Directed by Arthur Penn
Screenplay by Calder Willingham from a novel by Thomas Berger
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Chief Dan George, Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan.
The mood of the 60s was to question authority. While the western is pretty much dead as a genre, up through the 70s, it was a mainstay of Hollywood films. But by the 60s, filmmakers were moving away from the conventions of the genre and began filming versions movies that demythologize the west. And one of the best was Little Big Man.
Based on a novel by the underrated author Thomas Berger, Little Big Man is the story of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), who we first meet in a nursing home, claiming to be the 120-year-old only white survivor of Custer's Last Stand. And with that claim, we flash back to see the story of Crabb's life.
Crabb's family is killed, but he's raised by the Cheyenne tribe (who call themselves "The Human Beings"). He's guided by the medicine man Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), but makes friends and enemies and returns to living as a white man when soldiers find him. He's place with the Rev. Pendrake and his wife Louise (Faye Dunaway), who takes a special interest in young Jack.
Jack drifts along, being a con man, a gunslinger, and finally joins up with George Custer (Richard Mulligan), a vain, egotistical glory hound, who Jack leads to the Little Big Horn. Jack encounters with gay Indians, famous western heroes, marries four women (simultaneously), and drifts back and forth between Native and White cultures, running into different people at different stages of his western adventures. The plot become a musing on the west, as well as having some parallels to the US mission in Vietnam.
Hoffman, of course, is excellent, but the real delight is Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins. George was indeed the chief of an Indian tribe* who went into acting in his 60s. The movie casts him as the wise old shaman stereotype, but he does a lot with it, and has all of the memorable lines. His death scene is especially touching.
He got an Oscar nomination for the role, but lost to John Mills.
Mulligan's Custer is also remarkable. He plays up the man's vanity and the result is truly memorable.** And director Arthur Penn was at the top of his form; this marks the third of the three best films of his career, following Bonnie and Clyde and Alice's Restaurant.
The movie was successful enough, but no blockbuster and by the time the VCR revolution came along, it had been forgotten. It shows up from time to time on TV, but should rank up with one of the best westerns of all time.
*The Tsleil-Waututh Nation of British Columbia. The position was elected, not hereditary.
**Mulligan came to prominence in the TV show Soap in 1977, and, until I started this article, I hadn't realized he was the one I like so much as Custer.