Little Big Man was filmed in Montana, California and Alberta Canada, with the help of the Crow, Cheyenne and Stony Nations. It's always a little reassuring when they film a movie about indians and include indians in its making. You would hope that the native americans would have incentive to support a correct storyline.
This epic movie is based on an epic novel, and as usual when you try to convert a novel, you have to do things differently in the movie version to catch the audience's attention. This isn't bad or good, it's just a different medium with different needs. A painting of a waterfall will be different than a written description of it. It would have taken a mini-series to allow the novel to play out fully.
The story consists of a long recollection of Jack, almost 120, and his years of moving between the white and indian worlds. As this is a review with narration, you get some foreshadowing, some exaggeration, and touches of humor. The movie is billed as a comedy, and everyone (including the narrator) is flawed. This isn't glossed over or hidden; it's just laid out as the way things are. Here's the story, in all of its convoluted twistedness.
When Jack is ten, his family is crossing the plains in a wagon. They are attacked and slain by the Pawnee. Only he and his sister survive. Luckily, a Cheyenne brave comes along and takes pity on them, bringing both back to his village. As with many indian tribes, the Cheyenne name in their language means "human beings". Jack's sister, a young teen, is convinced she's going to be raped - but nobody tries. She takes off, abandoning her little brother. He doesn't mind - he's adopted and treated very well. You see throughout the story that this kid does what he has to in order to stay alive, to fit into what is going on. Jack gets his name Little Big Man when he slays an attacking Pawnee. He's still only about 11.
Soon the Cheyenne are enraged by the US Army's wanton slaying of innocents and war against them - but it doesn't work out well. The Cheyenne try hitting the Army with sticks - "taking coup" to get victory without killing them - but the army of course is shooting to kill. Jack, to save himself, shows the soldiers he's white - and we start with his life as a white man.
Jack is taken in by a pair of "cultured Christians" and the wife immediately begins going after him. Disillusioned, he joins up with a snake oil salesman, who Jack feels is "more honest". After a tarring and feathering, Jack's found by his sister who trains him in the ways of snake-eyed shooting. Soon he's the Soda Pop Kid, talking with Wild Bill. Jack realizes killing people isn't for him - and when he gets rid of his guns, his sister deserts him (again). So he settles down in a store with a Swedish wife - but they're taken in by swindlers and soon are destitute and heading west. He meets Custer just before they go, and are attacked by "wild indians" on the coach ride. His wife is stolen, and Jack spends three years trying to find her, tracking across many states. He runs into his old tribe along the way.
So back to Indian culture. You might think after all whites being shown as slimy cheats, that a movie tends to either be "pro Indian" or "anti Indian". This one straddles the fence. The Indians don't want to take Jack back in at first. You get glimpses of one indian who walks, talks and does everything backwards ... while another, Little Horse, is very effeminate, in essence a transvestite. While the Cheyenne are monogamous, Jack's father has a dream where Jack has four wives. They're deliberately not showing a 'quiet happy Indian tribe' - they're making a strong attempt to show "unusual" Indians here!
Jack joins the Custer forces to try to continue his search for his wife - but the troop ends up slaying innocent Indian women and children and Jack rebels against them. As the elder Jack comments in his narration, "The world was too ridiculous to bother to live in it". But then redemption comes - Jack finds a Cheyenne young woman giving birth and takes the pair in as his own. His grandfather convinces the family to stay with the Cheyenne. Jack's wife, Sunshine, starts to lay a guilt trip on Jack on how her sisters are lonely and have no husbands and she wants to bring them "into the family". About the same time, Jack realizes that his first wife, Olga, now is living with the Cheyenne, so he stops worrying about her. To add to his sexual woes, Jack is propositioned by Little Horse.
As his wife trudges off, alone, in the snow to have her baby solo (the "Indian way"), Jack gives in to temptation and goes into his teepee with the three sisters. This is one of the scenes that bugged me. I'm OK with the idea that Jack regularly switches sides to get out of trouble and easily falls into drunkenness / taking advantage of people / etc. He's not perfect, none of us are. But for him to sleep with three other women while his wife is in labor because it's "the indian way" is a bit much. Especially when the Cheyenne way is monogamy, and the indian way is to care about those you're joined with.
Just as Jack is getting used to this decadent way of life, in comes the army. On an Indian reservation, where the Indians should be protected, the army shoots and slaughters everyone - women, children, ponies. But when Jack has the opportunity shortly afterwards to kill Custer, Jack doesn't have the courage. Custer realizes this and puts him down as not a worthy Cheyenne - and not worth hanging either. Jack collapses into despair.
Wild Bill runs into the drunken Jack and tries to clean him up. In short order, Jack runs into just about every other character he'd known, gets ready to commit suicide, and sees the army. He decides his quest is to kill Custer. Custer recognizes him as the renegade and decides to hire him as a scout - and to do the exact opposite of anything Jack tells him to do. Apparently Custer wanted just "one more victory" and felt he'd then get elected president. In a Forrest Gump moment (just like the entire movie, pretty much), Jack tells Custer to go get himself killed at Little Big Horn, that it's doom for him. Custer chooses to believe Jack is lying, and we know the rest.
The movie ends on a somber note - Jack's grandfather prepares to die, and in essence states that the entire Cheyenne nation is doomed to destruction. For a "comedy", it's got some pretty serious messages in it, tucked in between the corners. The key is to realize that this is the glossy, Hollywood version of the story. You're getting the storyline, and a few glimpses into the cultures involved. They're putting up caricatures in many cases, because the past-100 man telling the story is ... telling a story. Hopefully this will tweak the interest of many viewers, so that they get the more in depth view the book offers, or they go on to learn more about the real Native American cultures which offer so much.
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