Sunday, July 28, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—Little Big Man (1970) ***½

PG-13, 139 min.
Director: Arthur Penn
Writers: Calder Willingham, Thomas Berger (novel)
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan, Jeff Corey, Amy Eccles, Kelly Jean Peters, Carol Androsky, Robert Little Star, Cal Bellini, Ruben Moreno, Steve Shemayne, William Hickey

On the heels of his revolutionary films “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Alice’s Restaurant”, director Arthur Penn turned his scope on Hollywood for his next assassination. His target was the depiction of the American Indian by motion pictures and television since the days when John Huston made John Wayne into a star. His star to expose the Hollywood lie of the way of the Indians was a 5’5” Jew who had become a star by playing a nothing and a rat.

Dustin Hoffman’s character here isn’t much better than those in “The Graduate” or “Midnight Cowboy”. He’s a push over who becomes whatever anyone around him wants him to be, which I think is part of the joke Penn is playing on Hollywood. These are the people that would define our Native Americans, people who expect anyone to be whoever they want them to be, whoever its convenient for them to be. In the case of Native Americans, Hollywood needed them to be The Enemy. The enemy of white man, the enemy of progress, the enemy of peace. When in reality our Native Americans were usually the opposites of these things.

It is the Indians who take in an orphaned brother and sister. The sister leaves, but the boy is raised as an Indian, accepted as one of them. When he finds his sister again later, she turns him into an outlaw, a gunslinger for hire. Lucky for him, he doesn’t really have the stomach for killing, despite becoming friends with Wild Bill Hickok. He eventually finds himself back with the Indians after becoming a Christian in a house of sin, hustling with a medicine trader, hitting rock bottom at the bottom of a bottle, trying his hand at a legitimate trade, and heading west on the advice of General Custer. Custer is portrayed by Richard Mulligan as a vain, know-it-all who is treated like royalty despite the fact that most of his advice to his subjects is bad.

Custer’s Last Stand seems like just deserts considering the way the Indians are treated by the U.S. Government and makes Hoffman’s character to only white survivor of Little Big Horn. The film has a framing device in which Hoffman plays his character as a man the age of 121 in a retirement home being interviewed about the old west. The interviewer assumes he will be told a boastful tale about how this man tamed the noble savages; he is more than surprised with what he learns.

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