Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George
Director: Arthur Penn
Dustin Hoffman stars as Jack Crabb, in this darkly comedic film that skewers American Western narratives. He’s Little Big Man, a man claiming to be 111 years old, telling his tall tale to a judgemental journalist. In it, he tells the story of being kidnapped in an Indian raid at 11, of becoming a gunslinger, joining Wild Bill Hickock and General Custer, being captured by Indians several times over and having various wives at different times, and often more than one at once, as well as many other adventures.
The thrust of the film is that the stories we are told about wild and savage Native Americans and heroic cowboys are all a load of bull. Or perhaps, just spin. The noble figures in this landscape are the much beleaguered native population (though there are jokes at their expense too) whilst the white man is stupid, hypocritical, aggressive and ignorant. And generally believe their own publicity.
What I like about this film is that if it wasn’t played as comedy, you’d cry. Through Jack Crabb’s adventures, a great deal of characters and situations are covered, from religious hypocrisy to racism and massacres. It questions all our assumptions about what we think we know about the Frontier, The Wild West, the establishment of America. It’s really very funny, but there’s darkness there, underneath. With Westerns still a popular genre at the time, this film really shows how much America was changing in the 70’s, and how accepted narratives were being rexplored and attacked.
It’s also a film with a message, but it’s not a message film. It never falls into preaching at you (I can’t stand that in films). It also, with it’s depiction of idiotic generals and brutal massacres, show’s how violent America was and draws attention to the atrocities then being enacted in the Vietnam War. The senseless violence of it all. The prejudice.
Hoffman is wonderful in this role, and shows his ability to be very funny as well as a man of real dramatic talent. It’s a highly entertaining film, and often with it’s views of the sweeping plains, quite pretty.
See It If: a comedic Dances With Wolves, one for those of you who like a little bite to your humour.