As kids, Jack and sister Caroline are the only survivors of an Indian attack, and they are taken to an Indian village and meet "Old Lodge Skins", the chief. Caroline expects to be raped later (and is somewhat disappointed when she is not) and rides away at night. The Cheyenne ("human beings") adopt Jack. Due to his small stature, Jack is named "Little Big Man" after he saves Younger Bear from a Pawnee attack.
In a battle againt the cavalry, just before he is about to be killed, Jack ID's himself as a white man, and is put in the care of Reverend Pendrake, whose wife (Faye Dunaway) takes an interest in Jack. He is taught to to read and write, and takes up religion with Mrs. Pendrake. After he finds Mrs. Pendrake and a soda-shop man in bed, that ends his religion phase.
Jack takes up with Mr. Meriwether, a con-man, and ends up getting tarred and feathered by a group lead by his own sister. Jack moves in with Caroline and she teaches him to shoot ("Go snake-eyed"). Jack becomes a flashy gun-fighter known as the Soda Pop Kid after his drink of choice. He meets Wild Bill Hickok ("Might I ask who I are addressin'?") but gives up gunfighting after Hickok kills a man in a bar. Caroline disowns him, so Jack gets a partner, becomes a store owner, and marries Olga, a large Swedish woman. Jack's partner is a crook, and he goes bankrupt.
General Custer is passing by, takes pity on Jack and advises him to "go west" with his personal guarantee of safety - cut to Indians raiding a stage coach and riding off with Olga. Jack looks for her unsuccessfully, and heads deeper into Cheyenne country, where he is ambushed. He convinces the Indians of his identity, and returns to their camp. He tells Old Lodge Skins about Custer.
Jack rides off, and joins up with Custer to be a scout to find his wife. Custer is snobby and gives him a job as "mule-skinner". He rides in a massacre against an Indian village which he tries to stop, then escapes himself. He meets "Sunshine" as she is about to give birth in the bushes, and returns to the Indians with her. Old Lodge Skins is now blind from a wound. Jack stays with Sunshine and she hooks him up with her 3 sisters, so he now has 4 wives as Old Lodge Skins once predicted. It turns out his competitive Indian arch-enemy has married Olga.
After birth of a son, the Indians are attacked and Sunshine and the baby are killed. Custer orders Jack hanged, but Jack identifies himself and talks his way out of it. Later at camp, Jack has the opportunity to kill Custer but chickens out. Custer insults him and Jack goes back to the white man as a common drunk. He meets Hickok again and learns Hickok was seeing Mrs. Pendrake, now a widow and prostitute. Hickok gives some money to Jack to give to the widow for a train ticket, then is shot and killed. Mrs. Pendrake flirts with Jack, but Jack just puts Hickok's money on her stomach and leaves.
Jack becomes a drunk again, and sees Meriwether (now with a hook and peg-leg) and does not join him in buffalo hunting. He has reached his low-point, and goes into the wilderness to become a hermit. He sees an animal's gnawed off foot in a trap and "snaps". He goes to a cliff to commit suicide, but hears the passing cavalry.
He decides to "meet the devil head on", and joins Custer again. Custer wants to use him as a "perfect reverse barometer" to out-fox the Indians. He asks Jack's advice on a proposed attack, which results in Custer's famous last stand at Little Big Horn.
Jack rejoins the Indians. Old Lodge Skins gives a moving speech, and goes to the hilltop to die. The narration leads us back to the present as old Jack Crabb winds up his story.
Originally R-Rated, the movie was re-rated PG-13, for violence and some sexual situations. The movie runs 138:35 minutes not counting end credits (listed as 139 on DVD, 147 at IMDB). I know they've cut the part of sleeping with the three extra wives when shown on TV.
Spectacular cinematography including the snow-covered great plains. Nice harmonica/guitar-based score. Excellent acting by all, and direction by Arthur Penn. Richard Mulligan as Custer is one of the best characters on film. Some of the movie dealing with the massacre of the Indians is truly sad, but the movie also contains a lot of ironic humor. Movies don't get better than this. DVD has widescreen movie, setup/subtitle options, and chapters.
In a year of Oscar insanity, Little Big Man had one nomination - Supporting actor for Chief Dan George - and "Airport" gets 10 nominations and wins a couple. Obvious a reflection of the political problems of the times.
"Sometimes grass don't grow, wind don't blow, and the sky ain't blue"