Saturday, 17 December 2016

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Little Big Man (American Indian War)

Little Big Man is an odd movie, and although it is often labelled as a western classic, not really that great. It has a fairly decent first act that starts to lose direction in the middle, before building to an overly padded climax. It is also a film that has not aged well. It's hardly a progressive film when it comes to gender representation. The closest thing the film has to a strong female lead is Caroline (Carole Androsky), who is an expert gunslinger but is treated as extremely unsympathetic, what with her barrage of racist remarks and abandoning her younger brother (twice). Most of the few other women who appear only seem to understand marriage, having children, and submitting to a husband and display few, if any, strengths of their own. The fact that protagonist Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) speaks multiple times of women as property doesn't make it any easier.

The film's use of the camp gay stereotype also brings out a lot of unfortunate implications. There is a character identified as Little Horse (Robert Little Star) who the narrator describes as "something for which there is no English word," but the meaning is obvious to the viewer. Little Horse is initially described as a man who is "feminine" because he prefers to spend time at home with the women instead of being a warrior (the narration claims that this preference is okay, but the gender implications are still there). Later on, he seemingly grows up to become a drag queen, but this was also a film made in 1970. It doesn't take a genius to realize the filmmakers intended to invoke gay stereotypes.

When Little Big Man was released in 1970, it may have made a larger impact to audiences of the time, but in 2016 this film is extremely dated in many ways and not a great depiction of the west, although it may have influenced later, arguably more successful, attempts to change the image of Native Americans in Hollywood.Still, the film does make a few statements of note about the American Indian Wars through the adventures of its protagonist. The story is framed as a 121-year-old man, supposedly the lone survivor of Custer's Last Stand, recounting his experiences in the war on both sides, with clues placed in the story that seem to suggest he is either lying or at least exaggerating facts for dramatic effect.

In the film's opening, we see Crabb and Caroline being found by a Native American warrior, and it is Caroline who is shown to be less civilized in her tendency to constantly assume the worst. When they are seen by one native, she immediately assumes that they are going to be killed, and when taken to camp assumes she is going to be raped. She then proceeds to ride off in the night while leaving behind her own brother, without any obvious practical reason for doing so. Said brother goes on to immediately be accepted into Cheyenne, which leads to one peculiar motif.

According to Crabb, the Cheyenne refer to themselves as "human beings," and this ends up being exactly what they call each other throughout the movie. I don't think I need to go into detail about what this means, but it does create an interesting contrast when he is found by the U.S. Calvalry. After spending most of his life with the Cheyenne and coming to see Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) as a mentor, he gets brought to the fairly abusive Reverent Silas Pendrake for "moral" education. This "morality" consists of his wife Louise (Faye Dunaway) forcing her religious beliefs onto him, and claiming that it is superior to the "heathen" ways of the Native Americans.

This idea continues through the next few mentors that Crabb encounters. First Louise turns out to be a liar, especially when he sees her having an affair with a local shopkeeper. He then goes on to join with a swindler, who tries to encourage him to cheat customers, and finally Caroline, who turns him into a ruthless gunslinger and then abandons him as soon as he quits. All of these characters occur in the "civilized" world, while the Cheyenne who consistently refer to each other as "human beings" are more accepting towards Crabb. It shows the idea that the western world may not have been as "civillized" as they would like to think.

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