites) is seen in how they accommodate Little Horse (Robert Little Star as the adult), who likes to be with the women, and grows up to be gay. In fact, Jack notes that the Cheyenne would not force any boy to fight if he was not so inclined, which shows how the tribe respected individuality.

The Cheyenne find that the white soldiers have slaughtered a Native American camp, including women and children. When Little Big Man asks Old Lodge Skins why whites would commit such cruel acts, the old man says, “Because they are strange. They do not seem to know where the center of the Earth is.” Here, the Chief indicts the whites for not having a moral center. He decides to wage war on the soldiers to teach them a lesson, but as Jack narrates, his grandfather’s idea of war and that of the soldiers were not the same. The Cheyenne just wanted to humiliate the enemy by “counting coup,” being the first to tap the opponent with a stick. The soldiers shoot to kill, and the Cheyenne believe Jack was killed. Instead he saves himself by showing that he is a white man. Here, and other times, Jack is not a noble person, willing to die for his tribe. He is pragmatic, doing what he can to survive.

The soldiers hand Jack over to the Reverend Silas Pendrake (Thayer David) to make sure he will now receive a Christian moral upbringing to counter the supposed barbaric life he has lived up to that point among the Native Americans. However, the first thing the “civilized” reverend says is that Jack is a liar, and endorses violence by saying “We shall have to beat the lying out of you.” Pendrake falsely condemns the Indians for not knowing anything of what is morally right, eating human flesh, and communing with the minions of the devil. Despite his warnings and beatings about the temptations of the flesh, the portly reverend is a glutton, always wanting to satisfy his hunger. His wife, Louise Pendrake (Faye Dunaway) is an extreme hypocrite, preaching the virtues of denying physical pleasure while indulging her lust by touching the grown-up Jack while washing the filth off of him, but revealing her dirty thoughts. She warns him of how the girls will be after him, likely vicariously thinking of her own wants, and trembles when she says “and that way lies madness,” showing how she already is in that state, made crazy by a religion that wants to repress her sexual drives. She tells Jack that “purity is its own reward,” and undermines the statement by kissing him on the lips. Jack actually believes in the religious teachings, and confesses to a true love for Mrs. Pendrake. But, while on a visit to the soda shop, he comes across her having sex with the proprietor (Jack, before spying on the couple, plays with a faucet in the shape of an elephant, the long trunk an obvious phallic symbol). Jack says, “She was calling him a devil and moaning for help, but I didn’t get no idea she wanted to be rescued.” Given the level of hypocrisy, Jack says after what he saw ended his religious stage.
He takes up with a swindler, whose outright dishonesty and lack of moral pretense is refreshing to him in contrast with that of Mrs. Pendrake. Mr. Merriweather (Martin Balsam) sells snake-oil, offering it up as a magical elixir. He says that Jack has this streak of honesty in him, instilled by Old Lodge Skins, that prevents him from exceling as a fraud. He says to his apprentice, “He gave you a vision of moral order in the universe and there isn’t any.” His nihilism and cynicism show in his words about how easy it is to get people to believe lies: “a two-legged creature will believe in anything and the more preposterous the better: whales speak French at the bottom of the sea. The horses of Arabia have silver wings. Pygmies mate with elephants in darkest Africa. I have sold all those propositions.” Could he be talking to us today about how politicians function? In any event, Merriweather keeps losing parts of his body, including his ear and a hand. He later loses an eye due to cheating at cards, and when Jack meets him further in the story, Merriweather proposes the rape of the land by killing dwindling buffalo herds for their hides. At that point he has lost a leg. His physical infirmities reflect his moral decay due to his exploitative capitalistic ways.

While working with Merriweather, the two are tarred and feathered by local town folk for the deadly potion the duo are selling. One of the locals is a woman who turns out to be Jack’s sister Caroline. She wants to teach him how to shoot. He doesn’t know anything about guns, to which his sister questions what kind of upbringing did he have with the Indians. To her, a “man ain’t complete without a gun.” Again, the so-called civilized world of the whites is satirized as violence is shown to be an intrinsic part of that society. It turns out that Jack is a natural at shooting. He enters the gunfighter stage of his life. Instead of looking intimidating, he dresses in an over-the-top way, in a fancy black outfit. His boots break through a plank of wood while walking on the street. He is known as the “soda-pop kid” and barely reaches the table as he props his boots up. He runs into Wild Bill Hickock, who rightly says to the young man, “you ain’t got the look of murder about you.” Jack’s life among the Cheyenne taught him to respect life, and that is why he is so awkward as a gunfighter. After seeing how nervous Wild Bill is, who is on the alert against being shot by men proving their white world worth by besting him in death, and witnessing Bill’s bloody killing of an opponent, he sells his guns. Disgusted with his not embracing violence, Caroline leaves Jack, abandoning her brother once again. So much for the white society’s loyalty to family.

After rejecting the religious path, the role of a swindler, and the gunfighter profession, Jack then tries another aspect of white society, that of a husband and businessman. Again, he fails. His partner robs him of all his money, emphasizing the dishonesty of the white world. It is interesting that he chooses a mail order Swedish woman, Olga (Kelly Jean Peters) as his spouse. Even though Jack is trying to exist in the American white environment, he marries a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language of that world. Perhaps his Indian roots subconsciously reject his trying to fit into the white American established order. Jack first encounters General George Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan) when he is being evicted from his home. Custer actually shows some sympathy for the deprived man and advises him to go west. Jack says his wife is scared of Indians, but Custer assures the couple he will protect them. Ironically the next scene is an attack by Indians on the stagecoach on which Jack and Olga are riding. A brave carries Olga off. Olga has the same attitude about the so-called uncivilized Indian that Jack’s sister has. However, we later find that she becomes the wife of Younger Bear, Jack’s Cheyenne enemy, and she seems right at home in the Native American world since she is much better suited to the non-standard American lifestyle, being a foreigner.
 Jack looks for Olga by venturing into Indian territory, and convinces Cheyenne braves that he is Little Big Man. He meets with Old Lodge Skins again, who has second sight. He says he had a dream of Jack at the soda fountain, playing with the elephant faucet. He also has a premonition about Jack having three or four wives, which is contrary to the Cheyenne tradition of monogamy. Since Olga is not yet with the tribe, Jack again goes back to the white world, hoping to find his wife by becoming a scout for Custer. The general reveals his self-righteousness when he says he can tell a man’s profession just by looking at him, and says that Jack is no scout, but instead is a mule skinner, a profession Jack knows nothing about. The bigotry of the soldiers becomes apparent when one tells Jack that it would be kinder to put a bullet in the brain of a woman who had been captured by Indians. When the soldiers raid an Indian village, they are merciless, killing women and children. Jack is horrified, and tries to stop them. An ironic scene follows when Jack, trying to escape, encounters the Cheyenne brave Shadow That Comes in Sight (Ruben Moreno), the man who originally brought him to the Cheyenne as a child. The brave does not recognize Jack, and tries to kill him. A soldier shoots Shadow before he can kill Jack. As Jack says, “An enemy had saved my life from the violent murder of one of my best friends. The world was too ridiculous to even bother to live in.”

Shadow was protecting his daughter, Sunshine (Aimee Eccles), who was giving birth during the battle. Her name offers the promise of hope, but it is a fleeting possibility given the times. Jack witnesses the child being born, finds out that Sunshine’s husband was killed, and he wants to trade her to find Olga. He again joins up with Old Lodge Skins, who is now blind from wounds sustained in battle. He recounts all of the Cheyenne who have been “rubbed out” by the white man. After his experiences, and now hearing his Indian grandfather’s account of suffering, Jack hates the white man. He settles down with the Native Americans on land the President and Congress have promised to be a safe haven for the Indians. Sunshine is now his mate, and they are expecting a baby. She says her sisters are now there and their husbands have been killed. Old Lodge Skins’ prophecy about him comes true, as his wife asks him to perform husbandly duties on her sisters in a humorous copulating scene under the tent. 

Old Lodge Skins has another dream, more ominous, in which the horses are crying, trying to tell him something. They discover that the message is that the soldiers, ordered by Custer, are coming to wipe them out, showing how the whites can’t be trusted to keep their promises. To the ironically contrasting upbeat marching music derived from an Irish jig, the soldiers systematically kill men, women, and children, including Sunshine and her newborn baby. In a bit of magical realism, Jack escapes with Old Lodge Skins, whom he convinces is invisible because he did not see soldiers in the dream, so they can’t see him. The Chief grins as he walks right through the soldiers to the river. Penn provides us with mirroring shots of Sunshine and Jack falling to the ground as he seems to die inside watching his woman and child expire. Jack poetically sums up the death of that promised hope by saying, “Sometimes the grass don’t grow, the wind don’t blow, and the sky is not blue.”

Jack wants to kill Custer, goes to his camp, and convinces him to hire Jack. He enters Custer’s tent with a knife, but the general intimidates him. Custer realizes that Jack came to kill him, but that he lost his nerve. He says since he is no Cheyenne brave, Jack isn’t worth hanging. Jack is so humiliated that he can’t return to the Cheyenne; so, he becomes a worthless drunk. He again encounters Wild Bill who is married and wants Jack to give money to a widow with whom he has been intimate. At that very moment, a youth kills Wild Bill for having shot his father, which emphasizes again the violence of the white society. Jack finds the widow, who turns out to be Mrs. Pendrake, who has indulged her lust by becoming a prostitute. With a bit of divine justice, she finds the profession boring since the sex occurs day and night. However, with the money Wild Bill has given her, she promises to leave for Washington. The film suggests that she will spread her corruption, like a venereal disease, into the body politic, as she promises to wed a senator, and will religiously continue her unfaithful ways, telling Jack to look her up if he ever visits the nation’s capital.

Jack is so alienated from the white world and unable to return to the Indian one, so he becomes a mad hermit, and one day is ready to kill himself. But, he hears that same jaunty marching music performed by the American troops. He vows to “look the devil in the eye and send him to hell.” He again goes to Custer’s camp. The general keeps him alive to use him as a “reverse barometer” since he believes Jack will only tell lies. Custer wants to provide him with the way he should deal with the Indians. He needs one more decisive victory before running for President of the United States. Just before the Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer asks Jack what he should do. Jack says, “I had him.” But, he wasn’t “armed with a knife, but with the truth.” He tells Custer that there are thousands of Indians in the valley who will wipe him out. So, he says to him he should go in there, “if you’ve got the nerve.” Custer wrongly thinks Jack is trying to outwit him, not wanting him to go against the Indians and getting a victory. Of course, he and his men were wiped out. Jack is rescued by Younger Bear, who finally has paid back the life he owed Little Big Man.
Jack meets with Old Lodge Skins, who says that they won a victory today, but he knows they will lose the war. In a statement condemning the whites for their lack of humanity, he says, “There is an endless supply of white men. There has always been a limited supply of human beings.” Without “human beings” the world has no center for him. So, he wishes to scale a mountain, die, and join the burial in the sky. However, he cannot will his own death, and after resting on the ground with his eyes closed, he reacts to rain falling on his face. When Jack reassures him that he is still in the world, his sad response, mirroring the doomed fate of the Native American situation, is “I was afraid of that.” The movie ends with the 121-year-old-Jack finishing his story, a man of longevity, but whose years were filled with unhappiness.
In one of his speeches, Old Lodge Skins sums up the moral divide between the Native American world view, which cherishes all of existence, and the spiritual emptiness of the whites’ selfishness: “The human beings, my son, they believe everything is alive. Not only man and animals. But also water, earth, stone … That is the way things are. But the white man, they believe everything is dead. Stone, earth, animals. And people! Even their own people! If things keep trying to live, white man will rub them out. That is the difference.”

The next film is Jules and Jim.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of those old movies that portray an interesting look at our history with the Indians. Custer on one hand, an arrogant guy that really wasn't too bright in the end has always been an intriguing figure to me. I imagine there were a few people lined up to kill him. I have been looking at Will Hutchison's book Artifacts of the Battle of Little Bighorn and it really takes me into that era. His pictures really are beautiful and to see the things of the day is so awesome.


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