It’s awards season and I’ve started early this year, not that I think that Hostiles (2017) is gunning for any awards, just the timing of the release in cinema’s. Nonetheless it’s a Western which means only one thing, I’m there. Booking the tickets even with a few warm reviews I decided I had to see this for myself. Based on the manuscripts of Donald E Stewart about an army captain who reluctantly takes on a mission that changes his politics. Now this is how Soldier Blue (1970) could have gone, but decided to be more literal. I also found a few links to The Searchers (1956) which I’m always looking to explore through other films.
After years of internal wars between the White settlers, who had been shaking up and re-organising the country into a shape that more resembled their own destiny, we forget about the soldiers and people who were caught up in the Indian Wars that have left the Native Americans greatly diminished and broken. Hostiles attempts to address some of those issues in this Revisionist Western. Beginning by reverting to classic form – a Comanche raid on a family who are massacred, it’s straight to the point, gruesome and sets the tone for what is to come. Leaving wife and mother Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) alone to bury her family, potentially altering her outlook on life too. She could have easily allowed racist tendencies to creep in and understandably too. It’s too later for Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) who is an embittered racist who has seen more than his fair share of bloodshed whilst in uniform. Easily seen as an extension of Ethan Edwards if he stayed in uniform. Yet his racism comes from another place, that is never really explored, leaving us to question how did he becomes this monster who could hate Native American’s that boils over when he discovers his family massacred, raped and captured also by Comanche’s. Blocker is given one last mission under threat of court-martial for refusing, to escort a now elderly Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their home land of Montana. Part of me thinks this is a test set by his commanding officer Col. Abraham Briggs (Stephen Lang) wants to see him suffer, to test his politics before the decorated officer retires. A big “Screw you” you could say.
The last time I saw Studi was as another historic Native American Geronimo in the 1993 film, here much older he gets slightly less screen time than his white colleagues who dominate. Showing there is still away go before they are given a fair representation in the genre. However they were portrayed with compassion unlike the Comanche who’re reduced to an obstacle to overcome – somethings never change. I’m not too surprised either, it’s a long ingrained part of the genre that is hard to shake. To achieve that they will have to be a Native American in the directors chair, with an un-compromised voice. That said The Cheyenne’s that are depicted with sensitivity, we can see they’re spirit has been broken but theirs hearts haven’t, which is the extent of the Cheyenne’s suffering is really explored.
The focus as always comes from the white man- Blocker whose our Ethan Edwards filled with racial intolerance for the Cheyenne that he has to escort across the open country. It’s his journey that we follow which has an interesting effect on him. Much like Edwards, he knows his foe very well, having learned to speak Cheyenne, he knows the enemy intimately, maybe too well. With the pomp of leaving his fort one last time he has his foe chained up, there’s no trust for the elderly warrior who puts up with this indignity. He wont rise to the bait, a decent man knows when he’s been defeated. This last throughout the discovering of the burnt out homestead where we find grief stricken Rosalie Quaid, everyone in the party can understand her pain. Pike delivers a heartfelt performance, you can really feel her pain, I wondered if she would cross into racial hate, making Yellow Hawks journey home even harder. Would her grief match the hate that of Blocker’s? Playing a vital part in Blocker’s transformation by the films close.
We start out of the fort with a small Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane) stricken with depression, Corp. Henry Woodsen (Jonathan Majors) who has been proud to serve with Blocker Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons) fresh out of West point ready to prove his superiors he’s worth his rank and French recruit Pvt. Philippe DeJardin (Timothée Chalamet) who has no real experience in the army. The small group meet resistance early on in the form of the Comanche who are the first of many obstacles on their long journey that has an effect on the number of men in uniform. Taking on Rosalie Quaid, could easily be seen as a burden to them. It’s the aftermath of these events that start to open up Blocker’s view of the world, starting to question his thinking. Finally confronted when he takes on army prisoner Corp. Tommy Thomas (not a very original name) (Paul Anderson) under the care of Sgt. Paul Malloy (Ryan Bingham).
Thomas is the equal of Blocker, yet he has used his racial hatred to kill a Native family whilst not under orders. Purely for them being there. A cold-blooded killer who shows no remorse for his crime, would Blocker have done the same out of uniform or has his uniform given him licence to kill and get away with it. The security position and rank have been enough, to go as far as Thomas would be a point of no return for the captain, or is this the next part of his life outside of the protection of the uniform. The Indian Wars and Frontier nearly closed he would be a monster in civilised society, an Ethan Edwards in fine clothes.
There’s a lot of ground covered both literally (and spectacularly on camera) and thematically, from racism to man first killing to forgiveness. It goes along way to get us to Montana and it’s not an easy ride with a lot to think about. Filmed over the last year it can now be easily seen as a response to America today, as it becomes increasingly alone in its world view. The development of a wall on the Southern border with Mexico. The political divide is stronger than ever with a President who you either trust implicitly or question his every tweet. Blocker is leaving one life behind for another, does he want to bring his past life to his future. Hostiles attempts to deal with a very contentious issue and does a good job – on the white man’s side. Whilst the Native American has to just accept his place in the film and history on the chin. I wish the Cheyenne had more time to talk, to explore their position, instead they are just lead and protected by the army that’s trying now to do right by them. It reminded me lastly of Cheyenne Autumn (1964), the depiction of the Southern Cheyenne joining those in the North, which is more apologetic than Hostiles that draws it out of the characters slowly, not so much the director. I can only conclude that Revisionist Westerns will only be apologising with white actors in the lead role rather than the Native’s who depiction and capacity in the film is still being determined through the winners history.
I’ve been meaning to watch Soldier Blue (1970) for sometime, know it came out the same year and shared some themes with Little Big Man which took more of the satirical angle of the genre and the politics of the day. I come away glad to have seen the film at least, I was considering a double film review to see how they both work together, but in reality they don’t unless you take both the massacres that are depicted; working as analogies for the Vietnam War which I’ve been learning about thanks to the BBC4 documentary series, which could be summed up easily in a few sentences when you look back at the conflict that really shouldn’t have taken place. Becoming an embarrassment both at home and internationally.
The function of the Western is to make sense and explore America’s consciousness, by looking back at its past to understand the present, how far they have come and also to celebrate, which at times can be problematic as we move further forward from the original events. Our view of history changes as we develop and change out thinking, new evidence comes to light, public opinion changes too. Blue made at a time when the American public wanted a complete withdrawal, the 1968 Nixon promised just that during his election campaign, which he eventually delivered on. The Western here is functioning on less than subtle level here, and at times very literal too, which is never a good thing for any creative endeavour. I could see the politics dripping off its liberal sleeve.
Beginning as a routine delivery of gold with a small troop of cavalry soldiers, with the addition of newly freed Cheyenne captive, Kathy Maribel ‘Cresta’ Lee (Candice Bergen) dressed in white women’s clothes ready to rejoin civilization. Sitting there in silence whilst the men are ogling her, hoping to make a successful advance, not the best way to return to white society. It’s not long before they’re ambushed by the Cheyenne who massacre them. We are seeing the power of the enemy first, before the U.S army has a chance to flex its might muscles at the finale. Leaving only two survivors, Cresta and Pvt. Honus Gent (Peter Strauss), both running from the action below. We learn how very different these two people are, the approach they take to the aftermath and their eventual leaving of the site. The ex-captive has no real concern to raid the dead soldiers in order to survive, taking all the water she can get…nothing really wrong there. Whereas Gent sees the act as desecrating a war site and the dead, placing his values above survival whilst still being respectful. Both want to survive but have very different perspectives.
Gender roles here are reversed here, usually the male is foul-mouthed – which is partly why the film has an 18 rating in the UK (although that could be reduced to a 15). The more Christian soldier’s shocked at the language that she comes out with. It’s refreshing that an actress is given such colourful lines, leaving Gent in the female role, even though his uniform suggests in the male role of protector, a soldiers trained to kill and serve his country but is giving way to a woman who understand the landscape and culture they are traveling through. Cresta is able to navigate her without relying on a river that would leave them vulnerable, discern which nations they interact with, she’s the scout who takes command.
Later on we encounter a goods wagon owned by Isaac Q. Cumber (Donald Pleasence) who we learn is really an arms trader using his wagon to conceal his real purpose in the West, to make a fast buck out of the conflict that is waiting us at the end of the film. However I notice a massive plot hole here which I will turn to later. Cresta is more aware of what is going on and ultimately sides with her Cheyenne family who have not harmed her physically, psychologically we can see where her loyalties lie – with the native, or the savage in the eyes of white civilization. I found Pleasence’s more enjoyable compared to Will Penny (1968), he’s not playing the mad preacher, more the capitalist out to make money from whoever he can find. I just wish we saw more of him, saying that his character did serve a good purpose in showing up the political divide between the Gent and Cresta.
The relationship that develops between the two I feel was a little manufactured to please the studio who made the film. However it allows a conversion to take place within him showed how far Gent travels emotionally and politically at the films close. You could say Cresta made a conscientious objector out of him, protesting about the conflict he’s supposed to be favour of by the colour of his uniform. The relationship may not be all that redundant after all.
Now for the plot hole which are a few, the years supposed to be 1864, during which time most if not all Indian wars were paused to focus on the Civil War between the North and the Southern states. However Gent mentions that he lost his father the previous year at Little Big Horn to the Sioux – which was in 1876, during the height of the Indian wars. Whilst the Washita Massacre took place in 1868, 3 years after the close of the Civil war. Another plot hole revolving around the gold that was stolen with the suggestion that it would be used to buy rifles, which itself make sense however when we meet Cheyenne chief Spotted Wolf (Jorge Rivero) of the he does not want to go to war. They do have rifles, but no mention of a recent purchase. All we learn is that the Cheyenne like all nations have an understanding of trade and how to operate within the White man economy whilst still being mostly free of the capitalist world itself.
The massacre itself is a thinly (emphasis in thinly) veiled metaphor for Vietnam, I’m sitting there thinking, yeah I get it. It doesn’t have the subtlety of Little Big Man of the same event that was more desensitised and was actually led by Custer who led both campaigns. The special effects here are poor, with dummy heads clearly being used and left in shot, it’s all for shock value which becomes more entertaining when that’s nor the point and lets down the film when we know it’s all leading upto this one-sided battle. Even if the cavalry rode over the U.S. flag before killing every man woman and child their weapons could reach, the fact that the Cheyenne didn’t want to fight, it’s all pretty much lost in the mess. It wasn’t really enough to laugh as I was just disappointed really let down after all this build up, the journey Cresta and Gent have been on, wondering if they would make it back to civilisation at all, not how I want to feel about a Western.
I’ve been waiting to re-watch John Ford‘s apology for the/his depiction of Native Americans on-screen. Taking the events of the Trail of Tears (1878) that saw the Southern Cheyenne exit their reservation at Fort Robinson after having lived there for a year, waiting for more food and supplies to arrival after a group of Senators who were to see the condition of the reservation, barren, lifeless, unable to really support live. We’re told that originally over a thousand arrived, now just over 200 have survived that first year. This is the premise of the film, the rest is history. Ford took on the massive task of depicting this event in the genre that usually sees the Native American, either Apache, Cheyenne or Comanche, nations who stood up for themselves in the sight of the spreading settlers over the course of the 19th century. We know that one by one the nations tired, weak and hungry gave in and moved onto reservations after a series of unique events that would becoming the next chapter in their history.
Having read Dee Brown’s take on the event in Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, which I surprisingly have recently read is accepted by Native Americans, all but the fact it didn’t say they survived to tell the tale to future generations. Which gives my exploration of their history something concrete to build upon. I can see my readings and then reflect them into the film adaptations. I’m taking in Cheyenne Autumn as my next film in that journey.
A few weeks ago I caught Sergeant Rutledge (1960) which was the first apologetic film that Ford made, placing the African-American soldier at the centre of the film, in a court room setting, not the strongest of films, not helped by its setting. Also feeling awkward being told in flashback which is more unusual still for him. Then followed the much heavier Two Rode Together (1961) which is lost to the conversations and the ideas it deals with. Coming to Cheyenne Autumn we have an epic on our hands, which is fair when you look at the subject matter that’s being dealt with. I have to admit it is deeply flawed in many ways which I want explore in my revisited review of his third and final apology that attempts to depict the events in a more favorable light. If another director were to take the material it would than likely be abandoned or even completely rewritten to show the Cheyenne as the antagonist not the protagonist, or even the obstacle.
So where do I begin, well the biggest and most obvious flaw is the waste of 30 minutes spent in Dodge City, where we have some comedy courtesy of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday (James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy) who act as the comic relief, intended to take the edge off the heavy material at the centre of the film. A mass migration of people across open country to their homeland, I can see where Ford is coming from, the audience wouldn’t be used to seeing such content, even more so in Super Panavision 70mm which leaving the audience with nowhere to be distracted, the images plastered from the top to the bottom of the screen. The comedy is an unnerving, unnecessary and ultimately distracting really. You have real human drama playing out in Ford’s mythic West – Monument Valley lines of cavalry and Cheyenne moving across it, retelling this event from history. 50 years since release the comedy has lost its impact, if there was any to be had, it’s all played up clichés which Ford is honestly better than. It shows he was unsure about the content standing on its own, drawing in an audience for a different kind of Western. With big names such as Stewart is a sure sign you’ll get some through the doors. Here he’s just having a good time,you could say, just picking up a cheque and going on after a few days on set. I know that’s not what I want to type and you don’t want to read. Ford is or has lost his touch here which can be seen elsewhere.
The basic structure of the events are correct, a year on the reservation before packing up and wanting to live with the Northern Cheyenne who were living with the Sioux under Red Cloud at Pine Ridge reservation, with a few events in between that are more or less correct, others mixed around for drama, whilst others are added for pure effect. For once the nation leaders Little Wolf and Dull Knife are based on the actual Cheyenne that lead the exodus North. Played here by Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland both originally from Mexican, where the film starts to fall down. The main parts are played by non-natives playing native roles in a pro-native film. Also we have the lazily named Spanish Woman (Dolores del Rio) who really should have had more care given in developing her character. Was she a Mexican captive, or did she marry in of her own choice. Instead we here her called upon by Deborah White (Carroll Baker) the Quaker sympathiser who travels with them.
Baker’s role is allowing the audience into this group who are traveling across the open country (or going around in circles of Monument Valley (which isn’t too bad)), the audience’s supposed to understand the Cheyenne plight through the white voice who has supported them on the reservation and now acting as nurse to one of the young injured travellers. Her name is reminiscent of the female captive Debbie (Natalie Wood) in The Searchers (1956) we are getting an internal understanding of how the other is thinking. Ford not matter how much he is loosing his touch is still putting small links to his rich filmography.
Away from the trail we have the U.S cavalry who are all other place in terms of the side they take. We mainly follow Captain Archer (Richard Widmark) who is taking on the 20th century thinker or Captain Kirby (John Wayne) from Fort Apache and Rio Grande (1948 and 1950) who wanted to talk to the other instead of going in bugles blazing. Interestingly John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne plays the Colonel Thursday role – 2nd Lt. Scott, or could he be an extension of Ethan Edwards in another life, his son wanting to avenge his father. There are other links to the Cavalry trilogy that carry on throughout the film, even further back to Stagecoach (1939). We have a director using all his familiar characters in this very unusual Western from a man who is trying his best to make the subject matter relatable to an audience who are by now used to something far more cerebral than this far darker subject.
My first experience with this film came at the comedy break, my interest was pricked up. The second time around I saw the film more for what it is, a very different kind of Western, Ford having a conscience for a body of work that has depicted a nation in a poor light. Even if he employed them in several of his films. Now I see a flawed yet rich film of a director who is no longer in his prime, his last great film – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) was not yet celebrated as it is today. He’s putting his all into what could be a last ditch effort at greatness which could have been if only he was more sure of his instincts. He’s not so much hitting racism head on, more trying to say whilst we were making this great country, another was being lost. He half achieves that goal. If I could re-cut and recast the film in places maybe we would have another masterpiece on our hands.
I didn’t think I’d even be watching White Feather (1955) thinking it would be a piece of fluff. I was partially right but what had me sitting up right with interest was the prologue, much the same as we find in Broken Arrow (1950) which stated that this stories based on fact, the only difference being that the “Indians” speak in English so we can understand. I could go over old ground and explain that this was to make the film easier for the majority White audience to understand. However it seems that this is not just a line used to make it easier but also allows the film to be white-washed. Sorry for being so negative, the more I read about the Indian Wars the more cynical I become. I recently had a conversation in the studio about a written language for a Native American nation, which is nonsense as it would not have ever been written down. Like the stories of that and other nations it would’ve been passed down verbally. I surmised that the language would have been recorded by a White man in order to better understand them, in hopes of eventually forcing them to relocate. My view has really changed over the past year or so.
Moving on from my cynical introduction I move into the film itself, is indeed loosely based on fact. As talks were going on with Crow and Arapaho who as we see over the course of the Western have agreed to leave the plains in order for gold to be dug for and eventually developed by settlers. Sounds pretty standard on the face of it, there is a historical context to place a white Indian sympathiser within. In 1950 we have Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) now we have Josh Tanner (Robert Wagner) who I am trying to place historically with the actual events. He could just be a culmination of people at the time or a vehicle for these events to be told. This is a character that owes a lot to its predecessor, if anything this rare film wouldn’t have been made without Delmer Daves who directed the previous film, now writing for this one which shows more depth.
A little bit of research later show the event of the relocation took place is the only truth of the entire film. That has left a bitter taste in my mouth, maybe I was taken in by the characters who appear to dramatise a history that never took place beyond the prologue. It is a chance to see Native American’s even with broken English. We see relationships between father and children, and white and Cheyenne, more importantly on the whole these are positive relationships in a time of great upheaval and change for a those nations. They aren’t simply savages who kill and scalp, which if anything both sides took part in the brutal act. Some Nations even frowned upon scalping, so much for the myth of conquest when you read the facts behind the pulp that blurs it.
I can even start to forgive that the two braves Little Dog and American Horse (Jeffrey Hunter and Hugh O’Brian) are creations of Daves who was plucking from history and writing his own page of the myth for the silver screen. White Feather is if anything more sympathetic (for the 1950’s) than Broken Arrow which had a white man leading the eventual surrender of the Apache’s. In both films the Apache and Cheyenne make the ultimate decision that sees them relocate. There is however more power to the later film as we see whole nations moving on horseback and buckboard. It precedes the later Cheyenne Autumn (1964) that catches up with them on the reservation. The treaty signed by Broken-Hand (Eduard Franz) is broken on a barren land that forces them to return to their home – Monument Valley in John Ford‘s West. But that’s a different part of their history.
As much as there is a sense of respect for the Cheyenne you can see where compromises have been made. The love interests in Appearing Day (Debra Paget) who is actually willing to relinquish her culture to live with white Americans. Placing love above her heritage, her culture can easily be swapped which is scary, but reflects the desires of the government for the Native American to be assimilated into the growing white majority. Lastly there is a respectful attempt at a battle between the U.S. Army and the Cheyenne, the treaty has just been signed the ink is barely even dry when Little Dog and American Horse invite the army to fight them both. A bald move indeed.
The last ten minutes of this skewed history and beautifully filmed are really something, it’s not all guns blazing, there’s a mass gathering of two sides, each now having put those difference aside. Its quite cinematic to see so much choreography for mid-budget Western to pull off such a feat with respect for the other. Only a few shots are in-fact fired, as if this is cautiousness as if they are trying their best to ensure peace. Reflecting an earlier cold war state of not being the first to fire the first shot, it all has to be legal even in the era of the Indian wars when in reality it’s mostly kill on sight.
These Westerns are really re-shaping my opinion of American history, Westerns are helping me to explore that more so, they work hand in hand as I unpick the myth and it’s power. Part of my wider practice, these films are just watched for the thrill, they are an education making them a richer experience.
I’ve been looking out for this silent John Ford for a while now, one of those early epic Westerns that helped to define the language that I explore in my practice. It’s also a rare chance to see Ford’s work before he made a star out of John Wayne who he shall always be credited with. He’s nowhere to be seen in The Iron Horse (1924) which predates all the Westerns I have seen by a few years. I was lucky enough to catch the original directors cut that was not seen outside of the U.S. during its original run. I always try to go for the director’s cut of a film if it’s available as the directors intentions are then on the screen (that’s ignoring George Lucas).
Moving away from directorial choices and cuts of films to the meat of the film, the coming together of the East and the West of America, the progression of a nation. Laying down the foundations for the country to develop and prosper. I have seen the same basic story before with a much lighter tone attached, and running time slightly shorter too. That’s down to all the build-up and character development that Ford puts into the film so the running time is well deserved, not a meter of film is wasted really. As we know he never shot more than he needed, to ensure he got the picture that he wanted, not leaving anything to chance. He begins by adding a human story between a young boy and girl Miriam Marsh (Madge Bellamy) who at first I thought nothing of as the boy Davy Brandon leaves with his father to go Westward to begin to plan out a route for a transcontinental railroad. A bold journey that ends in heart for the boy when his father (James Gordon) who is killed by a two-fingered white Cheyenne who killed him to keep his secret from being revealed outside the nation he is now a part of. I can see even this early on in the depiction of the Native American, the lengths that are gone to in order to create the dark and dangerous image of the one-dimensional Native American, here a renegade white man, even more dangerous you might think, bringing together the ideas of two cultures.
Jumping forward a few years to during the Civil War we see Abraham Lincoln (Charles Edward Bull) sign a bill that allows work to begin on the transcontinental railroad, wanting to look beyond the present situation of the war, considering the peace in the future. The President’s depicted as almost god-like in his presence and screen-time. Even though limited to a few scenes his presence is felt through the rest of the film. Ford would later return to the 14th President with Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). There is otherwise no other mention of the war that is going on back East between the North and the South. Instead it’s about this milestone in American history, at the time of the making of the film less than a hundred years had passed since its initial completion as the Continental and Union Pacific railroad companies laid the track that would eventually meet.
All this plays as backdrop to the drama that unfolds within the Union Pacific as they move Westward. We see all aspects of construction, from planning the laying of track to how to get around the country whilst still keeping under budget. We see all the classic clichés we take for granted from the striking work force after receiving no pay for months, to warring Cheyenne who are a constant threat as their land is being divided up before their eyes, the Buffalo population begin to diminish at the hands of the likes of Buffalo Bill (George Waggner). As I have found before with Ford his films are nothing without the rich mix of people that fill them, from the Italian ex-soldiers to the Chinese workers. He knows what America is built upon, a mixed immigrant population that made the country he loves great which he celebrates here. It’s not just Cowboys who have a score to settle.
The main drama is between Davy and Miriam who after spending years apart are now reunited, the childhood sweethearts may have a second chance. Before having to deal with her finance Jesson (Cyril Chadwick) the villain of the film tries to get him out of the picture. It’s really not as straightforward as Hollywood romance is today or even in the golden age, there is a price to pay before they can be together. Amongst the history there’s room for a little melodrama with Ford who keeps it to a minimum as we have a lot to look at and take in.
Overall for of silent John Ford film I have not been let down, sadly there was no Harry Carey to be seen but we did have an okish replacement with George O’Brien as the older Davy Brandon who comes into the picture in the second act. We have the roots of the genre here, not all of them but a strong part of the foundation of what I love today. History beginning to be re-written on the screen. With all sorts of historical characters making an appearance, this is American folklore for the 20th century told in sweeping form.
- John Ford, The Iron Horse (1924) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Iron Horse (1924) (silent-volume.blogspot.co.uk)
- Finding Ford / The Iron Horse (1924) (wondersinthedark.wordpress.com)
- The Iron Horse (1924) (forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.co.uk)
- Kept a rollin’… The Iron Horse (1924) (ithankyouarthur.blogspot.co.uk)
- John Ford/The Iron Horse (Fox, 1924) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- Silent Sundays: The Iron Horse (1924) (unecinephile.blogspot.co.uk)
One of a few films recommended to me during my final year at art-school by Professor Neil Campbell who opened my mind more to the western genre. Little Big Man (1970) was indeed a long and rewarding wait to finally catch this revisionist western that on the face of it can mock the genre. As we follow the life of the oldest and last Indian fighter who retells his life very much in the style that is later used by Forrest Gump (1995) without all the schmaltz of the big events of the last few decades and cgi to slip in the main character. Instead it’s a look back at both the western genre and the larger and more overlooked near genocide of the Native American as mentioned by the young interviewer of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) who comically is 122 years old, impossible really, but allows another generation become aware of its countries overlooked and shameful past.
We don’t linger on the nasty G word for too long, heading straight to the myths stereotypes of the Indian, as we see a white settlement raided, leaving only Jack and his sister hiding in a burnt out wagon, who are later taken away by a Cheyenne back to his camp. With well over half a decade of images of what could possibly happen our misconceptions are soon wiped clear, twisted on the head and thrown out.
This is not your average western of the last two decades when the Indian would capture, rape and kill their prisoners. Instead looking beyond the cliché to something more honest with humour as to what could possibly happen (stretched a bit for effect) as one man is assimilated into Cheyenne life, given the name Little Big Man. Not ignoring one of the ideas employed by the U.S. government to solve the “Indian Problem” The effect the Cheyenne’s have on Jack is dramatic as he goes onto adopt various lives throughout 1800’s America and the West. Paying homage in part to the genre that has given us so many images from the gunfighter to the medicine peddler and town drunk.
Hoffman is an interesting choice for the lead role, a small in height and not the most macho of heroes yet holds your attention as an average guy who can shout above it all. The kind that as we see gets left behind but makes the best of it. Taking on the multiple persona’s of the West we see him try and fail to live as a white man, becoming a failure in the American world, becoming only a true human being as an adopted Cheyenne. Something that is constantly mentioned among them, especially Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) who speaks of the white men as not equal to any Indian, even African American’s are not worthy of the title. It is those who live out on the plains who are allowed to be called human. As if a right of passage, living up to a standard, a way of life they will never truly share. A reflection of the western societies urge to westernise everyone else they came into contact with. For once the Indian seems to have the moral high-ground, his perspective comes first.
Whereas the white-man taking the form of General George Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan) is once again a bigoted glory hunter who is deaf to anyone else’s views. Head strong and determine to solve the “Indian Problem” hoping to one day live in the White house. We meet the doomed general a few times, at first a towering figure who arrives out of the pages of glory to become power mad. First sending Jack and his then wife Olga (Kelly Jean Peters) west, back into the untamed country, leading us into a back and forth world for Jack as he lives amongst the Cheyenne and the whites. It’s only after a raid that he is a part of as a Mule Skinner does he truly see the barbaric nature of the U.S. cavalry who slain not just the men but the women and children with little regard for their orders. Un able to understand how his own kind, kill another that he has been raised by, conflicting emotions boil inside him. White by birth, yet Cheyenne by nature, relying on either to survive as we learn.
Whilst being a comedy there are plenty of scenes that shake you up, leaving you in no doubt which side this film is on, after taking up with 4 wives do we see how the Cheyenne live on a reservation, before being “rubbed out” by the Army that is hard to watch, we don’t see white against Indian, it’s not a fair fight, just a slaughter of the innocent as they run for cover. Jack is seems to be the only one who can see history before him whilst it unfolds, unable to do much about it, a bystander almost in a nightmare.
Little Big Man flips the myth of conquest on its head to show the audience what it’s been overlooking, with all the settlers moving west, the gold rush, the cattle barons and the railroad, there was a great cost that was overlooked, a cost of human lives which can be overlooked as an obstacle. It doesn’t preach to us what has happened, the damage has been done politically and historically. Maybe in film the past can be redressed, hoping to rewrite that history to fill in the gaps that are usually covered over by the gunfighters and landowners. Adding another rich layer to a genre that celebrates a countries history which has become a myth that has become the facts we know today. For a time we are made to think about the others who are usually left out on the sidelines of history. If it wasn’t for Chief Dan George’s performance that rises beyond the stereotypical Indian chief to a thoughtful and wise man who can gives another viewpoint to history. There’s a sense of guilt that builds up as we see all the death and destruction, a race that has been brought to it’s knees, with all the excitement we see in the developed west we cannot forget the cost that is made both on-screen and in history.
- Little Big Man (www.nativeamerican.co.uk)
- How the West Was Really Won — LITTLE BIG MAN 1970 (whirlwindfilm.blogspot.co.uk)
- LITTLE BIG MAN (1970) And the Strangeness of the Whiteman (arcticshores.blogspot.co.uk)
- Little Big Man (1970) Hoffman recounts a 121 yr life (lovethoseclassicmovies.blogspot.co.uk)
- Little Big Man (NGP, 1970) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)