After reading Deb Ng’s “Freelance Writing: The Great Divide” yesterday, I decided this would be a great opportunity to talk about a western.
Here’s the deal… I love westerns. I’ve watched hundreds upon hundreds of them. We’re talking about everything from the low-budget serialized B&W oaters to made-for-TV miniseries dreck to the latest big budget efforts to “reinvent” the genre. I think Sergio Leone is an artist on par with Picasso or Van Gogh. I hum the theme from The Magnificent Seven to myself almost every day. I’m a fan of genre and a fairly serious student of it, too.
So, it isn’t all that surprising that I had a western in the DVD player the other day. It’d been years since I last saw Little Big Man and thought it might be worth revisiting.
For those of you who don’t spend a great deal of time watching 40 year-old westerns, Little Big Man is the fictional story of Jack Crabb’s life. Crabb is the oldest surviving white participant in the Battle of Little Bighorn at age. He’s 121 years old and is recounting his life to a reporter. Crabb also went by the name of Little Big Man. He was adopted by the Sioux as a child and grew up as part of the tribe. Later, he comically bounced back and forth between white and Native American life.
Arthur Penn, the same guy who did The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant and The Missouri Breaks (an underrated Jack Nicholson/Marlon Brando western) turns Crabb’s story into an enjoyable attempt at humanizing the Native American “other” after years of portrayals that reduced “Injuns” to menacing savages. While it wasn’t the first western to reflect a growing willingness to confront issues of genocide and its lingering impact on film, it is a good example of that growing sensibility of the late 60s and early 70s. It’s also a not-always-subtle critique of the Viet Nam War, a theme Penn visited in multiple films.
Oh, and it stars Dustin Hoffman–before he became unbearably annoying.
Anyway, Little Big Man works because Crabb’s unique individual history allows him to move between cultures fairly easily. The movie is appreciative of the “human beings” (Sioux) while still poking fun at individual members of Little Big Man’s tribe. It’s a little less kindhearted to the white folk, but it seems more like an exercise in mirror holding than a vitriolic indict of the whole culture.
Crabb is the perfect person to tell the story of the American west because he really understands both sides–their strengths and their weaknesses.
I watched Little Big Man and then I read Deb’s post.
Most of us live somewhere between the vanity of General Custer and the wisdom of Old Lodge Skins. Few of us are pure saints, just trying to help and (hopefully) few of us are blogging about freelance writing purely for the sake of self-aggrandizement.
Many of us tend to live exclusively in one group, too. We’re either cowboys or Indians. We like the mills. We hate the mills. We like DS. We hate DS. Those people are disgusting. Those folks are stupid. Cowboys and Indians.
Well, it’s almost too easy to say that we should know better. The actual Battle of Little Big Horn didn’t turn out so well for Custer and the whole of history really didn’t work out for the Native Americans.
The real story of this whole “great divide,” however, may be that of Jack Crabb.
Remember, he was the last man standing. He was giving interviews at age 121 from a nursing home all about his life and adventures.
Jack Crabb, Little Big Man, was a survivor and he managed it because he could be a churchgoer, a snake oil salesman, a gunfighter, a store owner or a member of the “human beings.”
He narrates the movie because he walked back and forth across the great divide.
Before you dismiss those who hate whatever they label low-rent or a “content mill,” find out why and what they’re doing instead.
Before you jump on the person who’s writing for DS or the mills, dig a little deeper and look outside your frame of reference.
When you do, interesting things happen. Just ask Jack Crabb.