Little Big Man
Director: Arthur Penn
Writer: Calder Willingham. Based on the novel by Thomas Berger.
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan, Jeff Corey, Aimée Eccles, Kelly Jean Peters, Robert Little Star, Cal Bellini, Ruben Moreno, Steve Shemayne, William Hickey
The story of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) the lone white survivor of Custor's Last Stand, Little Big Man is notable for its' inclusion of a Native American Two Spirit character.
When their parents are killed by members of the Pawnee Tribe, Jack Crabb and his sister, Carolina, are discovered by members of the Cheyenne tribe. While Carolina almost immediately runs off, Jack remains with the Cheyenne for many years, eventually returning to white civilization. Thereafter, he vascilates between his Cheyenne identity and white heritage, going back and forth between living with both groups. After surviving Custor's last stand, he is eventually interviewed at age 121, where he recounts the story of his life to an awed reporter (William Hickey).
Released in 1970, Little Big Man does little to hide the fact that it is an anti-war film and can be seen as specifically criticizing the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam civil war. Scenes of U.S. cavalry, lead by General George Custor, massacring Native Americans, are reminiscent of similar incidents that occered during the Vietnam War. A young female Cheyenne in a key scene is obviously intended to appear Asian.
More importantly, from a queer standpoint, is the character Little Horse, a Two Spirit. Jack describes the Two Spirit gender as being revered by Cheyenne. When Little Horse refuses to join in the Cheyenne attacks on the U.S. army. According to Jack, this was okay with the Cheyenne, who never forced anybody to fight who did not in fact wish to do so. It is easy to see in this, a clear cut attempt by the filmmakers to criticize the use of the draft by the U.S. to recruit soldiers for Vietnam.
Overall, Little Big Man covers a wide variety of material, from depicting the massacres of Native Americans to the inclusion of more comedic elements. We are not spared the gruesome details of these slaughters, while other scenes, such as Jack Crowe interacting with Buffalo Bill, are played strictly for laughs. These elements should seem to be at odds with each other, but somehow they feel right in the story that covers almost the entire span of an individual's life.
Little Big Man was quite ahead of it's time considering the fact that the Native American characters are played by actual Native Americans. Furthermore, the sensitivity that is displayed towards Little Horse is astounding, given that this was only a year after the homophobic crapfest called Midnight Cowboy won the Oscar for Best Picture. Compare it as well to the recent Lone Ranger movie, which features Johnny Depp (a white man) in a Native American role, on top of featuring a cross dressing baddie.
In The Celluloid Closet, the claim was made that Cabaret presented the world with the first positive portrayal of queer characters. After seeing Little Big Man, I feel the need to point out that Penn's film contains not only a much more clearly identified LGBTQ individual, it takes a much more positive view of Little Horse's identity, than Cabaret ever did with any of it's LGBTQ characters. Not only that, but where Cabaret buried it's characters identities under a series of obfuscating charades, Little Big Man is crystal clear from the outset regarding the nature of Little Horses' identity.
There is nothing little about my enthusiasm for this film, it is certainly worth going to extraordinarily big efforts to see.
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