This weekend’s Family Movie Night last featured Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.
Couldn’t be helped. But last week the blonde and I were delighted, and relieved, when the guys vetoed Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen in favor of Little Big Man.
Oliver and Ken Mannion saw Transformers 2 in the theater over the summer. Twice, actually. I thought they’d enjoyed it, but it turns out they had been disappointed the first time and had only asked to go the second time in the hope that they’d been mistaken in their judgment on the first go round. I’ve mentioned that they’re developing more sophisticated critical skills, but hope can still trump experience.
But they had other reasons for choosing Little Big Man. The featured movie here the week before was The Comancheros starring John Wayne and they were in the mood for another western. They’ve both become Dustin Hoffman fans, having seen Tootsie recently. And they were curious to find out if my impression of Dustin Hoffman as both the young and the 121 year old Jack Crabb measured up.
They gave me two and a half stars. I lost half a star for not getting the dialog exact.
Their main reason, though, was they wanted to see just how crazy George Armstrong Custer was portrayed.
Both guys are history buffs. Their favorite class this year is American History. Oliver’s class was just moving from Reconstruction to the Indian wars, as it happened---Ken’s class is studying the Constitutional Convention---and his teacher had just given them an account of the Battle of the Little Big Horn making the point that Custer had gotten his command rubbed out through his vainglory, foolhardiness, and racist disrespect for the fighting spirit and skills of the Sioux and Cheyenne, the same point Ken remembered from his eighth grade history lesson on the Little Big Horn.
Their teachers apparently added that Custer himself deserved what he got for leading the massacre at Washita eight years before.
It’d been a long, long time since I’d seen Little Big Man. Long enough ago that I’d begun to feel like Jack Crabb himself whenever I talked about it.
“My name is Lance Mannion, and I am the oldest living survivor of an audience that saw a movie about the Battle of the Little Big Horn called…”
Movie holds up. In fact, it’s very good. But it turns out that the depiction of Custer and the Last Stand are two of the weakest parts. Richard Mulligan’s Custer is crazy, but it’s a cartoon crazy, without any nuance or grounding in the real Custer’s history or character. We’re meant to accept that Custer is nuts because only someone who was nuts would think and act as the movie has him thinking and acting. He’s out of his mind, because he must have been out of his mind. To the degree that there is any historical basis to his insanity it’s in his being the agent of the United States Government’s policy of genocide.
Considering that Little Big Man isn’t really about that policy or about the Indian Wars---it’s about how generally crazy life in these United States is and how crazy and violent human beings of all kinds are, and it’s key that the Cheyenne refer to themselves as the Human Beings because all of them, even Old Lodge Skins, are as nutty in their ways as whites---this essentially political depiction of Custer seems like a cheap and easy shot.
The movie was made in 1970, so I’m guessing that the director Arthur Penn and screenwriter Calder Willingham intended parallels to Vietnam---Washita as My Lai, for example---and then allowed themselves to think that the parallels substituted adequately for character and plot development. Custer is carried away by his own legend. He believes he is invincible and is convinced that his enemies are just as convinced of it. He persists in an obviously self-destructive course, rejecting all sane advice, without coming up with an exit strategy, because he knows that whatever he decides to do is the right thing to do and doing the right thing will always result in victory, no matter the odds or the obstacles. And when the end comes, he can’t fathom it. Defeat like this, at the hands of an inferior enemy---and all his enemies are his inferiors---is an impossibility and he goes stark raving mad, turning on his own troops and blaming everybody else, because he can’t face the truth. In those things, he is a reflection of the United States in Vietnam---and in Iraq, for that matter. The trouble is that there isn’t as much dramatic satisfaction in watching a political point being refuted, even through symbolic violence, as in watching a real tragic hero or villain meet his destiny.
Custer may have been mad. But if he was, he was mad in his own particular way. What he definitely was was ambitious and vain, and it was those two qualities that sent him charging down into the Greasy Grass. He disobeyed orders, refusing to wait for General Terry’s army to catch up with reinforcements, because he didn’t want to share the headlines with Terry, and he rejected his own scouts’ report on the number of warriors waiting for him because that fact didn’t jive with what he wanted and needed to think---that he was headed for a quick and easy victory. His plan was actually a sound one, if only there had been fewer Indians or many more cavalrymen. He wasn’t crazy, unless crazy is a synonym for all too human.
And I happen to know all this because I read the book.
Thomas Berger’s novel, Little Big Man, is one of my all time favorites. I read it long before I saw the movie for the first time---like so many of the great movies of the 70s, I had to wait to see them until I was off to college and grad school where they showed up as parts of film fests on campus or at the local art houses. I was twenty or twenty-one when I saw the movie Little Big Man. I was fifteen when I read the book. It made an impression on me that I couldn’t shake when watching the film, then or last week.
In the novel, the possibility that Jack Crabb is a liar is continually raised by Crabb himself. And since he’s so old, we’re also meant to wonder if he’s maybe a bit senile. He could be telling a tall tale. He could be misremembering. He could be dreaming out loud. But Berger doesn’t want us to consider these possibilities so that we will simply accept what’s on the page as fiction. He’s not a game-player like John Barth, whose historical novel, The Sot-Weed Factor, is meant to be admired for its disregard for historical accuracy even when Barth is being accurate. Berger wants us to doubt Crabb’s narrative in order to make us test it against what we know or what we can look up. The joke on us isn’t, as with Barth, that it is all a joke. The joke is that when we do the testing we realize that what we think we know about the events and historical personages depicted in Little Big Men we “know” from movies and television shows that are lies or at best dreams dreamed on film.
Tested against what can be looked up in history books and historical documents, Jack Crabb’s stories come pretty close to the truth. Where they vary is in their personal nature.
Crabb’s version of things is slanted. He is biased in his judgments and in what he chooses to remember and in how he remembers it. He tells the stories he tells in the ways he tells them because what he’s relating is their effect on him. These things didn’t just happen. They happened to somebody. Jack Crabb. And that’s the only reason he knows about them. So when Crabb tells us that Wyatt Earp was a mean and nasty son of a bitch, he isn’t trying to make us reject whatever heroic image of Earp we might have from movies like My Darling Clementine. It’s simply that in their one and only encounter, Earp was mean and nasty to Jack Crabb.
If you look it up, which I did, you find out that that meanness and nastiness fits with what’s known of the real Wyatt Earp. It’s part of what made him an effective lawman. It’s not the whole truth about Earp. But it is a truth, part of the whole.
From an historian’s point of view, Crabb may be telling what amount to lies, but he doesn’t do it to a purpose. He does it because he can’t help seeing things from his own particular point of view. He can’t get outside himself. That’s what makes him such a perfect straight man to the various characters, historical and purely fictional, he encounters. He can only see them as they present themselves to a gullible audience, himself. That makes him an unreliable narrator, but a very different kind from Gore Vidal’s Aaron Burr, a consummate liar, who libels George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and every other historical character he deals with in order to make himself look good or, at any rate, not as rotten at heart as he knows we suspect he is.
By the way, Burr was another one of my favorite books from the period when I read Little Big Man. It just hasn’t kept as warm a place in my heart.
With Custer in the novel, it’s the same for Crabb as with Earp and Wild Bill Hickock. Crabb isn’t telling us the truth about the man, but he isn’t lying about him either. He is only telling us what he knows about Custer from his personal encounters with him. And what he knows is that there was something irresistible about George Custer. Crabb himself is infatuated with him from the first and he can’t shed his infatuation, not completely, at any rate, even after Custer causes the murder of his wife and infant son and Crabb resolves to kill him in revenge. It’s a love-hate relationship, but all on one side, because Custer hardly seems aware that Crabb is alive, at least not in the sense of having a life of his own apart from his place in the legend of George Armstrong Custer.
To Custer, everybody else, every thing else, exists only as an extension of his own ego. The truth about Custer---which is to say one of the truths about him---that Berger is getting at through Jack Crabb is that Custer was intensely charismatic and he had that ability charismatic leaders have of convincing other people to subsume their egos in his and to start seeing the world the way they do, as being all about and for them. Despite his own better judgment, despite what he knows, despite it being against his own interests, on some level, very close to the surface, Crabb can’t help rooting for Custer and taking a personal pride in the man’s success, even when it comes at the expense of Crabb and the people he loves. At the very end, when he knows better, after he’s watched Custer die and been glad to see him die, he is still Custer’s advocate and devoted admirer. He tries to tell his Cheyenne grandfather, Old Lodge Skins, that the Sioux and the Human Being warriors had left Custer’s body untouched and not taken his scalp out of respect.
But the now blind Old Lodge Skins tells him that respect wasn’t the reason Custer kept his hair.
“No, my son. I felt his head. He was getting bald.”
That’s a poignant moment because it brings up another quality of Custer’s, his vanity which is very much like the vanity of movie star whose looks are fading and is now facing the fact that his career as a romantic lead are coming to an end. Custer was a golden boy who had reason to worry he’d outlived his days of youthful glory. Whatever else drove him to his doom at Little Big Horn, part of what he was doing was attempting to recapture his sense of himself as a hero of the Civil War, now more than ten years in the past.
That gives Berger’s Custer a tragic dimension that the character doesn’t have in the movie at the end of which he’s acting as crazy as the Mannion boys expected but he’s a crazy clown and his death causes not much more than an ironic shrug.
The other big weakness of the movie is the Mrs Pendrake subplot. Even in the novel, Mrs Pendrake is a minor character, but her short, swift harlot’s non-progress in the movie from hypocritical preacher’s wife to hypocritical whore doesn’t add anything to her part. It just reduces her from a sketch of a Madame Bovary of the Wild West to a borderline misogynistic cliche that doesn’t even make the satirical point that there are different ways of being a prostitute, since she’s shown going in the wrong direction for that.
It doesn’t help that she’s played by Faye Dunaway, whose presence as the only other movie star besides Dustin Hoffman in the cast gives a weight to the character she can’t carry. Mrs Pendrake collapses into nothing and we’re left with the sight of a talented but bored actress amusing herself by playing dress-up and trying out a Southern belle accent as if she’s preparing to audition for the part of Blanche DuBois in a touring company production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Plus, and this may just be me, but it’s hard to see how anyone, even a teenage boy who’d spent half his life among the Indians, could mistake Bonnie Parker-Milady de Winter-Mrs Mulray for a mother figure and an ideal of feminine virtue.
Other than that, Hoffman is at his most likeable and he’s doing something I can’t recall seeing him do again until Tootsie and then not again until Stranger Than Fiction, having fun playing the part. The movie is punctuated throughout by fine cameo turns by some excellent character actors, most noticeably Jeff Corey as a temperamentally mild Wild Bill Hickock and Martin Balsam as a relentlessly optimistic snake-oil salesman who cheerfully sacrifices pieces of himself---a hand, an eye, a leg---as just the price of doing business, but also Alan Oppenheimer as Custer’s second in command at Little Big Horn hopelessly offering the last bit of sane advice Custer will ever reject, William Hickey as the fussy and pedantic historian who interviews the ancient Jack Crabb, and Carole Androsky as Jack’s gunslinging sister Caroline, a part that should have been much more than a cameo.
As good as they all are, though, the movie doesn’t belong to any of them, not even to Hoffman. It belongs to Chief Dan George who plays Jack Crabb’s Cheyenne grandfather, Old Lodge Skins.
An historical aside: Not coincidentally, we’ve started watching Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War. The guys got a kick out of Custer’s first appearance in which we learn that Custer graduated last in his class at West Point and that the first things he did after war was declared was have himself fitted with a fancy tailor-made new uniform then have himself photographed showing it off.
Your turn: My real disappointment with the movie Little Big Man is that it leaves out some of my favorite scenes from the book Little Big Man, like the one with Wyatt Earp. This isn’t just another case of “The book is better than the movie.” The movie could have benefited from the addition of characters. It’s meant to be a revisionist anti-epic, but even as an anti-epic the screen needs to be a little more crowded. Earp, Calamity Jane, Jack and Caroline’s no good brother Bill, Jack’s “niece” Amelia are all I think sorely missed. But even though it isn’t just a case of “The book is better than the movie,” it is the case that the book is better than the movie because the book happens to be one of the best American novels of the last half of the 20th Century.
I’ll leave it to the college professors to sort out which Roths, which Updikes, which Vonneguts, which Morrisons and Mailers, if any, and which novels by Saul Bellows belong on the list, but that list has to include Little Big Man.
How about you? What besides the usual suspects would be on your list?