The following post is taken almost verbatim from a term paper I wrote last year. It's very dry, and it reads like I'm following a prompt (because I was), but I think it's pretty good. If you can get over the tone, I think there's some good stuff in here.
By the time of the release of Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man in 1970, the American public, and moviegoing audiences worldwide, had been witness to nearly seven decades of Hollywood Westerns. While the Western genre could cover a range of possible stories or styles, including the bandit or outlaw film, the classic Hollywood Western narrative was concerned with the idea of the “taming” of the west; the noble imposition of civilization upon the chaotic wilds of the frontier. In the typical Western film, the hero, a representative of white Anglo-Saxon American masculinity and patriarchal authority, is involved in the process of transforming the west from a world of savagery to a world of society. This narrative could manifest itself in the form of the hero “cleaning up” the frontier town from the forces of crime and corruption as represented by evil gangs of “bad men.” Alternatively, it could manifest itself in the classic “cowboys and Indians” story: heroic white settlers, often the U.S. Cavalry, facing off the dastardly Indian tribes who threaten the promise and potential of a new, better, fully American nation. Little Big Man is an atypical film in the Western genre, coming at a time when certain Hollywood filmmakers began to question or challenge the traditional iconography of the western.
The Indians are, in the older Western films, the opposite of everything the white settlers stand for: they are dark, ethnic “others,” pagans who worship false gods, as irresponsible as children, naturally violent and belligerent (often seen on an alcoholic rampage, as in the “Indian Charlie” character of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine from 1946), senseless and chaotic savages. They are an impediment of the positive evolution of America, as promoted and progressed by the white hero. Their elimination is a step towards the perfected America. The attitude of many of the classic Westerns towards Native Americans can be neatly summarized with the ugly saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Little Big Man exists in opposition to this tradition, in many instances reversing the customary dichotomy concerning “cowboys and Indians.” Throughout the film, Penn deals with a number of time-honored Western archetypes, often subverting or parodying them, but first and foremost the film addresses the implications of the classic Western regarding Indians and contrasts Western mythmaking with what the film posits as a truer, more accurate understanding of what life and death were like for Indians in the west.
The narrative of Little Big Man is presented from the beginning as a counter-narrative to the traditional Western portrayal. In the film’s first scene, supercentenarian Jack Crabb is being interviewed by a historian, due to his status as the “sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn.” The battle even lends its name to the title of the film. This famous event, dramatized – directly or obliquely – in such classic Westerns as They Died With Their Boots On (1941) and Fort Apache (1948), was one of the few Indian victories over United States forces; in this case, the Lakota, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes secured a momentary triumph over the U.S. Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer, whose death in the battle was immortalized as “Custer’s Last Stand.” While nearly all prior cinematic depictions of the engagement were told from the point-of-view of the American Cavalry, who were depicted as heroes bravely meeting certain death, Little Big Man begins with the elderly Crabb declaring, “I knowed General George Armstrong Custer for what he was, and I also knowed the Indians for what they was.” Crabb, as the audience learns, is not merely the “old Indian fighter” that he appears to be. Like many Western heroes, he is a “man on the borderline” – belonging partially to two worlds but wholly to neither. Unlike most Western heroes, Crabb – or Little Big Man, as he is known by the Indians – is both “Indian” and “white.” Throughout the film, Crabb’s identity will change, as he alternatively finds himself a member of both white American civilization and Indian civilization, inhabiting different roles at different times, shifting the audience’s focus in attempt to provide a greater understanding of Western history.
Born to white parents who headed out west, only to find themselves killed by Pawnee Indians, Crabb is found by and adopted into the Cheyenne Indians at the age of ten. The Cheyenne, Crabb’s narration informs us, simply refer to themselves as the “Human Beings.” As depicted in the film, Cheyenne society is a idealized community obviously meant to appeal to a Peace & Love Generation audience. They are accepting: in addition to taking in the young Jack and raising him as one of their own, the Cheyenne show no discrimination towards gay tribesman Little Horse, who, as Crabb puts “was all right with the human beings.” They live off the land and provide for one another in an almost commune-like existence. They are brave, honorable warriors when they need to be, but they do not expect every man to be a warrior, and are flabbergasted when they first encounter fist-fighting. Hardly a negative word could be thought of to describe the Cheyenne, at least as portrayed in Little Big Man. They are not barbaric or hateful or greedy or childish, but instead a wise, peace-loving people, best represented by Jack’s adopted grandfather, Chief Old Lodge Skins, who is the embodiment of Indian wisdom and grace. Penn’s Cheyenne are a far-cry from a figure like My Darling Clementine’s drunken savage, or even the more sympathetic, yet vengeance-driven characters seen in The Searchers (1956).
The white characters seen in Little Big Man range from flawed, but somewhat sympathetic – such as Mrs. Pendrake, the “good Christian” woman who ends up as a prostitute, or gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok, laid low by a teenaged boy the gunfighter had orphaned – to crazed genocidal megalomaniacs. The latter distinction is reserved for General Custer, a hero in other films, who, in this film, wages a brutal war against the Indians, blind to their suffering. While most of the white characters are hypocritical, and their values are masks to hide their insecurities and flaws – for instance, Mrs. Pendrake wraps herself in the trappings of religion as a way of hiding her sexual passion – Custer himself seems to be the dark shadow of the noble wisdom of Old Lodge Skins. He seems to possess only negative attributes, and every flaw of U.S. policy towards Indians is wrapped up inside this one man. In a particularly horrific sequence, a Cheyenne reservation is raided by Custer’s Cavalry, who kill women, children, and old men with impunity. The scene, which is reminiscent of the then recent My Lai Massacre, clearly presents Crabb as the hero as he tries to avoid the rampage of the white soldiers, only to see his wife and infant child murdered before his eyes. The destruction of the Indian community seen in Little Big Man is the visceral counterpoint to thousands of scenes involving heroic white characters riding in and bloodlessly killing the evil Indians to make way for a utopian American “society.”
In addition to dealing with race relations, Little Big Man renders an image of American society that opposes the positive images of white community seen in such older Westerns as My Darling Clementine, Shane, Stagecoach, or Rio Bravo. Characterized by noble violence, virtuous women, and those twin pillars of American culture, capitalism and Christianity, the classic Western offered an idealized image of the American community contrasted with the savagery of the west. Throughout the film, Penn shows Crabb trying on a number of hats, each corresponding to a component of the white society championed by the traditional Western. Crabb briefly becomes a “respectable storekeeper,” posing for photographs wearing a fine, conservative Eastern-style suit, and marries a Nordic immigrant named Olga. Their marriage is a kind of burlesque parody of Protestant American domesticity, what with Jack having married Olga for reasons amounting to nothing more than seeking the perfect component to complete his image as a proper white man. His marriage to Olga should be looked at in comparison to his marriage to Indian woman Sunshine, a relationship characterized by tenderness and intimacy, all gentle touches and whispered words. We see Jack alone with in his tent with Sunshine, but there are no such moments with his first wife.
It address the issue of violence, and how it is treated in classic Westerns. When Hickok shoots a would-be attacker dead in a crowded saloon, the effect is demoralizing, to Crabb and the audience. The romance of two gunfighters facing off down Main Street at high noon is gone; the sequence is punctuated by a close up on Crabb’s trembling, unbelieving face – immediately followed up by Crabb announcing that he is giving away his guns, ending his career as a gunfighter. The fun and games of shoot-outs in past Westerns is linked with senseless violence, contrasted with Jack’s newfound pacifism. White society, as defined by Little Big Man is corrupt, full of sham marriages of conveniences, religious hypocrites, desensitized gunfighters, and vicious, predatory capitalists like Merriweather, the snake oil salesman who cons naïve settlers into buying harmful “miracle cures,” and Jack’s business partner, who betrays him and leaves the Crabb family penniless. The “civilization” that white America believes they are building is not only built on the blood of countless Indians, it is decadent and immoral.
Despite many, many examples of Little Big Man deviating from or inverting Western traditions, it is nevertheless indebted to several tropes that it can’t help but falling into. The film, despite being positioned as a Native American take on the classic Western, is not wholly a Native American vision. Neither Arthur Penn, the director of the film; nor Thomas Berger, the author of the original novel; nor the screenwriter Calder Willingham were Native American, making the film a white man’s vision of a Native American’s vision of the west. Indeed, the film, despite its clear sympathy for Native Americans over white Americans, does not really offer a Native American protagonist. “Little Big Man” he may be, but Jack Crabb is still Jack Crabb, the white man raised by Indians, not an Indian himself. Thankfully, the “Tarzan” myth – the white man who is a part of the savage nonwhite community, but even better than his nonwhite inferiors– is avoided in the character of Jack Crabb, who is not a particularly good warrior or leader compared to the other Indians, and is more of a passive figure floating his way through history, unlike the later hero of Dances with Wolves, or the much earlier hero of the novel The Last of the Mohicans (a source of many of the classic Western staples, despite being set in New York some twenty years before the American Revolution.) Still, Hollywood had yet, and has yet, to create a truly Native American Western, made by Native Americans, starring Native Americans, about Native Americans.
Also, owing to the fact that Jack Crabb, as narrator of the film, may be an unreliable narrator, the film’s portrayal of the Pawnee Indians would seem to consist of several negative stereotypes of Indians, nearly identical to the ones seen in much older Westerns. The rival tribe to Little Big Man’s Cheyenne, the Pawnee are introduced from the beginning as “a band of wild Indians […] murderin’ varmints.” Later, the one Pawnee seen in person grovels to Crabb once the Indian realizes that the supposed Cheyenne brave before him is actually a white man. “Pawnees was always sucking up to whites,” Crabb’s narration explains. Weak, cowardly killers, who orphan the young Jack and his sister, the Pawnee, as seen in Little Big Man, could have stepped right out of an old B-movie western from thirty years earlier, and only seem to have been tolerated by a 1970 audience due to the fact that their portrayal was offset by the almost entirely positive portrayal of the Cheyenne “Human Beings.” It could even be argued that the film, in its own way, creates new stereotypes as a way of replacing the older ones concerning Native Americans. While the Cheyenne seen in Little Big Man are not uniform or uniformly good – Younger Bear, Crabb’s Cheyenne rival, is vindictive and possibly a little crazy – their exceedingly heroic portrayal ultimately has more to do with the attitudes of the filmmakers towards mainstream American society than does the historical realities of white-Indian relations on the 19th century frontier.
In the end, despite their victory over General Custer (who meets an appropriately karmic end) and his cavalry at the Battle of Little Big Horn, the film recognizes that while a white-centric Western can end with a totally happy victory, as the promise of white dominance has already been secured by the filmgoer’s 20th or 21st century vantage point, a Native American-focused Western can only end with ephemeral success. “There is an endless supply of white men,” Old Lodge Skins, the film’s exemplar of positive Indian behavior, opines towards the closing of the picture, “but there always has been a limited number of Human Beings. We won today. We won’t win tomorrow.” Jack cannot ride off into the sunset with his beautiful Indian bride, the way so many Western heroes could with their love interests. The remainder of Old Lodge Skins’ days, we are sure, are not to be filled with joy. Unlike the Westerns that came before, Little Big Man cannot end with the promise of a happy future, as the audience already knows there is no happy future for the Indians. While Wyatt Earp can leave Tombstone knowing it is now a better place than it was before, and will only continue to improve in the future, Jack Crabb has no such comfort. The final, striking image of the film is Jack, having kicked the condescendingly smug historian out of his room in the nursing home, sitting, alone with his thoughts, no doubt thinking of the savagery he was witness to a century earlier. While most Western heroes can look forward to the contentment of tomorrow, Crabb, and by extension all Indians, can only look towards the distant past for any happiness. The Human Beings’ way of life is gone, replaced with the violence and tyranny of the white man. In the history of America, Little Big Man posits, it was the “black hats” who won the war.