Little Big Man

Little Big Man ★★★★½

When I was in elementary school, a popular film that played on television a lot was THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON from 1941 starring Errol Flynn as Gen. George Armstrong Custer.  Custer, as portrayed in the story, was a moralistic hero who was a defender of Indian rights … which made his death at their hands at Little Big Horn not only a tragedy, but also something of a betrayal.  
My friends and I watched this whenever we could, not only because it was an exciting action adventure film, but also because we thought Errol Flynn was cool.  The movie was even brought up in class one time during an American history lesson.  The teacher’s only comment was never to rely on it as fact because it tended to romanticize things.  Consequently, I lived with my delusion about Custer as a hero until I saw LITTLE BIG MAN years later during its second run.  I didn’t immediately “buy into” everything it showed because … well, it wasn’t kind at all to the hero portrayed by Errol Flynn!
Now, in my defense of my naïvete, elementary schools never taught me anything about Custer’s questionable background including his reprimand from Ulysses S. Grant.  (In fact, the first time that I would discover that Japanese American families had been confined in camps within the U.S. during the Second World War was some years after graduating college!)  But, it awakened a curiosity within me about the “formal” history I’d learned.
Of course, LITTLE BIG MAN shouldn’t be taken as “history,” either.  It plays fast and loose with historical facts in its effort to tell a good story.  It uses humor to make its narrative more appealing, and “coincidentally” recycles notable characters in and out of the storyline multiple times to satisfy the Viewer’s “What happened to … ?” questions.  
In both style and substance, it is fascinating to watch this movie by Director Arthur Penn and his other more famous show, BONNIE AND CLYDE.  His approach to both are remarkably similar.  There were also some speculations made by critics at the time of its “America in Vietnam” parallels, and that is certainly a difficult assertion to dispute given that Penn also directed ALICE’S RESTAURANT the year before LITTLE BIG MAN.
But, setting the multiple “shadings” aside, LITTLE BIG MAN is a rollicking good film with the warm friendliness of listening to an accomplished storyteller with a certain Mark Twain aspect to his narrative style.  Along the way, we are treated to encounters with Custer and Wild Bill Hickok along with many memorable, fictional characters.  The humor ranges from broad visual occurrences to homespun understatement.  And although the film runs almost 2-1/2 hours, the pace keeps things engaging in a way similar to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (minus the memorable “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”).
The “centerpiece” of the story is Custer’s Last Stand, told from the perspective of “someone who had actually been there.”  However, for me, the most emotionally impactful segment is the Washita River massacre … which was also omitted from my American History classes.  I am unable to watch that without tears streaming uncontrollably.
One side note:  I was very intrigued by Dustin Hoffman’s old age mask because it looked so familiar.  I was sure that I had seen it before.  Now, I’m not saying this is true, but here is my suspicion.  The makeup effects creator of that mask was Dick Smith.  That very same year, 1970, he filled the same position for the film HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS in which vampire Barnabas Collins suddenly reverts to his true … ancient … age.  To me those masks from both films look very, very similar.

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