The movie stars
Chief Dan George, Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam, Jeff Corey and Richard Mulligan. It is considered a Revisionist Western, with Native Americans receiving a sympathetic treatment uncommon for Western films in previous decades. Many of the United States Cavalry soldiers are depicted as villains.
Despite its satiric and comedic approach, the film has tragic elements and a clear social commentary about prejudice and injustice. Little Big Man is considered an example of anti-establishment films of the period, subtly protesting America's involvement in the Vietnam War by portraying the U.S. Military negatively. Arthur Penn has also stated in an interview featured on a TCM promo that elements of the film were comments on American genocide depicting events "closest to The Holocaust."
A dying centenarian, 121-year-old Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), recalls several facets of his life to a curious historian (William Hickey). His long and episodic story includes being a member of the Cheyenne tribe, a gunslinger, a sidekick to Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey), and a scout for General George Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan). The central theme is his adoption by the Cheyenne, enabling him to view both the Caucasian and Native American cultures of the 19th century.
Jack and his older sister Caroline (Carole Androsky) survive the massacre of their parents' wagon train at the hands of the Pawnee. Found by a Cheyenne warrior, Jack and his sister are taken back to a Cheyenne village. Caroline escapes, but Jack remains and is raised by the Cheyenne leader, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George). It proves to be an idyllic life, though Jack unwittingly makes an enemy of Younger Bear (Cal Bellini). Jack is given the name "Little Big Man" because he's short but very brave. Jack is captured by the U.S. Cavalry and quickly put into the care of Reverend Pendrake (Thayer David) and his wife Louise (Faye Dunaway). She is attracted to young Jack, but he cannot accept the dichotomy between Louise's pious attitude and her sexual appetite and promptly leaves her home.
Jack decides to become the apprentice of the snake-oil salesman Merriweather (Martin Balsam). They are tarred and feathered for selling fraudulent products. He reunites with his sister Caroline. She attempts to mold her brother into a gunslinger named the Soda Pop Kid (so called because of his chosen beverage). Jack runs into Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey), who takes a liking to the young man. When Hickok is forced to kill a man in self defense, Jack loses his taste for gunslinging and Caroline deserts him.
Jack decides to open a general store and marries a Swedish woman named Olga (Kelly Jean Peters). Jack's business partner turns out to be a thief and he's forced to close the store. General Custer happens to ride upon the scene and suggests the couple restart their lives out west. Jack agrees, however, their stagecoach is ambushed by the Cheyennes and Olga is abducted. Searching for Olga in vain, he is reunited with Old Lodge Skins, who is overjoyed Jack has returned to the tribe. Younger Bear has become a contrary (a warrior who does everything in reverse) and, having been humiliated by Jack years before, is still clearly bitter. After a short stay with the tribe, Jack continues his search for Olga.
He eventually becomes a "mule skinner" within Custer's 7th Cavalry, hoping to obtain information on the location of Olga. He participates in a battle against the Cheyenne. When they begin killing women and children, he becomes enraged and turns on the U.S. Soldiers. In the nearby woods, Jack discovers the Cheyenne woman Sunshine (Aimée Eccles) in the process of giving birth. He saves Sunshine from the marauding soldiers and returns to Old Lodge Skins' tribe. Sunshine becomes his wife and they have a child together. Jack once again encounters Younger Bear, who has undergone another life change. No longer a contrary, Younger Bear is now shockingly married to Olga. Olga does not immediately recognize Jack, and he makes no attempt to remind her of their previous relationship.
One day during the winter season, Custer and the 7th Cavalry make a surprise attack on the Cheyenne camp. A now-blind and elderly Old Lodge Skins is saved by Jack, but Sunshine and their child are killed. Jack tries to infiltrate Custer's camp to exact revenge, but at the crucial moment loses his nerve when alone with Custer, who mocks him for it. Disheartened, Jack becomes the town drunk in Deadwood, South Dakota. While in a drunken stupor, Wild Bill Hickok recognizes him and gives him money to clean up. When Jack returns to the bar, Hickok is shot and killed. Before his death, Hickok tells Jack a dying wish involving a widow he was having an affair with. Jack goes to see the widow, a prostitute who turns out to be Louise Pendrake. Jack gives her the money she needs to start a new life.
Jack soon becomes a trapper and hermit. His mind becomes unhinged after coming across an empty trap with a severed animal limb. Poised at the edge of a cliff, he prepares to commit suicide. Jack suddenly hears the faint chords of Garryowen echoing through the valley and spots Custer and his troops marching nearby. Jack decides to exact revenge. Custer accepts him as a scout, believing anything he says will be a lie, thus serving as a reverse barometer. Jack leads the troops into a trap at the Little Bighorn. Before the attack, Jack truthfully tells Custer of the overwhelming force of Native Americans hidden within the valley. Custer does not believe him and leads the 7th Cavalry to its doom. During the frantic battle, Custer begins a series of insane ravings. Ignoring the closing circle of warriors, Custer decides to kill Jack and points his pistol at him. Before he can pull the trigger, Custer is killed by Younger Bear, who removes the unconscious, wounded Jack from the battle by carrying him to Old Lodge Skins' tepee.
With Custer and his regiment annihilated, Jack accompanies Old Lodge Skins to a nearby hill where the weary leader decides to end his life. He gives his speech to the Great Spirit, saying he is ready to die. Instead, it begins to rain. Old Lodge Skins sighs and says, "Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't." They return to his tepee to have dinner.
Jack's narrative abruptly ends and he tells the historian to leave the room. The film concludes with an extended shot of the elderly Jack sadly staring into space.
The movie's portrayal of the Battle of Washita River as a Custer-led massacre of women and children (which Penn compares to the holocaust) is not entirely based upon fact, as the historical record shows there was more resistance than portrayed in the film (though a large percentage of the victims were women and children). As depicted, the scene most closely resembles the Sand Creek Massacre, where Colorado militia troops (not including Custer) attacked a peaceful contingent of Native Americans, killing more than 150 women, children and elderly men (this was depicted in another 1970 Revisionist Western, Soldier Blue)
The film's depiction of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer as a lunatic at the Battle of the Little Bighorn was intended as a comedic satire, though many of his quirks and vanities were inspired by contemporary observations. Custer's fatal tactics at Little Bighorn were far more complex than portrayed in the film. His actions before and during the battle remain intensely controversial to this day.
The character of Jack Crabb is partially based on Curley, one of Custer's Native American scouts from the Crow tribe. It is believed Curley rode with Custer's 7th Cavalry into the final battle until they were attacked, at which point he was relieved of duty, retreating to a nearby bluff and witnessing much of the action. Many conflicting stories of the era embellished Curley's participation, stating in several cases that he disguised himself with a Cheyenne blanket to escape the immediate field of battle. He was interviewed many times, with some writers claiming him to be the only surviving witness from the U.S. side of Custer's Last Stand. Curley gave several variations of his participation in the battle, and the accuracy of his later recollections has been questioned.
The historical Little Big Man was a Native American bearing no resemblance to the Jack Crabb character. Little Big Man is known for his involvement in the capture and possible assassination of Crazy Horse at Fort Robinson in 1877.
For his portrayal of Old Lodge Skins, Chief Dan George was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor in a Supporting Role. He won multiple honors for his performance including the Producers Guild of America Award, the National Society of Film Critics Award and the New York Film Critics Circle Award. He was also nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor.
Hoffman won third place for his performance with the Producers Guild of America and was nominated as Best Actor by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. The screenplay by Calder Willingham was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award as Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium.