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Little Big Man (film, 1970) – social commentary and criticism Essay


Little big man is a satirical, comical, and epic film directed by Arthur Penn. The film is an adaptation of the novel, little big man, by Thomas Berger. By focusing on the way of the life of Jack Crabb, the film describes vividly the historical events in the United States especially between the natives and the first settlers.

Furthermore, the film concentrates on the social issues like prejudice, injustice, morality, and religion among others, which breakdown communication in communities or among different racial groups. Through a Native American (Indian), young and poor, Jack Crabb struggles to survive in a country defined by racism, oppression, and immorality; therefore, Jack highlights the theme of courage.

Jack’s character and the theme of courage

Jack is an Indian boy orphaned at an early age; luckily, a Cheyenne family adopts him as their own son. His small physical stature and brave character earn him the name ‘little big man’.

Although Jack is physically small, he courageously saves his enemy from the hands of a ruthless Pawnee warrior. Jack is barely eighteen years old, but has the guts to face a trained warrior whom he ultimately defeats. Unluckily, he lands in the hands of the U.S armies but courageously distances himself from being a Native American even though his skin color indicates that he is a native.

The determination to renounce his tribe not only earns him his freedom; but also save his life. According to Canby, “Jack’s quite extraordinary fate to be captured by the Cheyennes at the age of ten, raised by them as a brave, rescued by the whites at the age of fifteen” (5), contributed to his character and lifestyle. Therefore, courage and determination are the only virtues that compel Jack to face the difficult life ahead.

Struggles in life

Fortunately, the U.S armies put Jack under the care of a Christian family of Reverend Silas Pendrake. However, life becomes rough again because Mrs. Pendrake wittily seduces the sixteen year old to sleep with her. Louise, at one point tells jack “this life is not only wicked and sinful. It is not even any fun” (Penn). Therefore, Mrs. Pendrake shows the hypocrisy and immorality of the church giving Jack the courage to escape.

Although Jack has nobody to run to in a politically unstable country, his fearlessness and firmness to face danger propels him to desert his foster family. He not only leaves behind a good life, but also puts his life in danger more so because of his racial identification as a native. Moreover, he is ready to endure any life obstacles that befall him. The fortitude to run away and start a new life with no job and money to survive on proves his courage to live an upright life.

After abandoning the Pendrakes, life is not easy for Jack, as he had thought earlier. He has no job; consequently, he runs bankruptcy, which forces him to venture in all sorts of menial employments in order to survive. If anything, the Native Americans faced discrimination due to racism; thus, most of them had to live a poor life (Kilpatrick 12).

Thus, the origin of Jack also contributed to his inability to have good employment, which was the historical way of life for most Indians, which differed sharply from the pioneers (Ebert 42). If Jack was a coward or immoral, he could have gone back to his foster family, the Pendrakes, instead of living as a pauper.

Jack’s first marriage fails when his wife becomes a victim of abduction. Fearlessly, Jack decides to look for his abducted wife, but he ends up in all sorts of jobs and trouble. First, he becomes a muleskinner; a job that he thinks will enable him meet his wife, but all is in vain. Bravely, during the battle, Jack rescues a woman called Sunshine, assists her to deliver a baby, and eventually marries Sunshine forgetting about Olga, his first wife.

It is very difficult for untrained man to assist a woman to give birth; similarly, it is not easy for a man to abandon his woman to an enemy or have an intimate relationship with three sisters at the same time. However, Jack usually found the courage to indulge in the aforementioned activities. In addition, according to Cravath, the film portray the culture of Indians and its subsequent erosion thus, through Crabb, people learn the historical events of the American Natives (18).


Unfortunately, the film portrays the Whites as evil, proud, merciless, colonists and inhuman. Even though the film promotes the culture of the Native Americans, it also erodes the culture of the Whites by painting them as immoral or hypocrites, especially through Mrs. Louise, who becomes a prostitute, yet she is in a Christian family.


In summary, the film, little big man, is an Indian epic, which concentrates on the immorality, injustices, and lifestyle of the Native Americans. Jack is the perceived ‘little big man’ full of courage, love, mercy, and unity. Therefore, his brave character, strong enough to fight for humanity, propels him to encounter difficulties in life thus highlighting the theme of courage in the film. Finally, although racism exists in Jack’s country, his courage enables him to co-live with both Whites and the Indians.

Works Cited

Canby, Vincent. “Little Big Man. New York Times, 15 December 1970. Print

Cravath, Jay. Rev. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film by Jacquelyn Kilpatrick. Journal of American Indian education 38.1 (1996): 13-19.

Ebert, Roger. “Little Big man.” Chicago Sun Times, 27 November 1991. Print

Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and films. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

Penn, Arthur, dir. Little big man. Cinema Center, 1970. Film.

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Y., Joyce. "Little Big Man (film, 1970) - social commentary and criticism." IvyPanda, 28 Nov. 2019,

1. Joyce Y. "Little Big Man (film, 1970) - social commentary and criticism." IvyPanda (blog), November 28, 2019.


Y., Joyce. "Little Big Man (film, 1970) - social commentary and criticism." IvyPanda (blog), November 28, 2019.


Y., Joyce. 2019. "Little Big Man (film, 1970) - social commentary and criticism." IvyPanda (blog), November 28, 2019.


Y., J. (2019) 'Little Big Man (film, 1970) - social commentary and criticism'. IvyPanda, 28 November.

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