Thursday, August 10, 2023

"Little Big Man' symposium: groundbreaking film celebrates 53 years

 More than a half century after its release, the Montana-made movie, "Little Big Man,"is still entertaining, stimulating conversation and encouraging consideration of the plight of indigenous people and the white man's role in that.
 There is an endless supply of white men.  There has always been a limited number of human beings.” -- Old Lodge Skins


MOVIE AND HISTORY BUFFS TO PONDER CLASSIC FILM                                                                    

Chief Dan George portrayed Old Lodge Skins,
receiving second billing to Dustin Hoffman,
garnering an Academy Award nomination
and other awards for his performance.


Editor's note: Christene Meyers covered the making of 
"Little Big Man" as a young reporter and was among 
panel participants discussing the Montana made movie. 

and courtesy Cinema Center Films
Actor Dustin Hoffman on location during the
1969 filming of "Little Big Man," here on the
Earl and Toni Rosell Ranch near Billings.

HOLLYWOOD came to Montana in 1969 to film a movie that would change the way the world views indigenous people.
When it debuted during the holidays of 1970, "Little Big Man" generated a then impressive box office of $31 million. It premiered just in time to qualify for Oscar consideration the next spring.
A recent seminar in Hardin, Montana, celebrated the movie's contribution to the humanities and the ways in which it portrayed native Americans as "human beings."
DUSTIN HOFFMAN was a young looking 33 -- just three years after he rose to fame as Benjamin in "The Graduate," seduced by an older Mrs. Robinson, his parents' friend.
Genius makeup artist Dick
Smith created a 121-year
old character in Dustin
Hoffman's Jack Crabb.

Through the make-up wizardry of Hollywood artist Dick Smith, Hoffman's character Jack Crabb appears first as a 121-year old man, relating the story of his remarkable life to a reporter. The character undergoes many transformations in both the white and native worlds, leading many lives, including as a scout for General George Armstrong Custer during the infamous Indian Wars. Crabb's life is as complex as any portrayed in the movies.
Panelists discussed the impact of the film, and acting as extras.

CROW AND Cheyenne men and women – elderly now -- were 53 years younger when they acted along side Hoffman. They portrayed members of Little Big Man's adopted Indian family and for the real-life families, the picture gave their lives an economic boost. Panelists at a three-day "Little Big Man" symposium in Hardin recalled that dozens of native people earned from $10 or $25 a day -- more if they had their own horse -- during the filming.
The gathering, sponsored by Little 
Symposium organizer Tim Bernardis spent
years studying "Little Big Man" and planning
for the festival marking its 53rd anniversary.

Big Horn College, celebrated Montana’s connection to the film. It was the brainchild of author and veteran Crow Cultural Center library director Tim Bernardis, lifelong film aficionado. He spent years studying the movie, based on a 1964 novel by Thomas Berger and directed by Oscar winner Arthur Penn. Bernardis dreamed of a symposium to spotlight its impact and secured a grant to make it happen. Planned for 2020, 50 years after the film’s 1970 debut, the seminar was derailed by COVID. Bernardis wasn’t about to let the project be lost. “It is too important; we kept the dream alive,” he said.
THE GROUNDBREAKING film begins with Crabb recalling the killing of his parents on their way west, and his rescue by Indians. Crabb describes multiple incarnations in diverse worlds, including earning the name "Little Big Man" from his adopted grandfather, Old Lodge Skins. His 
A scene from the film, "Little Big Man," now 53 years old,
with this battle scene shot on location at Crow Agency, near
the actual battle site. Some of the actors spoke at the seminar.

unique perspective and visits with his wise elder teach him the ways of the “human beings,” as Old Lodge Skins describes his people. Hoffman’s convincing acting continues to fascinate, 53 years after the film’s debut to critical acclaim.
During three lively and varied days, three years after the COVID postponement, presenters considered a wide range of topics, from academic insights to emotional musings and humorous, touching impressions.   Some gave 
Sidney "Chip" Fitzpatrick Jr
acted as emcee at the fete.
vivid back stories, examples of present-day racism, feeling that the culture is back-sliding in a sea of increasing bigotry. Symposium emcee Sidney Chip Fitzpatrick Jr., related a vivid example of recent racism experienced when an elderly white woman accosted his daughter with  
verbal slurs in a Billings store. “We still have a lot of work to do,” Fitzpatrick said, "to make certain that native Americans are regarded as human beings, not caricature  
drunks and other stereotypes.”
Young beautifully dressed Indian girls delighted with their
performances during the "LBM" symposium.

AMONG THE TOPICS was an examination of Richard Mulligan's portrayal of George Armstrong Custer, the man whose “Last Stand” came on a grassy knoll near Hardin. The Little Bighorn battle scenes were filmed on location at Crow Agency, near the actual battle site, lending authenticity to the movie.  Between presentations, seminar guests recalled the changing of the name Custer Battlefield to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 1991. “It is important to recognize the indigenous perspective,” said one woman. “A very good thing.”

Artists, historians, townsfolk and friends mingled
to discuss the movie and its impact

DANCERS AND drummers entertained at lunch time in the school cafeteria, while guests and participants reminisced about the movie's beginnings.  Director Penn read the book in 1966 and loved it. Billings mayor Willard Fraser got wind of the project and heard Arizona and Mexico were being considered as locations. He recruited arts advocate and rancher Earl Rosell to help sell Montana to Hollywood.  Fraser called upon his Indian friends—Johnny Wooden Legs, Edison Real Bird, Henry Old Coyote, Susie Yellowtail and others -- and with Rosell, they "sold" the Montana location, making lobbying trips to Hollywood and Cinema Center Films on their own dime.  Fraser biographer Lou Mandler 

Rene Rosell Yarborough and Christene "Cookie"
 Meyers" were panelists. Rosell is holding the
sword her father used in a cameo scene.

described Fraser’s courting of “Little Big Man” producer Stuart Millar. The persistent, Montana boosting mayor toured Millar and movie scouts around Montana, enumerating the advantages of shooting a motion picture about Indians in authentic Indian country. 
“The realism of the film would boost box office sales,” Fraser wrote. His lobbying proved effective and filming began on the Rosell ranch in summer of 1969. Rosell even scored a cameo as a soldier who spares Little Big Man when he realizes the Dustin Hoffman character is white, not Indian. 

Here are links to some of the most watched clips from the movie, featuring Dustin Hoffman as Jack Crabb and Richard Mulligan as a deranged, egocentric General Custer.

The wedding/birthday party at High Chaparral on
the West Fork of the Stillwater River, Montana. 
UP NEXT:  Gentle readers: few things escape the eye of the writer of this column. But Bruce William Keller's surprise proposal took my breath away and left me in a rare stunned silence.  It happened during a clan reunion celebrating my birthday -- and will never be forgotten.  I said "Yes," of course, actually, "I'd be delighted!" We've been together more than 16 years and are legal domestic partners in the state of California. But we'd not discussed tying the proverbial knot. So when he asked -- on bended knee -- I thought "why not?" His co-conspirators were our niece and nephew, Amarylla and Steve.  He officiated at the ceremony, during the birthday tribute. Coming next. Meanwhile, remember to explore, learn and live and catch us weekly for a fresh spin on the arts, travel, nature, family and more:


  1. Whitefish Film BuffsAugust 12, 2023 at 6:55 AM

    Wow. We would have loved to have been there. Wish we'd known about it. One of our favorite films. Great sounding symposium!

  2. Such a fun read. And the surprise wedding story sounds fabulous!