`Little big' is an oxymoron. Little Big Man, the film, is another cinematic oxymoron: a tragi-comedy.
Most of Penn's movies are double-edged swords presenting serious subjects with a twinkle in the eye--The Miracle Worker seems to be an exception to the rule. Penn seem to have a strange knack of picking subjects that seem to be governed by forces greater than themselves--leading to alienated situations. My favorite Penn film is the 1975 film Night Moves which ends with the boat going round in circles in the sea.
This work of Penn and novelist Thomas Berger follows the same pattern. The main character Crabb is buffeted between the Red Indians and the whites by forces beyond his control. Only once is he able to control his destiny--to lead Custer to his doom, because Custer in his impetuosity has decided to act contrary to any advice from Crabb. The religious and social values of both seem vacuous. The priest's wife may seem religious but is not. The adopted grandfather cannot die on the hilltop but has to carry on living. The gunslinger is a cartoon. Historical heroes like Wild Bill Hickok are demystified into individuals with down-to-earth worries.
It is surprising to me that many viewers have taken the facts of the film and novel as accurate--when it is obviously a work of fiction based on history. The charm of the film is the point of view taken by the author and director. The comic strain begins from the time Jim Crabb's sister is not raped by the Indians right up to the comic last stand of Custer. The film is hilarious as it presents a quirky look at every conceivable notion presented by Hollywood cinema: the brilliant acumen of army Generals, the Red Indian satisfying several squaws, the priest's wife turned prostitute who likes to have sex twice a week but not on all days, the quack who has turned to selling buffalo hides as he sees it as a better profession even if he has lost several limbs, etc.
The film is a tragedy--a tragic presentation of the Red Indian communities decimated by a more powerful enemy, tragic soldiers led by megalomaniac Generals, heroes reduced to fallible individuals, all heroes (including the Red Indians) whittled down to dwarfs.
The film is a satire of a dwarf who claims to have achieved a great revenge on Custer, a dwarf who could not assassinate Custer, the dwarf in many of us. It is a great film, but often misunderstood. Penn is a great director, whose greatness cannot be evaluated by this one film but by the entire body of his films. What he achieved in this film outclasses films like Tonka (1958) and Soldier Blue (1970), two notable films on similar themes. Chief Dan George, Dustin Hoffman, and cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr have considerably contributed to this fine cinematic achievement, but ultimate giant behind the film is Arthur Penn.
Penn has presented yet another example of looking at a subject and seeing two sides of the coin that appear as contradictions but together enhance our entertainment.