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Little Big Man (1970) February 4th, 2023

A farfetched historical farce akin to Forrest Gump and Big Fish, Little Big Man follows Dustin Hoffman’s titular character through a comical and harrowing coming of old-age story. Little Big Man is firmly centered in the late 1800’s old west and shows through a multitude of vignette flashbacks illustrating Little Big Man’s chaotic life. Ranging from his time as a gunslinger, a snake oil salesman, and even a worthless drunk. Little Big Man should be a comedic masterwork, but is instead a bipolar jumping bean.

Don’t get me wrong, Little Big Man is a great movie but its jarring transitions between goofy comedy and heartbreaking tragedy makes it difficult to appreciate as either. One moment Little Big Man is hamming it up in a saloon trying to impress local gun slingers, and then next he’s witnessing the slaughter of women and children in a raid. In another we’re laughing as an exhausted Little Big Man fulfills his obligation to bed all three of his wife’s sisters in one night (it’s a destiny thing) and the next his wife and child are horrifically slaughtered by General Custer’s cavalry.

Maybe that’s the point? At its core Little Big Man is about an 121 year old man telling his life story. If I think about telling my life’s story I wouldn’t spend too much time rehashing the time I’ve spent on a city buses or waiting for microwave food to cook unless it was part of the context of a larger story. Was this the time a crazy person assaulted the bus driver and smashed their bloody hands on the windows as we drove away? Or was this the time I paid the price for my impatience and ate Pizza Rolls before they had time to cool off? The memorable moments in life do jump from extremes, just like Little Big Man. What’s most exciting, funniest, or tragic.

Despite those mixed up feelings Little Big Man is a damn fine movie full of incredible cinematography, acting, and scriptwriting. I was able to catch it on the Criterion Channel in their ‘Winter Western’ collection last February. I can’t imagine a more appropriate place for it in the streaming landscape for a high quality movie that I’d never heard of, not even as a footnote in Dustin Hoffman’s storied career. Why is that? Why haven’t more people spoken of Little Big Man? Am I living under a rock or is the poster accurate? Is he actually the most neglected hero in film history?

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