Saturday, November 20, 2010

LITTLE BIG MAN (1970): And the Strangeness of the White Man

It was common for the United States government to make promises to Native Americans that were to remain in effect “for as long as the wind blows, the grass grows, and the sky is blue.”  But as the 121 year-old narrator in Little Big Man reminds us, “Sometimes the wind don’t blow, the grass don’t grow, and the sky ain’t blue.”  There was no getting rid of the white man, and language of the treaties promising the American Indian that he could retain ownership of something like eighty percent of North American land obviously was ignored.
Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) and his sister, Caroline (Carole Androsky), were taken in by the Cheyenne Indians (or “Human Beings”) after the remainder of their family was killed by a band of wild Pawnee.  Caroline, after discovering that the Cheyenne tribe had no intentions of ravaging her (Caroline’s appearance being almost indistinguishable from any man), disappointedly got on a horse and left Jack there to fend for his self.  Jack was then raised by the Cheyenne and learned their ways.  His real education came from Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) that Jack referred to as “Grandfather.”  Old Lodge Skins gave Jack the name of “Little Big Man.”  (The attention that Jack gets enrages a fellow Indian by the name of Younger Bear, played by Cal Bellini.)  Inevitably, Jack was returned to the custody of the white people after a battle that the Cheyenne tribe had with some white soldiers ended in disaster.  Jack was for a short time then raised by the glutinous Reverend Pendrake (Thayer David) and his sexually frustrated wife, Louise (Faye Dunaway).  Between being beaten by the good Reverend for various moral lapses and discovering the ease in which Louise could be seduced by other men, Jack ended the religious phase of his life by running away.  Next Jack associated himself with Allardyce T. Merriwhether (Martin Balsam), a huckster and “medicine man” who Jack admired both for his intelligence and a “brand of honesty” superior to that of the Pendrakes.  However, after being tarred and feathered, Jack left the business to become reunited with his sister, Caroline.  Caroline taught Jack how to shoot a gun and had high hopes of Jack becoming a great gunfighter.  In his gun-fighting phase (where he never actually shoots anyone), Jack became friends with Wild Bill Hickock (Jeff Corey).  After witnessing Hickock actually gun down another man, Jack realized he did not have the stomach to pursue this line of work.
Jack then takes a Swedish wife by the name of Olga (Kelly Jean Peters), tries to make a go of it by running a dry goods store, and then is swindled out of everything he owns by his dishonest partner.  It’s at this point that he first lays eyes on General George Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan) who advises Jack to go west.  Like everything else, Custer was wrong about this, too.  Olga is kidnapped by a band of Indians and Jack spends a number of years in search for her.  Jack also runs into Old Lodge Skins on a number of occasions and is continually impressed by his wisdom.  In contrast to the presence of Old Lodge Skins, Jack also sees the cruelty and stupidity of the white people making their way west.  Merriwhether, because of his various scams, has lost a number of limbs because of the outrage he has caused when selling his phony cures.  A young kid Hickock has never met shoots Hickock in the back.  Jack discovers Louise performing services in a house of ill repute and receiving no pleasure in return.  Worst of all, Jack was to discover the insanity of Custer and his men in regards to his dealing with the native people.  For Jack, after returning to the Cheyenne people and taking on a young wife, Sunshine (Aimee Eccles), his next contact with Custer was at the Washita Creek massacre where Jack’s wife, her three sisters and her children are all killed.
Jack becomes a drunkard and a hermit.  But when he’s at his lowest point and ready to commit suicide, the opportunity was presented to him to take revenge upon General Custer.  By playing upon Custer’s megalomania, Jack convinces Custer to take his men into the valley at the site of Little Big Horn.  The rest was history.  However, Jack was rescued from the battle by his old enemy, Younger Bear, and is then returned to the presence of Old Lodge Skins.  It is then towards the end of the movie that Old Lodge Skins tells him: “There is an endless supply of white men, but there has always been a limited supply of Human Beings [Cheyenne' Braves].  We won today.  We won’t win tomorrow.”  Thus, the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn ends his narration on a sad note.
Little Big Man is one of those ambitious movies that attempt to tie up all loose ends concerning relations of the white man and the American Indian.  Of course, no movie (nor book) can be ultimately successful at accomplishing that, but director Arthur Penn’s efforts deserve merit.  The American Indian is greatly romanticized in Little Big Man, though it does not come even close to the tripe that is delivered to us in Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves.  The Indians (and especially Old Lodge Skins) are given dignity by being recognizably human.  In Costner’s movie, every Indian is portrayed as a somber plaster saint.  There is some ambiguity in Little Big Man.  Younger Bear’s quest for glory goes so far as to cause him to be a “Contrary” type of warrior (a warrior that except in battle does everything in reverse).  A character named Little Horse (Robert Little Star) becomes a Hemani, meaning that he resembles a transvestite in Christian society without receiving any of the condemnations of his peers.  In Little Big Man, these characters at least have a chance to work their idiosyncrasies out. Actually, the accusation of romanticization in Little Big Man is not altogether fair because it’s being used against a movie that for once (and almost for the first time) looks at the Indian as being endowed with wisdom, a sense of humor, sadness and sense of decency.  With the exception of the flawed and sometimes compelling Hombre that was released in 1967, no other movie before Little Big Man made any attempt to populate Indians with anything but stereotypical qualities.
Beyond being a romanticization of the American Indian, Little Big Man is a satire about certain segments of white culture – segments that unfortunately are too obviously still here.  Caroline is never able to come to terms with her own gender.  Reverend Pendrake is never able to see the inconsistency of his moral outrage while preaching the gospel of forgiveness.  Louise Pendrake can find no happiness either in religion or in a bordello.  Merriwhether, an intelligent man, cannot escape his own cynicism and belief that a “vision of moral order in the universe” fails to exist.  Hickock, in his own way a decent and perceptive man, cannot escape his violent past.  And Custer’s ravings are taken seriously by others and lead to him being promoted to the position of General.  Old Lodge Skin, while showing to Jack a scalp that was taken, sums up the difference between the white man and the Cheyenne brave: “Do you see this fine thing?  Do you admire the humanity of it?  Because the Human Beings, my son, they believe everything is alive.  Not only man and animals, but also water, earth, stone.  And also the things from them like that hair.  The man from whom this hair came, he’s bald on the other side because I now own his scalp!  That is the way things are.  But to the white man, they believe everything is dead.  Stone, earth, animals, and people.  Even their own people!  If things keep trying to live, the white man will rub them out.  That is the difference.”  I recognize the flaws of every white man portrayed in Little Big Man.  But I also recognize the goodness of Old Lodge Skins that is not so remote as to be unattainable.
The book named Little Big Man (written by Thomas Berger in 1964) is a remarkable read even for those who have seen this movie.  The book concerns itself to a much greater degree than the movie with historical accuracy, and the white characters are more rounded out.  Jack Crabb in the book is not quite so innocent as he is while portrayed by Dustin Hoffman.  Yet in the book, we do not see the beauty of the Cheyenne people to near the degree that we do in the movie.  Perhaps Chief Dan George’s acting with his laughter and small smile of contentment makes the character of Old Lodge Skins more real to us.  Both the book and the movie compliment each other and are well worth any intelligent person’s attention.  Critics have complained that the movie was not complimentary or even fair to the memory of George Armstrong Custer.  Most of this criticism came out when the movie was first released in 1970 and is no longer taken quite so seriously.  For whatever else we say about the numbers of women and children actually killed, the massacre at the Washita River did actually take place with Custer at the head.  Equating this massacre with the massacre at My Lai (which apparently was the intention of the director) that occurred in 1968 does not seem farfetched.  Certainly, Arthur Penn throws in some one-liners for Custer to utter mostly at Custer’s own expense and for laughs.  But the Battle of Little Big Horn could not have in anyway been enjoyable for those who followed Custer’s orders, and however it happened there is no question that Custer bumbled into that one.
And so one of the two greatest sins that White America has inflicted upon other peoples was their inability to abide by and live side by side with the Native American.  The other sin, of course, was the ownership of slaves.  Yet we do need to be reminded that the American Indian was capable of committing atrocities as well as the white man.  More than 800 people were killed in raids in southern Minnesota towns during the 1860s and many more were killed in northern Iowa (in particular, Spirit Lake, Iowa) during that same period.  The American Indian as a people has historically been a male dominated society, and a typical Indian male was generally of stoic disposition, warlike and highly individualistic.  That last trait I do not find to be a fault, but it’s a trait of the Indian not well understood by those who admire the typical Hollywood fare such as Dances With Wolves.  It is shown throughout the 139 minutes of film in Little Big Man, but comes across to an even greater degree in the Thomas Berger novel.
Still, there’s something refreshing about a people that had no numeric measurement of distance or specific time.  “Near” or “far” were the adjectives they used while traveling, and time was measured by the sun or moon.  Though somewhat dated (meaning that it is too innocently naïve), the movie Little Big Man provides both a critique and an alternative way of looking at things for modern man.  Old Lodge Skins humor (often ribald), contentment and vision are substitutes for modern anxiety.  Rather than look at his attitude as quaint and antiquated, it could be suggested that he simply came to his conclusions because he did not allow his self to be distracted by unimportant details that the white men deemed vital to their own life.  Old Lodge Skins was not a primitive, or if he was he understood modern man better than most of us.  “The elementary impressions and emotional stirrings that wake the spirit of the ‘natural man’ proceed from incidents – experience of a being confronting him – that are relational in character.  He is not disquieted by the moon that he sees every night, till it comes bodily to him, sleeping or waking, draws near and charms him with silent movements, or fascinates him with the evil or sweetness of its touch.”  Thomas Berger did not write these words but instead were written by Martin Buber, a Jewish Philosopher and Theologian.  Yet the quote catches the essence of Little Big Man – both the movie and the book.
April 24, 2008
© Robert S. Miller 2008