restricted access 18. Little Big Mensch

From: Arthur Penn

The University Press of Kentucky colophon
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

190 18 Little Big Mensch Despite being able to film Alice in their backyard, the Penns were not rolling in money. UA deemed the project too American to expect wide foreign success (they were wrong), so they held Penn and Elkins to a budget that wouldn’t make anybody rich unless it scored at the box office (which it did), but the returns wouldn’t start until the picture was released on August 20, 1969. As it worked out, that was ten days before Woodstock, which earned Arlo Guthrie superstar attention. Meanwhile, although the Penns owned outright their Manhattan and Stockbridge homes and had been able to set aside college money for Molly and Matthew , they could not call themselves well to do. The huge profits from Bonnie and Clyde had not begun to trickle down, and times were tough. So perhaps it was foolhardy to forge ahead on a film that the director had been nurturing for six years and that, even if it were green-lighted, would not make him rich. Still, he loved the project, and it was finally starting to come together. It was Little Big Man, and its pro–Native American message was also a long time coming. “Slowly certain films began to show an ever-so-slight bias in the direction of the Indians—Soldier Blue (1970), for one,” Penn told interviewer Tony Crawley. There was also a newly minted star to play Little Big Man’s Jack Crabb: Dustin Hoffman, whose The Graduate (1967) had made him bankable. Plus Penn was coming off Bonnie and Clyde.1 As the advertising campaign would claim, “Jack Crabb was Little Big Mensch 191 either the most neglected hero in history or a liar of insane proportion .” Once again history was in the eye of the beholding camera, and this time the person telling it was a 121-year-old “Indian fighter” who claims to be “the sole white survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.” Little Big Man is a revisionist western framed by the flashback device of an anthropologist’s interview with a wizened Crabb in an old-age home. During a twenty-year span in the mid-1880s, the old man claims to have been an Indian warrior, a preacher’s ward, a swindler, a mule skinner, a gunfighter, a drunkard, a hermit, an Indian scout, and a polygamist. It paints General George Armstrong Custer as a psychotic racist who gleefully implements the American government’s policy of Indian genocide as his steppingstone to the presidency. Although the film’s overall tone is cynical and slyly comedic, its credibility was bolstered by being released at a time when the American government had engaged in so many betrayals, from civil rights to Vietnam (Watergate was two years away), that audiences accepted that the Republic had been founded on chicanery. “The question is,” Penn told Michael Lindsay, “whether or not the audience will be able to sort out fact from lie. That’s the technique of the film, which is to say, How much of this is fable and how much of this is real? In the final analysis, none of it matters because what we’re saying is another version of history than the white version, which is equally fable. In that sense, we’re not trying to set the record straight.”2 Based on Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel, Little Big Man begins in 1847 and follows young Jack Crabb as he goes between white and Indian worlds, ending up at Custer’s Last Stand as a white man seeking revenge on behalf of the Indians (who call themselves “the Human Beings”). As picaresque as the later Forrest Gump (1994), only more biting and astute, Little Big Man is a gallant lie wrapped around a shameful truth. “It’s prejudiced in the sense that I thought there was a good deal of history that ought to be told the other way with at least as much passion as ‘the whites are the good guys and the redskins are hostile savages ’ as we’ve been told over the years,” Penn said, explaining 192 Arthur Penn his passion for the project. “I sort of loaded it in the other direction , but I like to hope that I at least informed the audience that I was loading it. I don’t mean to have this be representative of what I think of as being historically accurate.”3 On the other hand, he continues, “It shows...


pdf

Subject Headings

  • Penn, Arthur, 1922-2010.
  • Motion picture producers and directors -- United States -- Biography.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access