Tag Archives: Chief Dan George

Little Big Man

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 3, 2014

Little Big Man—Dustin Hoffman, Chief Dan George, Faye Dunaway, Richard Mulligan, Aimee Eccles, Jeff Corey, Martin Balsam (1970; Dir:  Arthur Penn)


“I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers.  My name is Jack Crabb.  And I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, uh, uh, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand.”

This is one of the two most prominent revisionist westerns of the early 1970s, together with McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  Both were made by directors who did not otherwise direct many westerns, and both were concerned more with the “revisionist” than the “western.”  Both were inundated in the social currents of their time and using the western format to express them.

Based on a 1964 novel by Thomas Berger, this is one of those westerns that uses its main character as a ping-pong ball to bounce around the west of the post-Civil War era meeting actual famous characters from history and fictional characters meant to be picaresque (as with some of the works of Larry McMurtry, for example, or Forrest Gump).  Even the actual historical characters in this have a lot of the fictional about them.


Dustin Hoffman (age 33) as young Jack Crabb, and in heavy makeup as Old Jack Crabb.

As the movie starts, Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), 121 years old and in heavy makeup, reminisces about a period of his life as a young man when he alternated between living among the Cheyennes and white men.  The entire movie is a flashback to that period of his youth.  On the whole, the movie tends to be more successful in its depiction of the Cheyennes than when it deals with white men, who are usually shown as venal, hypocritical, dishonest or crazy.

As a boy, Jack is taken by Cheyennes and raised by Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), whom he addresses as Grandfather.  The most successful single aspect of the movie is its depiction of the Cheyennes, who refer to themselves as the Human Beings, and their culture.  They are not quite as authentic-seeming as, say, the Lakota Sioux in Dances With Wolves, but the portrayal is engaging.  Jack makes friends, but some enemies, and he becomes a warrior despite extraordinary ineptitude and receives the name Little Big Man.


Crabb is taken for a Cheyenne on the battlefield, understandably enough.

After a battle with white soldiers, he is taken back to white society, where he is adopted by the Pendrakes, an outwardly religious couple in which the wife (Faye Dunaway) seems obsessed with sex.  Jack refers to this as his “religious period,” and he meets his real sister Caroline, a Calamity-Jane type, who teaches him to shoot a gun, whereupon he enters his “gunfighter period” and meets Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Corey).  Jack seemingly has the skill but not the temperament for gunfighting.  He’s never good at any kind of fighting.

Jack takes a Swedish wife Olga and starts a dry goods store with a partner who turns out to be a thieving scoundrel.  Responding to impromptu advice from Gen. George Custer (Richard Milligan), they head west, only to have their stagecoach attacked by Cheyennes.  Olga is abducted, and Jack goes to the Cheyennes in search of her.  Captured by whites again, he becomes a muleskinner for Custer until Custer’s attack on the Cheyennes, where Custer and his men indiscriminately kill women and children.  Jack discovers a young Cheyenne widow Sunshine (Aimee Eccles) giving birth, and she becomes his wife, along with her three widowed sisters.

Old Lodge Skins has become blind, but he still has prophetic dreams and powers that enable him and Jack to survive another Custer massacre, this time on the Washita.  Sunshine, her child, and her sisters are all killed.  Jack makes his way to Custer’s camp, intending to kill him, but he loses his nerve and becomes instead the town drunk in Deadwood.  Wild Bill Hickok gives him money to clean up but is himself killed.  Jack finds Mrs. Pendrake working as a prostitute.  “Well, Jack.  Now you know.  This is a house of ill fame.  And I’m a fallen flower.  This life is not only wicked and sinful.  It isn’t even any fun.”

LittleBigGunfighter Crabb in his gunfighter phase.

After a period as a hermit and trapper, Jack spots Custer’s cavalry on the move and joins them as a scout.  Custer figures he can believe the opposite of what Jack tells him as they head for the Little Bighorn.

Jack Crabb::  “General, you go down there.”

General Custer:  “You’re advising me to go into the coulee?”

Jack Crabb:  “Yes sir.”

General Custer:  “There are no Indians there, I suppose. 

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 spot.  This ain’t the Washita River, General, and them ain’t helpless women and children waiting for you.  They’re Cheyenne braves, and Sioux.  You go down there, General, if you’ve got the nerve.”

General Custer:  “Still trying to outsmart me, aren’t you, muleskinner?  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!”


With Custer at the Last Stand.  Note the large back pad on Richard Mulligan as Custer.  He’s about to get a couple of arrows in the back.

Jack is standing next to the demented Custer during the last stand and is saved by a Cheyenne friend-enemy.  Back at the Cheyenne camp, Jack accompanies Old Lodge Skins to a mountain top, where the old man intends to die. 

[Old Lodge Skins, who has laid himself down to die, wakes up as it starts to rain.]

Old Lodge Skins [opening his eyes]:  “Am I still in this world?”

Jack Crabb:  “Yes, Grandfather.”

Old Lodge Skins:   [groans] “I was afraid of that.  Well, sometimes the magic works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.”

They return to dinner.  And Jack dismisses the oral historian with whom he has been sharing all this, to be left alone with his memories.

This has been a long synopsis, but it’s a long movie at 139 minutes, with a lot of back-and-forth between Indians and whites for Jack.  Dustin Hoffman is good as Jack Crabb, and his old-man makeup for the framing story was innovative for its time.  The best performances in this film are by Chief Dan George (nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and Aimee Eccles as Sunshine.  (Marlon Brando, Paul Scofield and Lawrence Olivier had turned down the Old Lodge Skins role, according to reports.)  Chief Dan George was even more excellent as the Cherokee Lone Watie in The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Aimee Eccles was cast as Bert Lancaster’s young Apache wife in Ulzana’s Raid, although she hardly appears on screen.  While this movie’s depiction of the Cheyennes is not entirely authentic, it is entertaining and more real than movies had tended to be previously.


Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins and Aimee Eccles as Sunshine.

Its treatment of Custer and the flow of events generally is much more cavalier.  Washita (1868) and Little Bighorn (1876) appear to be only months apart.  In fact, they were eight years apart.  The lunatic Custer on the battlefield is intended to be satiric, not accurate.  The anti-military feeling is pure 1970s, although it is surprisingly similar to Dances With Wolves more than twenty years later.  How much you enjoy this movie will depend on how you feel about the 1970s as a film era generally. 

This and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) are generally seen as the high points of Arthur Penn’s directing career.  Little Big Man‘s revisionism was not universally well-received on its release.  Vincent Canby of the New York Times complained that the film “wears its social concerns so blatantly that they look like war paint.”  Pauline Kael, who had championed the violent Bonnie and Clyde, thought that Little Big Man was a “hip epic” and “just crude, ideological filmmaking.”  However, it was generally a critical and box-office success in 1970.  More than 40 years later there seems to be a little creaking in the Vietnam-era joints.

In the novel, the old Indian dies at the end.  Penn deliberately decided against playing it that way.  “We thought long and hard about this and in the first draft of the script he does die, but this death would have introduced an element of sadness into the film and we didn’t want this.  The film would have become dramatic, even melodramatic, instead of being picaresque.  I also wanted to show that not only were the Indians going to be destroyed, but they were also condemned to live.  On the whole, audiences like their entertainment dramatically compact and homogenous, but I want the opposite.  A film should remain free and open, not with everything defined and resolved.”

LittleBigAuthentic The real Little Big Man, Oglala Sioux.

Historical Note:  The real Little Big Man was not a Cheyenne or a white man, but an Oglala Sioux, related to Crazy Horse and involved in his death at Fort Robinson in 1877.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 5

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 7, 2013

Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner in The Grey Fox

richardfarnsworthG Fox 3

Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner, and the real Bill Miner.

After a lifetime as a stuntman and extra, Farnsworth had an unusual resurgence as a leading man toward the end of his career, and this was one of his three best roles—perhaps the very best.  His understated style and low-key charm, with a soft voice, warmly reticent smile around a white moustache, and expressive blue eyes are his trademarks.  He was unexpectedly cast as the lead in this low-budget Canadian production from 1982.  He plays Bill Miner, a one-time stagecoach robber who has spent most of his adult life as a prisoner in California’s San Quentin prison and is now released into a more modern west he doesn’t quite understand.  We relate to his charm and apparent affection for people, however, as he tries to reshape his outlaw career into something more modern.  It’s a seldom-seen gem of a movie, and it all depends on Farnsworth.  He’s magnificent.  For his other great roles, see him as Matthew Cuthbert in the Canadian television miniseries Anne of Green Gables (1985) and as Alvin Straight, driving a yard tractor to visit his brother before his own death, in The Straight Story (1999).


Kevin Costner as Lt. John Dunbar in Dances With Wolves and as Charley Waite in Open Range

People are ambivalent about Costner as an actor, with some of his highest visibility coming in large-scale action turkeys like Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves; Waterworld, and The Postman.  (They’re surprisingly watchable, even when Costner is obviously miscast, as he was in Robin Hood.)  However, he seems to have an affinity for westerns, both as an actor and as a director, as demonstrated by these two films in which he performed both functions.  For his first western, see him as young scapegrace Jake in Silverado.  If you like him in these roles, look at his four baseball movies:  Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, For the Love of the Game and The Upside of Anger.  He’s a better actor than he is generally considered in the twilight of his film career.

  • In Dances With Wolves, he’s not only the lead as Lt. John Dunbar, Civil War hero and budding anthropologist, but he’s alone much of the time he’s on the screen.  And he’s the sole decent white man in the entire movie.  He won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director (unusual for a western), and he carries this lengthy movie as an actor. 


  • In Open Range, he is again the director and also a lead as Charley Waite, but as Charley he gives more space to other leads (Robert Duvall, principally, and Annette Bening).  Charley is a more dour character—a cowboy with a backstory as a gunfighter, and Costner is excellent and persuasive.  His look is very authentic, too.  His achievements in these two movies as director and actor draw inevitable comparisons with Clint Eastwood.  He just hasn’t made as many westerns as Eastwood. 


Graham Greene as Kicking Bird in Dances With Wolves

If Costner as Lt. Dunbar carries Dancing With Wolves as the only white man with whom we feel much sympathy, it is Canadian Oneida character actor Graham Greene who provides the human face of the Sioux/Lakota with whom Dunbar interacts throughout the movie.  (Rodney A. Grant provides a kind of younger, harder-nosed counterpoint to Greene.)  As the Lakota chief Kicking Bird, Greene approaches Dunbar as a human he doesn’t understand, and it enables Dunbar and Kicking Bird eventually to bridge the sizable linguistic and cultural gulf between them.  Greene’s understated but excellent performance emphasizes the Indians’ basic humanity.  For a brief performance with more humor, see Greene in Maverick and fleetingly in Gunless.  He’s also very good as a modern tribal police chief on the Shoshoni-Arapaho reservation in Wind River.


Clint Eastwood as Josey Wales in The Outlaw Josey Wales and as William Munny in Unforgiven

Eastwood was his own director in both these movies, and that makes his achievement even more remarkable.  By now, at the end of his career, Eastwood is acknowledged as a masterful director.  Although the stories in both these movies are built around his character, he is generous in allowing others juicy parts as well.  Josey Wales is a quintessential Eastwood character, with his squint, his soft-spoken but hard-bitten way with words, and his ability to draw other characters to him sometimes against his own choice—not to mention his handy way with guns and with tobacco juice.  William Munny is even more hard-bitten, and at bottom may not be a very good person, as we see him forced more and more into an old life and the use of devastating old skills through the movie.  He is what Josey Wales might have become.  Together with his early work with Sergio Leone in the Dollar trilogy and Pale Rider, these roles and the rest of his career present the most impressive body of acting work in the genre since John Wayne.  And Wayne never wore the director’s hat as successfully as either Eastwood or Costner.


Chief Dan George as Lone Watie in The Outlaw Josey Wales

Notable especially for its warm, understated humor and elegant humanity, Chief Dan George’s performance as aging Cherokee Lone Watie stands with Graham Greene in Dances With Wolves as the two best performances by Native Americans in westerns.  Time after time, George steals scenes from Eastwood’s Josey Wales.  On rewatching the film, George’s performance is one of the principal joys that one looks for.  He came to acting very late in his life and really has no comparably excellent parts in other films.  But look for him as Old Lodge Skins, Dustin Hoffman’s adoptive Cheyenne grandfather, in Little Big Man as well; he’s the best thing in that film, and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work there.


James Stewart as Destry in Destry Rides Again, as Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur and as Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

One of the best-known, most popular and most versatile actors of his time, Stewart also worked with a range of some of the best directors of his era.  In westerns, they included Anthony Mann and John Ford; in mysteries and thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock; in populist fare, Frank Capra.  He was kind of an American everyman, perhaps Henry Fonda’s only equal in that kind of role.

James Stewart - destry rides again - & Marlene Dietrich

  • In his early career, Stewart didn’t make many westerns.  But in 1939 (the same year he did Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Frank Capra), he starred as an offbeat kind of lawman in Destry Rides Again.  Played with warmth, gentleness and an often exaggerated version of his signature drawl, this was one of the most memorable westerns in a good year for the genre.  It has been remade more than once, but never as successfully as this original.  It must be admitted that Stewart is helped greatly by having Marlene Dietrich to play off.  With Smith in 1939 and with The Philadelphia Story coming the next year, you can’t even say Destry represents his best performance of this early phase of his career.  But Destry’s very memorable and bears rewatching more than 70 years later.  If you like this gentle Stewart approach, try 1950’s excellent Harvey, even if it isn’t a western.  Late in his career, Stewart again played a western mostly for laughs in The Cheyenne Social Club, with Henry Fonda as his costar.


  • After his return from World War II, Stewart remade his career in his work with Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much), Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) and his westerns with Anthony Mann.  One of his best roles with Mann was the reluctant and psychologically-damaged bounty hunter Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur.  Mann heroes are never all good, and Kemp is perhaps the most overtly conflicted of all of them.  But he holds it together and begins a comeback in the course of this film.  All of Stewart’s five westerns with Mann are worth watching:  Winchester ’73, The Far Country, Bend of the River and The Man from Laramie in addition to this one.


  • Stewart made three movies with John Ford, and his most prominent role was as Ransom Stoddard, eastern lawyer out to remake the west in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  There’s a lot of ambivalence in the film between his reliance on law and Tom Doniphan’s (John Wayne’s) more direct approach to the violence of Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance.  Stoddard may be admirable in his way, but his approach wouldn’t have worked without Tom Doniphan’s, too, as the film shows.  Stewart seems miscast as Wyatt Earp in Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, but the entire Earp interlude in that film is ill-conceived.  If you like Stewart in Liberty Valance in the late phase of his career, look for him in Two Rode Together, Shenandoah and How the West Was Won.


Jeffrey Wright as Daniel Holt in Ride With the Devil

He starts out as a minor supporting character in a large cast.  By the end of this underrated Civil War film, he is one of the two principal remaining characters.  Their parting, at the end of the movie, is one of its most wrenching scenes, and Wright carries more than half of its dramatic weight, much of it without words.  (There’s good direction and editing at work here, too.)  Wright’s character Daniel Holt is a freed slave who fights for the south as a Missouri bushwhacker out of loyalty to George Clyde (Simon Baker), the man who freed him.  The motivations of such a man would be hard for modern audiences to understand under any circumstances, and Holt starts out carefully and enigmatically in a group of men who are not entirely sympathetic to him.  His friendship with Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) develops over the course of the film and becomes its strongest emotional current by the end.  Wright is a superb actor who has been seen principally in a variety of supporting and character roles.  Here he is excellent.


Robert Ryan as Blaise Starrett in Day of the Outlaw

Robert Ryan was an excellent and versatile actor, and he seldom played unalloyed good characters.  In Day of the Outlaw, he plays the improbably-named Blaise Starrett, the founder and largest rancher in the remote town of Bitters in wintry Wyoming.  Starrett is at odds with local farmers as the movie starts, and he’s having an affair with the wife of one of them.  A gang of outlaws led by ex-army officer Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) moves in, interrupting the confrontation between Starrett and the farmers and replacing it with another.  Starrett doesn’t care for the few farmers and townspeople, but his sense of responsibility kicks in and he tries to figure out how best to try to protect them.  He’s the only one in town with the competence to do anything.  If you like him here, try The Proud Ones.  Later in his career he was principally a supporting character, as in The Wild Bunch, Lawman, and The Professionals.  For Ryan in bad guy roles, see him in The Naked Spur, Bad Day at Black Rock and Hour of the Gun, in which he played a more cerebral Ike Clanton than usually seen in the Wyatt Earp story.

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The Outlaw Josey Wales

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 21, 2013

The Outlaw Josey Wales—Clint Eastwood, Sam Bottoms, Chief Dan George, Sondra Locke, Will Sampson, John Vernon, Bill McKinney, Royal Dano (1976; Dir:  Clint Eastwood)


The nation’s bicentennial year of 1976 was a watershed for westerns.  The early 1970s had seen a number of westerns, many of them “revisionist” or strongly influenced by spaghetti westerns.  The summer of 1976 saw the release of two excellent traditional westerns:  The Shootist and The Outlaw Josey Wales.  And then the genre fell completely out of fashion and largely disappeared.

The Shootist marked the end of the cinematic career of John Wayne, and it is tempting to see that as the end of westerns generally.  But The Outlaw Josey Wales in the same year was an early directorial effort of Clint Eastwood, who would become one of the great western directors as well as continuing to reinforce his status as a great western star.  And Bill McKinney managed to be in both The Shootist and Wales as a villain, a remarkable accomplishment.

Wales (played by Eastwood) is a Missouri farmer at the start of the movie.  His family is killed, and he is left for dead, by Union-sympathizing Kansas Redlegs led by McKinney’s character.  Wales joins southern border guerrillas under Bloody Bill Anderson and rides with them through the Civil War.  In the fighting, Wales has honed his skills as a warrior, particularly as a “pistolero.”  All this is set up economically at the start of the movie. 

joseywales The quintessential Josey Wales shot.

Refusing to surrender with the rest of his guerrilla band at the end of the war, Wales heads south into the Indian Nations (now Oklahoma) and Texas with a price on his head, pursued by the vengeful Yankee Redlegs.  Along the way, he picks up two Indian companions—Lone Watie, an old Cherokee (played memorably by Chief Dan George), and Little Moonlight, a Navajo woman escaping from captivity with Cheyennes, Arapahoes and white trash.  Wales rescues what is left of a Jayhawk family from scurrilous Comancheros, and he bonds with the inhabitants of the small, dusty Texas town of Santo Rio, where the Kansans are headed.  He has accumulated a new family and taken on more humanity, but before he can settle down he has to deal with hostile Comanches and the nasty Redlegs pursuing him.  However, the only thing worse than continuing to pursue Wales is catching him.  When there is no way out, he doesn’t waste time trying to back away.  “You gonna pull them pistols, or whistle ‘Dixie’?”

Dan George almost steals the movie in his restrained way.  The interplay between Wales and Watie features an understated humor, with Watie frequently having the last word.  Wales tries to discourage Watie from coming along with him:  Referring to the death of family and earlier companions, he notes, “When I get to liking somebody, they ain’t around for long.”  Watie replies, “I notice when you get to disliking somebody, they ain’t around for long neither.”  


Wales demonstrates his ability to sneak up on an Injun (Chief Dan George).

There are nice casting touches throughout the movie.  John Vernon is good as the conflicted traitor/hunter Fletcher.  Bill McKinney is relentless and despicable as the leader of the Redlegs.  Sam Bottoms gives what may be the best performance ever by any of the Bottoms brothers, playing a dying young Confederate from Alabama in the early part of the movie.  Will Sampson has an appropriate gravitas as Ten Bears, the Comanche chief.  John Russell briefly appears at the start as Bloody Bill Anderson, and Richard Farnsworth is one of the Comancheros.  The denizens of Santo Rio make a nice ensemble, including longtime western character actor Royal Dano.  The weak point in the cast is Sondra Locke as Wales’ romantic interest, but she was Eastwood’s girlfriend at the time.  And she doesn’t get in the way that much.

The Outlaw Josey Wales has a nice look to it.  It’s not as glossy as some westerns, but the interior lighting seems more authentic, and the backwoods characters dirtier than in more Hollywood-ized period westerns.  Wales carries multiple pistols (Walker Colts, which were substantial), two prominently at his waist (not tied down on his legs).  He can also use a rifle to good effect, as he does to give the Redlegs a “Missouri boat ride.”  The movie was filmed on the Feather River in northern California and in southern Utah, and uses its settings well. 


Wales (Clint Eastwood) negotiates with Comanche chief Ten Bears (Will Sampson).

There’s a fair amount of violence in this one, and Wales displays one of the very best cinematic versions of the famous “border shift,” in which the gunfighter reverses the positions of his guns to put them in firing positions.  In addition to sporadic violence throughout the movie, rather a lot of Locke gets flashed when she is attacked by the loathsome Comancheros.

One historical quibble:  At the end of the movie, a couple of Texas rangers show up in Santo Rio to document the end of Josey Wales and close the case.  This would be 1865 or 1866, and the Texas Rangers had not yet been reconstituted after the Civil War, since the federal authorities in Texas didn’t want any local law forces with dubious loyalties

Eastwood would yet make more westerns, but only a couple more.  They’re good, though:  Pale Rider and Unforgiven, also on this list of great westerns.  Josey Wales doesn’t have the pure nasty punch that the later Unforgiven does, but it has much more re-watchability.  The underlying novel, Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter, is decent, too.

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