Little Big Man Revisited

The Custer Fight, painting by Charles Marion Russell
The Custer Fight, painting by Charles Marion Russell

Watching Old Movies

A few weeks ago, the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe sponsored a free showing of the 1970 classic, Little Big Man. The film starred Dustin Hoffman, Chief Dan George, Faye Dunaway and Richard Mulligan, as General Custer. The western spoof was a box office hit, but just as important was the reality that the film adaption, which came from a Thomas Berger novel of the same name, opened the door to Indian awareness in American cinema. 

Smoke Signals poster for the Miramax film by the same name
Smoke Signals poster for the Miramax film by the same name

Furthermore, the movie launched a new wave of Native American actors, actresses, writers and directors, some of whom are still active today. One of these persons, a film director from the Cheyenne-Arapaho nation by the name of Chris Eyres, introduced the film and attempted to explain what the film meant to him, even though he was too young to appreciate the film, when it was first released. Chris Eyres, who teaches filmmaking in Santa Fe, is best known as director of Smoke Signals, which is drawn from a Sherman Alexie’s story, “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”.

Chief Dan George from Wikipedia
Chief Dan George from Wikipedia

The Big Names

The cast of Little Big Man really helped to make the movie, for it featured a couple of the big names at the time. These included Dustin Hoffman as Little Big Man and Faye Dunaway who did a great job in portraying an erotic preacher’s wife (Louise Pendrake) and an eccentric hooker with a mild Southern accent (Lulu Kane). The movie also got a big name director, Arthur Penn, and a seasoned musician, John Hammond to write the music score.

The Newcomers

Little Big Man helped launched the career of Chief Dan George, a Native American from Canada, who did not begin his acting career until he was 60 years old. Dan made Little Big Man, when he close to 70 and followed with several other film appearances, including a minor role in the Outlaw Josey Wales. Richard Mulligan portrayed General George Armstrong Custer as a military man with a severe psychosis. It was Mulligan’s biggest role of his career, even though his portrayal of Custer as a man on the edge of insanity is probably not historically accurate. Custer may have made some bad military decisions and severely underestimated the number of Indian warriors in the area, but there is little evidence that he was off his rocker. Still, the idea of Custer, as unstable, still has considerable appeal today.

The Shootout by Red and Grooms portrays the Cowboy and Indian fight in humorous terms.
The Shootout by Red and Grooms portrays the Cowboy and Indian fight in humorous terms.

Indian Humor

Most importantly, Little Big Man, introduced  history of the “Old West” from a Native American perspective, along with Indian Humor. This second link goes directly to a passage from Vine Deloria’s classic book, “Custer Died For Your Sins”, a witty and humorous title that superbly underscores the concept of “Indian Humor”.

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