Jul 1, 2013

Little Big Man: Draft-Dodging, Gay Indians, and Physique Poses

We're so used to seeing Dustin Hoffman as a highly respected dramatic actor that it's easy to forget something:  when he was just starting out, in The Graduate (1967), Madigan's Millions (1968), John and Mary (1969), and Alfredo Alfredo (1972), his physique sold as many tickets as his performance.

Little Big Man (1970) consists of the picaresque adventures of 121-year old Jack Crabb (Dustin) beginning in 1849, when as a 10-year old he is captured by the Cheyenne Indians. He grows up with the Cheyenne, but returns to white society to save himself during an Indian massacre.

He becomes a snake-oil salesman, gunfighter, and shopkeeper, and joins General Custer's 7th Calvary, but returns to the Cheyenne in disgust after another massacre.  Several years later, when he is married with children, a third massacre prompts him to return to General Custer and orchestrate his defeat and death at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

The most surprising thing about this movie is Dustin Hoffman's body. His tight, muscular frame was on display throughout his Cheyenne years, and as nude as it could get in white society, as often as the scripts could provide him with bathtubs and bedrooms.  And everyone he meets looks like they want to rip off his clothes and have sex with him on the spot.  Most of the women get to; the men just complement him on his handsomeness, steal a surreptitious glimpse at his bulge, and offer to become his. . .um, friend.

One might suspect, that like Sal Mineo in Tonka, the movie is just an excuse to display Dustin Hoffman's muscles.  But there is an ongoing Vietnam-Era anti-War message in the endless massacres,  betrayal, and death.

White society (read: the Establishment)  is almost universally despicable, and Cheyenne society (read: the Counterculture) is almost universally good, kind, and noble.  Men who don't want to go to war (read: draft dodgers) are not outcasts; it is perfectly honorable to stay home.

The Cheyenne even accept gay people: a hwame or Two Soul named Younger Bear (Cal Bellini), extremely feminine but in a position of honor in the community, is perhaps the first positively-portrayed gay person in a mainstream movie, certainly the first gay Native American.  He wants Dustin Hoffman, too ("Come to my tent -- I'll be your wife"), but doesn't get anywhere.