Comedy mixed with drama is my favourite melange. When done well, that is. And this is in the neighbourhood of done and well. The story is interesting and Dustin Hoffman’s performance is filled with moxie.
Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman – Rainman, Little Fockers) is the only survivor of General Custer’s Last Stand at Little Big Horn. He is a very advanced 121-years-old. A man (William Hickey – The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Name of the Rose), who doesn’t really believe all his stories, that collects oral histories comes to see Jack in order to write it all down. Jack begins telling the incredible story of his very full life in which he has a unique perspective of the White and Native.
As a young boy Jack’s family except for his sister is wiped out by an Indian tribe. Found and adopted a Cheyenne tribe. Raised as a native Jack learns how to ride and fight. When a group of white soldiers attack the tribe and are about to kill Jack he points out that he is white. Not willing to kill a young white boy they don’t and bring him back to town where he is adopted by the Reverend Silas Pendrake (Thayer David – Rocky, Journey to the Center of the Earth) and his wife (Faye Dunaway – Chinatown, Network). The wife is sexually frustrated and tries to seduce Jack. Not able to handle that Jack runs off.
He then works for a snake oil salesman (Martin Balsam – Psycho, Breakfast at Tiffany‘s). While doing so he runs into his sister Caroline, who moulds him into a gunslinger who goes by the name of the Soda Pop Kid. As a gunslinger he meets Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit) in a saloon. The two hit it off. After witnessing Hickok kill a man in self-defense, Jack realizes that he doesn’t have what it takes to be a gunslinger.
Next up is being a partner in a general store and there he marries a Swedish girl named Olga (Kelly Jean Peters – The Bachelor, Poltergeist II). Bad news is that his partner robs him blind forcing Jack to close the store. At that very moment, General George Custer (Richard Mulligan – from television’s Soap) arrives and encourages Jack and Olga to make a move west.
While on their way west, Jack and Olga’s stagecoach is attacked by Cheyenne Indians. They take Olga forcing Jack to set off on a search for her. On the search he is reunited with the tribe that rescued him as a young boy. They are happy to see him. Jack soon moves on to continue his search.
While still looking for his wife he becomes a member of Custer’s 7th Calvary. And everything after that is, as they say, history.
A nice message (transmitted without preachiness) about white mistreatment and misrepresentation of Natives. When first released in 1970 the studio sold it as a comedy but it is more than just a laugh. Little Big Man sheds light on the negative side of the expansion by whites to the West of America.
The great John Hammond provides a great score. Good enough to match Dustin Hoffman’s strong performance. He creates a Jack who is funny, innocent, truthful, and multi-dimensional. Hoffman’s Jack is like a 70s version of Forrest Gump. A long story with warm-hearted moments coupled with serious ones.
This is a long story but a great story. It doesn’t make a difference if Jack’s story is the whole truth and nothing but the whole truth because the bottom line is that it is a good story.