Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Little Big Man

There was a real Little Big Man, but he was a Lakota who rode with Crazy Horse (whose name apparently translates literally as “His Horse is Spirited”; I like the traditional name better, don’t you?).

I can’t say this was the very first movie to treat Indians as complete and interesting human beings, but it had to be one of the first, and is still one of the best. It’s based on a masterful novel by Thomas Berger (who later wrote a sequel which I also enjoyed), and it’s been beautifully adapted by Calder Willingham and directed by Arthur Penn. It is described as a “picaresque,” a word which has a fairly loose definition that includes a first-person, semi-rascal hero, and is usually a series of continuing adventures where plot is not the major element. Jack Crabb certainly qualifies as picaresque. A white boy raised by Cheyenne and then batted back and forth willy-nilly between the two cultures, he never quite figures out what he really is. But he has a lot of adventures along the way, becoming friends with Wild Bill Hickok, and crosses paths with George Armstrong Custer several times before becoming the “only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn, otherwise knowed as Custer’s Last Stand.” But there is oh so much more happening before the final battle.

One of the appealing things about the novel and movie is how the Indians speak. Six years before, John Ford tried having his Indians (mostly white men and women) speaking the Cheyenne language (actually Navajo, since all the voice coaches were Navajo), which they memorized without any notion of what they were saying. (There are legends I’d like to believe as to what they were actually saying …) This worked okay, but having the Indians speak formal, grammatical English works even better. We understand they are actually speaking Cheyenne to each other; this is the way these people would sound to one another. No pidgin talk here, and very little sign language, except between tribes. It was so refreshing to hear these dignified, proud people speaking in dignified, proud phrasing. These were smart, educated people, within their own culture. Their speech here brought that home. And Jack Crabb, speaking English, has awful grammar and accent, but when speaking Cheyenne, he is fluent. Also, his Swedish wife Olga, who is kidnapped by Cheyenne and years later discovered by Jack, barely speaks English at all, but learns fluent Cheyenne.

If you look at any Indian history, such as a list of the combatants at the Battle of Greasy Grass (which is what the Indians call it), you will see that many of the names sound comical when translated into English. Names like Rain-in-the-Face (yes, there really was such a man), Makes Room, Looks Up, Sounds-the-Ground-as-He-Walks, or Bear-Walks-on-a-Ridge. Before this movie just about all the Indians we had ever seen had names like Little Horse, Iron Hawk, Two Bears … easy names for Westerners to understand. Here we get names like Shadow-That-Comes-in-Sight, Burns-Red-in-the Sun, and Old Lodge Skins. I just really do love those names.

Everyone involved in the acting department is very, very good, especially Dustin Hoffman, who goes from seventeen to one hundred and twenty-one years old. But the best of the best is Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins, the patriarch of Little Big Man’s band of Cheyenne. We had seen the Wise Old Indian before, but never with the depth and wisdom and humor brought to the part by this Coast Salish man. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Sometimes you read about casting for roles and wonder, just how far up their own asses could producers stick their own heads? Marlon Brando was approached for this role, and then Lawrence Olivier. Disastrous, both of them would have been horrible. Luckily, sanity prevailed, and the movie became twice as great as it already was. Seldom will you laugh so hard in a movie, and seldom have I ever cried so hard as I witnessed the slaughter of old men, women, and children by Custer’s men at the massacre (silly to call it a battle) on the Washita, to the tune of “Garry Owen” played by the regimental band. This was something I didn’t know much about in 1970, and it completely stunned me.