Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A 19th-Century Forrest Gump

"I was an honored guest so they gave me a special treat: boiled dog. Now I will admit, dog is greasy, but you'd be surprised how downright delicate the flavor is — especially when you're starving."

Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman)

The last time I watched Arthur Penn's "Little Big Man" — which premiered on this day in 1970 — it occurred to me that Little Big Man (Dustin Hoffman) was the 19th–century version of Forrest Gump.

He was always where big things were happening in the West — just like Forrest Gump kept showing up at the White House ... after he showed up on the infamous occasion when George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door in an attempt to block the integration of the University of Alabama.

Forrest Gump was always rubbing elbows with the big names of 20th–century history, with presidents and would–be presidents, often in the news footage of the day. Little Big Man wasn't around too many big names. He was almost always around the practically anonymous Indians who tried without success to resist the invasion of the white Europeans.

The only big name I can think of who encountered Little Big Man was Gen. George Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan).

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that "Little Big Man" was "an endlessly entertaining attempt to spin an epic in the form of a yarn." He was right.

"It mostly works," Ebert observed. "When it doesn't — when there's a failure of tone or an overdrawn caricature — it regroups cheerfully and plunges ahead. We're disposed to go along; all good storytellers tell stretchers once in a while, and circle back to be sure we got the good parts."

In "Little Big Man," they were all good parts.

"Hoffman, or Little Big Man, gets around pretty well," Ebert wrote. "He touches all the bases of the Western myth. He was brought West as a settler, raised as a Cheyenne, tried his hand at gunfighting and medicine shows, scouted for the cavalry, experimented with the hermit life, was married twice, survived Custer's Last Stand and sat at the foot of an old man named Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), who instructed him in the Cheyenne view of creation."

And that, in a nutshell, was Little Big Man's character — except he answered to Jack Crabb when he came West as a settler or when he found himself among other whites.

The "yarn," as Ebert put it, was told by Hoffman's character at the age of 121. Yes, you read that right. And it worked quite well. Extremely well.

"The yarn is the most flexible of story forms," Ebert observed. "Its teller can pause to repeat a point; he can hurry ahead 10 years; he can forget an entire epoch in remembering the legend of a single man. He doesn't capture the history of a time, but its flavor. 'Little Big Man' gives us the flavor of the Cheyenne nation before white men brought uncivilization to the West."

It would be hard to pinpoint what kind of movie it was. It was a comedy, a drama, a satire, a tragedy. Sometimes it was just one; at other times, it was a mix of two or more.

One thing it was not was literal history.

And Ebert observed that the story was circular. "All the characters who appear in the early stages of the film come back in the later stages, fulfilled. The preacher's wife (Faye Dunaway) returns as a prostitute. The medicine–quack, already lacking an arm, loses a leg (physician, heal thyself). Wild Bill Hickok decays from a has–been to a freak show attraction. Custer fades from glory to madness. Only Old Lodge Skins makes it through to the end not merely intact but improved."

The really ridiculous thing about "Little Big Man" is how it was all but overlooked by the Oscars.

Chief Dan George was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (which he lost) — and that was it. Even the schmaltzy "Love Story" got seven nominations.

Well, it wasn't the first time that a more deserving movie got snubbed by the Oscars.