The movie stars Dustin Hoffman, Chief Dan George, Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam, Jeff Corey and Richard Mulligan. It is considered a Western, with Native Americans receiving a more sympathetic treatment and the United States Cavalry depicted as villains.
Despite its satirical approach, the film has tragic elements and a clear social conscience about prejudice and injustice. Little Big Man is considered an example of anti-establishment films of the period, protesting America's involvement in the Vietnam War by portraying the U.S. military negatively.
In the present day (1970), 121-year-old Jack Crabb, the oldest living man in the world and residing in a hospice, recounts his plentiful life story to a curious historian. Among other things, Crabb claims to have had been a captive of the Cheyenne, a gunslinger, an associate of Wild Bill Hickok, a scout for General George Armstrong Custer, and the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Jack begins his story in a flashback to 1859 when he was 10 years old where he and his older sister Caroline (Carole Androsky) survive the massacre of their parents by the Pawnee, and are discovered by a Cheyenne brave who takes the pair to his village. Caroline escapes, but Jack is reared by the goodhearted tribal leader Old Lodge Skins. As Jack gets older, he unwittingly makes an enemy of another boy, Younger Bear; however, Younger Bear eventually owes his life to Jack since he saved his life from a Pawnee brave. Jack is given the name "Little Big Man" because he is short but very brave. In 1865, when Jack is 16, he is captured by U.S. cavalry troopers during a skirmish and renounces his Cheyenne upbringing in order to save himself. He is put in the care of Reverend Silas Pendrake and his sexually frustrated wife, Louise, who tries to seduce Jack. When he witnesses Mrs. Pendrake having sex with the soda shop owner, Jack leaves the Pendrake household, and religion.
The following year, Jack becomes the apprentice of the snake-oil salesman Meriweather. The two are tarred and feathered when their customers realize that Meriweather's products are fraudulent. One of the angry customers is Jack's now-grown sister, Caroline, with whom he reunites. She attempts to mold her brother into a gunslinger named the Soda Pop Kid. Jack meets Wild Bill Hickok at a saloon, and Hickok takes a liking to the young man. When Hickok is forced to kill a man in self-defense, Jack loses his taste for gunslinging and Caroline deserts him.
Another year or so later, Jack becomes a partner in a general store and marries a Swedish woman named Olga (Kelly Jean Peters). Unfortunately, Jack's business partner turns out to be a thieving scoundrel. The famous cavalry officer George Armstrong Custer suggests the couple restart their lives further west and assures them they have nothing to fear of Indians. They set out, but their stagecoach is ambushed by Cheyenne warriors. Olga is abducted and Jack sets out in search for her. He is reunited with Old Lodge Skins. Younger Bear has become a Contrary, a warrior who does everything in reverse. Jack makes friends with the Heemaneh Little Horse, but continues on his search for Olga.
Jack eventually becomes a "muleskinner" in Custer's 7th Cavalry, only because Custer incorrectly determines that was Jack's past job. He takes part in a battle against the Cheyenne, but when the troopers begin killing women and children, Jack turns on them. On the outskirts of the massacre, Jack is attacked by Shadow, the Cheyenne brave who saved him as a child but now does not recognize him. Shadow is killed by a cavalryman, and Jack discovers his daughter, Sunshine (Aimée Eccles), giving birth while hiding from the onslaught. He returns with her to Old Lodge Skins's tribe. Sunshine becomes his wife and bears him a child. Jack again encounters Younger Bear, not a Contrary anymore, who is now the henpecked husband of the long-lost Olga. Olga does not recognize Jack, who makes no attempt to make her remember him. Sunshine asks Jack to take in her three widowed sisters as wives and to father children with them. He is reluctant at first, but finally agrees.
In November 1868, Custer and the 7th Cavalry make a surprise attack on the Cheyenne camp at the Washita River. A now-blind and elderly Old Lodge Skins is saved by Jack, but Sunshine, their child, and her sisters are killed. Jack tries to infiltrate Custer's camp to exact revenge, but loses his nerve to kill Custer.
Disheartened, Jack withdraws from life and becomes the town drunk living in Deadwood, South Dakota for the next several years. While in a drunken stupor, he is recognized by Wild Bill Hickok, who gives him money to get cleaned up. Hickok is shot and killed while playing cards and, with his last breath, asks Jack to bring some money to a widow he was having an affair with. Jack visits the widow, now a prostitute who turns out to be Louise Pendrake. Jack gives her the money that Hickok intended for her to use to start a new life, but again rebuffs her sexual advances. This scene provides an homage to Hoffman's role in the movie The Graduate and his seduction by Mrs. Robinson.
Jack soon becomes a trapper and hermit. His mind becomes unhinged after coming across an empty trap with a severed animal limb. He prepares to commit suicide, but sees Custer and his troops marching nearby, and decides to return to his quest for revenge. Custer hires him as a scout, reasoning that anything Jack says will be a lie, thus serving as a perfect reverse barometer. Jack tricks Custer into leading his troops into a trap at the Little Bighorn by truthfully telling Custer of the overwhelming force of Native Americans hidden within the valley. As Custer's troops are slaughtered by the combined Sioux and Cheyenne group, he begins to rave insanely. The mad Custer attempts to shoot Jack who is wounded, but is killed by Younger Bear, who then carries Jack away from the battlefield. Having thus discharged his life debt, Younger Bear tells Jack that the next time they meet, he can kill Jack without becoming an evil person.
Back at the Indian camp, Jack accompanies Old Lodge Skins to a nearby hill, the Indian burial ground, where the old man, dressed in full chief's regalia, has declared "It is a good day to die", and decides to end his life with dignity. He offers his spirit to the Great Spirit, and lies down at his spot at the Indian Burial Ground to wait for death. Instead, it begins to rain. Old Lodge Skins is revealed to still be alive, and says, "Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't". They return to his tepee to have dinner.
Back in the present, Jack's narrative ends and he dismisses the historian. The final shot shows the elderly Jack thinking with sadness about the memories of a world which is no more.Dustin Hoffman as Jack Crabb (aka Little Big Man)
Faye Dunaway as Louise Pendrake (aka Lulu Kane)
Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins
Martin Balsam as Allardyce T. Meriweather
Richard Mulligan as Gen. George Armstrong Custer
Jeff Corey as Wild Bill Hickok
Aimée Eccles as Sunshine
Kelly Jean Peters as Olga Crabb
Carole Androsky as Caroline Crabb
Robert Little Star as Little Horse
Cal Bellini as Younger Bear
Thayer David as Reverend Silas Pendrake
Ruben Moreno as Shadow That Comes in Sight
Steve Shemayne as Burns Red in the Sun
William Hickey as the Historian
James Anderson as Sergeant (in his final film role)
The historical Little Big Man was a Native American leader bearing no resemblance to the Jack Crabb character. Little Big Man is known for his involvement in the capture and possible assassination of Crazy Horse at Fort Robinson in 1877.
The movie's portrayal of the Battle of Washita River as a Custer-led massacre of women and children (which Penn compares to the Holocaust) is not entirely accurate as the camp was partially occupied by tribal warriors. The film, however, is consistent with historical records of other encounters between Indians and the U.S. Cavalry; the Cavalry's common tactic was to wait until the warriors had left the camp to hunt, or to lure the warriors away with assurances of good hunting, and then to attack the unprotected village. The two massacre scenes are historically reversed, the Sand Creek massacre occurring first in 1864, where Colorado militia (not including Custer) attacked a peaceful contingent of Native Americans, killing more than 150 women, children and elderly men. (The Sand Creek Massacre was depicted in another 1970 Western, Soldier Blue.) The Custer-led raid on the Washita occurred in 1868.
The film also presents an inaccurate representation of the death of Wild Bill Hickok. Hickok was actually killed after the Battle of the Little Bighorn on August 2, 1876, while playing poker at Nuttal & Mann's Saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota. Uncharacteristically, Hickok had his back turned to the door. At 4:15 p.m., a gunslinger named Jack McCall walked in and shot Hickok in the back of the head. Hickok was famously holding two pairs—of black aces and black eights—when he was shot, a set of cards thereafter called the "Dead Man's Hand".
The film's depiction of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer as a lunatic at the Battle of the Little Bighorn was intended as satire, though many of his quirks and vanities were inspired by contemporary observations. Custer's fatal tactics at the Little Bighorn were far more complex than portrayed in the film, which portrays him as having a searing hatred of Indians and acting ruthlessly towards them in battle. In truth, while his actions before and during the battle remain controversial, some historians suggest that he was somewhat sympathetic to the cause of the Indian population and publicly opposed, to the detriment of his own career prospects, the Grant administration's policy of expansion into Indian lands.
The character of Jack Crabb is partially based on Curley, one of Custer's Native American scouts from the Crow tribe. Curley rode with Custer's 7th Cavalry into the valley of the Little Bighorn, but was relieved of duty before the final attack, retreating to a nearby bluff and witnessing much of the action. Many conflicting stories of the era embellished Curley's participation, stating in several cases that he disguised himself with a Cheyenne blanket to escape the immediate field of battle. He was interviewed many times, with some writers claiming him to be the only surviving witness from the U.S. side of Custer's Last Stand. Curley gave several variations of his participation in the battle, and the accuracy of his later recollections has been questioned.
To obtain the hoarse voice of a 121-year-old man, Hoffman sat in his dressing room and screamed at the top of his lungs for an hour. The makeup for the ancient Crabb was created by Dick Smith from foam latex and included revolutionary false eyelids that could blink along with the actor's. Due to editing, and much to Smith's chagrin, no blinks were visible in the finished film. Of the makeup, Hoffman was quoted in Life as saying, "I defy you to put on that makeup and not feel old". The role of Chief Old Lodge Skins was initially offered to Marlon Brando, Paul Scofield, and Laurence Olivier, all of whom turned it down. The Little Bighorn battle scenes were filmed on location at Crow Agency, Montana near the actual battle site. Some of the town scenes were filmed in Nevada City, Montana, a town that by 1970 consisted predominantly of historic 19th-century buildings brought from elsewhere in Montana. All outdoor Indian scenes other than the Little Bighorn battle were filmed near Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Some interior and various footage was shot on Hollywood sets. All Indian extras were North American Indians. Aimée Eccles, who played Sunshine, is actually of Chinese descent. And Cal Bellini, who played Younger Bear, is actually a Malay originally from Singapore.
The old Indian chief dies at the end of the novel but not in the film. In an interview Arthur Penn explained the change: "We thought long and hard about this and in the first draft of the script he does die, but this death would have introduced an element of sadness into the film and we didn't want this. The film would have become dramatic, even melodramatic, instead of being picaresque. I also wanted to show that not only were the Indians going to be destroyed, but they were also condemned to live. On the whole, audiences like their entertainment dramatically compact and homogenous, but I want the opposite. A film should remain free and open, not with everything defined and resolved."
Little Big Man received widespread acclaim from film critics. It is among AFI's 400 movies nominated to be on their list of America's greatest 100 movies Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 24 of 25 professional critics gave the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7.9/10; in total, the film has a 96% rating on the website.
In his December 15, 1970 review, Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the movie, "Arthur Penn's most extravagant and ambitious movie, an attempt to capture the essence of the American heritage in the funny, bitter, uproarious adventures of Jack Crabb." Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times, agreed, giving the film four stars out of four stars, and describing Little Big Man as "an endlessly entertaining attempt to spin an epic in the form of yarn."
Chief Dan George was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor in a Supporting Role. He won many honors for his performance, including the Producers Guild of America Award, the National Society of Film Critics Award and the New York Film Critics Circle Award. He was also nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor.
Hoffman won third place for his performance with the Producers Guild of America and was nominated as Best Actor by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. The screenplay by Calder Willingham was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award as Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium.
The film won a Special Mention at the 7th Moscow International Film Festival in 1971.
In 2014, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Arthur Hiller's 1984 comedy-drama Teachers features Little Big Man cast member Richard Mulligan partially reprising his Custer role as Herbert Gower, an outpatient from a mental institution who is accidentally put in charge of a U.S. history class and teaches his pupils while impersonating historical figures such as Custer, but also Abe Lincoln and Ben Franklin amongst others.
As of 2016, Little Big Man has been released worldwide on VHS and DVD, and in the US on a region free Blu-ray.