This movie opens the story of Jack Crabbe, who is played by Dustin Hoffman. The movie opens with the 121 year old man talking to a historian about his life. The historian tells Jack:"I'm interested in the way of life of the Indians rather than shall we say adventure." He goes on to sya: "Little Big Horn was not representative of encounters between whites and Indians Mr. Crabbe. You see the near genocide of the Indian ... near genocide ... it means extermination. The killing off of an entire people. That's practically what we did to the Indians, but of course, I wouldn't expect an old Indian fighter like you to agree with me."
Jack then goes on to tell him the story of his life. When he was 10 his family was wiped out by a band of Pawnees. He was then adapted by the Cheyenne. Jack and his sister Caroline were taken back to the Cheyenne camp, but Caroline escaped that night. jack was treated as an honored guest. He was shown how to shoot a bow. He was adapted as one of their own. His adapted grandfather Old Lodge Skins taught him many things. It was a kind of paradise. Old Lodge Skins named his grandson after a Cheyenne legend Little Man, and he became Little Big Man after he helped in a raid against the Pawnees.
The movie, taking aim on the then current Vietnam war, shows the aftermath of the Washita Massacre of 1868 in which the 7th Calvary massacred a village of old men, women and children.
Little Big Man: "I don't understand it grandfather. Why would they kill women and children."
Old Lodge Skins: "Because they are strange. they do not seem to know where the center of the earth is. We must have a war on these cowards and teach them a lesson."
The movie contrasts the two worlds that Jack Crabbe moves between. The white world is hypocritical and with little morality. The Cheyenne world is honest and moral. Old Lodge Skins tells Jack, "If you believe riding against these white creatures is bad, you can stay out of the fight. No one will think the worse."
When the Cheyenne attack the soldiers they take pride in taking coup while the soldiers shot them down with guns. Jack Crabbe can't understand how the whites took such pride in winning when it was rifles against bow and arrows. During the attack a soldier corners Jack and he then goes back to the white world. Years later while searching for his wife who has been abducted by the Cheyenne he finds his old tribe and is reunited with Old Lodge Skins.
Jack continues his search for his wife and gets a job as a mule skinner with General Custer. A soldier tells Jack: "I wouldn't want no wife of mine back after she been with the Indians. Kindest thing - bullet in the brain." The soldiers find a Cheyenne camp and the sergeant says "Spare the females and children if possible", and then they go charging in. The soldiers kill women and children indiscriminately and in the middle of the battle Jack changes sides. He then flees from the scene but finds one of his old Cheyenne friends' daughters having a baby in the brush.
When Jack goes back to see Old Lodge Skins he finds that many of his old friends are dead. He tells Jack "But the White Man, they believe everything is dead. Stone, earth, animals, and people. Even their own people. If things keep trying to live White Man will rub them out. That is the difference." Jack stayed with the Cheyenne for a year with his new young wife, Sunshine. They go to live on a piece of land near the Washita river in the Indian Country that had been given to the Indians forever by the Congress and the President. They would be safe there Jack said.
At the camp Sunshine's three sisters show up and then Jack becomes responsible for taking care of them too. Their husbands have been "rubbed out" by the white man. Jack an Sunshine have a second baby, but then Custer attacks with Gary Owens playing in the background. The cavalry rides through camp slaughtering everyone but Jack and Old Lodge Skins escape. Custer tells his aide: "You think it's shocking to shoot a few ponies. Well let me tell you the women are much more important than the ponies , they breed like rats, however this is a legal action and the men are under strict orders not to shoot the women. Unless, of course, they refuse to surrender." The horses, women and children are then shown being slaughtered. Jack sees Sunshine and his new child being killed.
Jack goes to Custer's camp with the intention of killing him but gets intercepted. Later he gets another chance but he can't go through with it. He eventually became a hermit. Jack then sees Custer's troops and goes in to his camp and becomes a scout. Custer intends to follow the exact opposite of whatever Jack tells him. He thinks Jack is the "perfect reverse barometer." The Crows want time to sing their death song, but Custer says there is no danger. Custer's subordinate questions his decision to attack, but Custer will not reverse his decision. He asks Jack what he should do.
Jack Crabb: "I didn't say that. There are thousands of Indians down there. And when they get done with you, there won't be nothing left but a greasy stain. This ain't the Washite River, General, and them ain't helpless women and children waiting for you. They're Cheyenne brave, and Sioux. You go down there, General, if you've got the nerve."
General Custer: Still trying to outsmart me, aren't you, mule-skinner. You want me to think that you don't want me to go down there, but the subtle truth is you really don't want me to go down there!"
Custer then leads the troops down in to the "Little Big Horn and glory". Jack is wounded but a brave that he knew brings him back to Old Lodge Skins.
Old Lodge Skins decides it is time to die. There is a limited number of Human Beings but an unlimited number of white men. They won today but they won't win tomorrow. Old Lodge Skins thanks the spirits for his life and then lies down to die but when it rains he gets up.
Roger Ebert said of Old Lodge Skins :
Old Lodge Skins, played by Chief Dan George with such serenity and conviction that an Academy Award was mentioned, doesn't preach the Cheyenne philosophy. It is part of him. It's all the more a part of him because Penn has allowed the Indians in the film to speak ordinary, idiomatic English. Most movie Indians have had to express themselves with an "um" at the end of every other word: "Swap-um wampum plenty soon," etc. The Indians in "Little Big Man" have dialogue reflecting the idiomatic richness of Indian tongues; when Old Lodge Skins simply refers to Cheyennes as "the Human Beings," the phrase is literal and meaningful and we don't laugh.
The movie can be critiqued in making the Cheyennes too good and the whites so bad, but it is a welcome relief from all the early Westerns and their one dimensional Indian portrayals. One thing I thought the movie did really well was show how the Cheyenne were so willing to accept Jack as a Human Being. Being a Human Being was not a matter of skin color or blood, it was the acceptance of a way of life. The Cheyennes were also completely accepting of gay members of the tribe. This 1970 movie can be considered ground breaking in its positive portrayal of the Indians and of a tribe that is so accepting of the gay lifestyle.
In his great book, Gunfighter Nation
(1992), Richard Slotkin says of Little Big Man
, "In effect, the Mylai counter-myth follows the scenario of the old 'Cult of the Indian',: the standard Western mythology of captivities, rescues and regenerative violence is reproduced, with the 'normal' racial referents reversed, so the Whites are savages and the Indians are pure and helpless victims. In 1970-71 the logic of this counter-myth would lead to the re-emergence of a new 'Cult of the Indian', represented in movie-mythology by films like Little Big man
and Soldier Blue
, which invokes parallels between Mylai and the Washita and Sand Creek massacre of Indians by Whites. However, this 'cult' reflected a more profound revulsion against the normative ideology than its predecessor.