Now that the West has been closed off for a good long time, it is only right that we face a simple fact. Namely, that the frontier just wasn't good for much. Once the land had been developed and its riches plundered, the West became a place like everywhere else-a place for people to go crazy and kill each other.
How should we conceive of that great legend known as the West? I'd say think of a daisy chain of cowboys and Indians, Charlie Mansons and Sharon Tates, Scott Fitzgeralds and Marilyn Monroes.
The wild, wild West: Just another great American place to die!
Even the movie business, the last dream industry left in the West, is dying now. The studios are going bankrupt and westerns are sooner made in Spain than in Montiment Valley. Still, as Hollywood sinks into the sea, a last western has emerged. It is Arthur Penn's new film, Little Big Man, and it was not only shot in real live North America but uses real Indians to play the roles of Indians. This is strange. Stranger yet is the fact that this western opens and closes in an old-age home.
The man in the old-age home is Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman). He is 121 years old and the sole white survivor of the rout of Little Big Horn, (Or is he?)
Jack Crabb is 121 years old and knew Wild Bill Hickok, General George Armstrong Custer, and Old Lodge Skins, Cheyenne chieftain. (Or did he?)
He was raised by the Cheyennes, who call themselves "human beings" and who rewarded his early heroism by bestowing upon him the name Little Big Man. (Or did they?)
Later he became a white man again Later still an Indian. Later still a white man once more.
Or is Jack Crabb the biggest liar who ever lived?
Quite a life it is that Jack Crabb claims for himself as he talks to a journalist from the bed of his old-age home, where, still, he lives and remembers.
At one point or another, Jack had a white wife and an Indian wife, worked as a huckster of phony patent medicines, was a famous gunslinger, a Cheyenne hero, a scout for Gen. Custer, a drunk, a hermit, a pious churchgoer, a great lover, a mule-skinner, a shopowner. He also toyed with suicide.
Or is Jack Crabb just a senile old man, full of shit?
Does it make any difference?
In the end it is always very late, very cold and very dark. It is four in the morning, your logical processes are spent, your mind is wandering around like a vacuum cleaner picking up tiny balls of lint. Everything is inescapable. Every few seconds your brain hinges on some different nugget from the past. You would like to forget each and every one of them, but the pictures are too sharp and too terrifying to ignore. You are at once too tired and too aware to edit or sentimentalize your memory's scrapbook.
And so your face things clearly. From your earliest childhood, you remember falling off a two-wheeler and getting three stitches in your thigh. From your education, you remember throwing up during the smoking break of a final exam. From your summer in Europe, you remember fighting viciously with someone you like about the quickest subway route to the Cinematheque. From your beautiful year-long romance, you remember only your lover standing before you, her eyes tearing, her hand spread open to reveal dozens of tiny red sleeping capsules. From the newspapers, you remember only the killing, the killing, the killing.