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LITTLE BIG MAN

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan, Jeff Corey, Chief Dan George, Faye Dunaway
Director: Arthur Penn
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, French Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: None
Length: 139 Minutes
Release Date: April 29, 2003

“I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers. My name is Jack Crabb, and I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn…popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand.”

Film ****

Little Big Man is perhaps one of the weirdest masterpieces ever to be seen on screen. It has both the scope and feel of an epic western which, for the most part, it truly is. However, it manages to tell its piece of history with a sly touch of humor, right from the very first scene. It can many ways be related to Forrest Gump, since it involves a somewhat simple man and his unlikely epic journey from boy to man in the background of historic events. It features Dustin Hoffman in what is one of his first great performances, right on the heels of The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy. I first saw the film in my eighth grade history class, and I have found it a superb experience ever since then. It is also, from my viewpoint, one of the finest westerns ever made.

Hoffman stars as Jack Crabb, who at the beginning of the movie appears as the oldest man alive. He tells his life experience to a reporter, who believes the old timer to be a joker. Crabb claims to be the lone survivor of the bloodbath that was the Battle of Little Big Horn, or Custer’s Last Stand as it is so widely known as. The journey of Crabb is one of both tragedy and comedy, as the man bounces back and forth between white culture and Indian culture, thanks to the various circumstances he finds himself in.

At the age of 10, following the slaughtering of his parents, Jack is adopted into the Cheyenne tribe. He finds a quick father-like figure in the wise Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George). Even though he is fast to adopt the ways of the new culture he finds himself in, Jack finds no other choice but to shed his Indian skins when his tribe is attacked by forces of the Calvary, led by General George Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan). Custer, who is seen in the movie as a crazed mass murderer, is by far the film’s standout characterization, and Mulligan delivers a wonderfully mad performance.

The film’s recreation of Custer’s Last Stand is one of the greatest set pieces ever created. The battle, shot in very neat detail, rages through the frame as Custer himself goes deliberately mad while facing off with Jack. Following the General’s massive slaughtering of many Indians, including a woman Jack fell in love with, Custer grows to become the young man’s nemesis.

Beautifully directed by Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), Little Big Man is a fascinating recreation of historic events through the eyes of a superb characterization by Hoffman. That, along with the sweeping scope of the film blend together to result in one of the finest character pieces ever made for cinema.

Video ***1/2

Paramount has delivered a quite astonishing transfer of this early 70s release. Presented in anamorphic glory, the picture comes alive with enormous detail and image crispness. The sets, given their visual power, all come to life in this flawless looking presentation. The climatic staging of Custer’s Last Stand, alone, is worth the price of seeing this classic in nice digital form. A grand job, indeed.

Audio ***

What a difference a 5.1 mix makes. Paramount has taken a film well deserved of an audio makeover and the result is ingenious power. The sound quality is that of infinite clearness, and the numerous battle sequences, most notably the climatic piece, all sound nothing short of  incredible. Not a stunning piece of audio, but very good considering the film’s age.

Features (Zero Stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

Little Big Man is a pure classic in the realm of both westerns and character pieces. Dustin Hoffman’s monumental performance, in addition to the wowing re-examination of historic events combine to make this a masterful film worthy of repeated viewing.