Monday 16 March 2020

On demand: "Little Big Man"

American cinema made sporadic gestures of reconciliation towards the native populace it had unblinkingly killed off in its Westerns: as early as 1954, the maverick Robert Aldrich proferred Apache, a rounded character study of a sometime warrior played by no less than Burt Lancaster, not a performer to be erased or dismissed lightly. Arthur Penn's 1970 curio Little Big Man was the system's most sustained and heartfelt effort to pass the peace pipe, informed by Thomas Berger's source novel only as much as it was by America's ongoing conflict with the Vietnamese and internal civil-rights struggle. Recounted in flashback by the 121-year-old "world's oldest man", it's the tale of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), a white settler who was raised on a Cheyenne reservation after the death of his parents, inherited no beef with his fellow countrymen, and thus thinks nothing of inhabiting both worlds, a little like Denis Law if he'd transferred from Man U to Man City and back again. It's all a matter of perspective, you see: as led by Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), the natives - literally referred to as "Human Beings" for the first time on American film - are depicted as ahead of the curve in such areas as a woman's place and the acceptance of a (barely) coded gay character, while the palefaces, from the blustering Reverend (Thayer David) who first "rescues" Jack from the Cheyenne to the preening Custer (Richard Mulligan), are kooks and hypocrites, when they're not outright savages.

Fifty years on, we can't help but observe a little of what we now identify as white privilege in our hero's haphazard progress: via a process of Caucasian code-switching, the young Crabb gets to experience the best of both worlds, being groped by the Reverend's hot-to-trot daughter (Faye Dunaway) and enthusiastically (if, ultimately, somewhat wearily) navigating a ménage à quatre with the squaws with which he shares a teepee. Most contemporary viewers will have to watch Little Big Man through the prism of Dances with Wolves, a (not unstirring) classical Western undertaken twenty years later, in a somewhat different context, by a star with a marked white saviour complex and a desire to appear handsome on each prairie; Penn's film, every inch the work of the New Hollywood, is obviously funnier and less reverent, sending Hoffman's innocent out on an apprenticeship with Martin Balsam as a dissembling conman who gets disassembled, limb by limb, over the course of the film, then wryly watching Jack's bathetic spell as a gunfighter nicknamed The Soda Pop Kid.

Penn busies himself drawing sharply ironic contrasts between the natives' belief in cosmic order, the whites' often murderous leaning towards man-made order, and the film's own, overarching sense that it's all a big crapshoot, a series of random events beyond anybody's control, in the midst of which you never can tell where you're going to end up. Why are babies butchered on the battlefield, while others live to the ripe old age of 121? (I finally watched the film on lockdown during the Coronavirus outbreak of 2020, and found it a source of tremendous consolation, not least Jack Crabb's mid-movie realisation that "the world was too ridiculous even to bother to live in it".) The idea that life comes at us from absurd, unexpected angles, and mercilessly fast, makes this a great, testing assignment for Hoffman, who has to think on his feet and shapeshift from guileless naif via faker-on-the-make and selfless family man into the grizzled survivor of the wraparound, wearing more persuasive old-man latex than 21st century cinema generally generates, and telling a better tale than many, however tall it might be. Blithe for the most part, but unsparing in its depiction of society's extremes, this stands up as the closest American film came to its own Candide.

Little Big Man is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

No comments:

Post a Comment