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The ethics of remembering: Little Big Man and the exoneration of American guilt

Aston, James


Dr James Aston
Senior Lecturer/ Programme Director for Film Studies


Athina Karatzogianni


Andre Bazin reinvigorated the cultural form of the Western by declaring that it was ‘the American cinema par excellence’ (Lovell 1976: 166). For Bazin, the Western expressed ‘evocations of the birth of the United States of America’ (Bazin 1973: 14) that forged not only a worldwide appreciation of its composition, but also articulated the core elements of cinema in an epic form that spoke persuasively about American identity, memory of the past and the embattled and protean nature of American national and political consciousness. Therefore, the West, or more specifically the Western Frontier, acted as a metaphorical terrain that situated the new personality and character of the American pioneer within the divine providence of a new land, whose symbolic function it was to forge a ʼnew’ nation unfettered by the shackles of the ‘old’ history of Europe. Thus, the frontier encapsulated this new America with its vast untamed and savage wilderness, suggesting the freedom of an untapped and virgin land, in which the crucible of a new civilisation could be formed. Primarily, this mission lay with the solipsistic individuality of the frontiersman, an amalgamation of various archetypes1 whose common attributes of heroism, patriotism, independence, self-governance, honour and integrity were underlined with a powerful association of a regenerative and redemptive violence that ensured the twin precepts of progress and success were enabled, and upheld in the conquering and settlement of the West. Hollywood quickly utilised the potential that the West held in terms of articulating strong and clear notions of a desirable American identity and of forwarding a sanctified and mythologised American past. Westerns, such as Stagecoach (1939), Dodge City (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940) and They Died with Their Boots On (1941), all portrayed a romantic, idealised society replete with technological expertise, military might and an agrarian American pastoral inhabited with a range of individuals from General Custer to Jesse James who underlined the ‘Americanised’ individual as one of ingenuity, resolve, honour and heroism. The mythic and idealised notion of a typical American identity mapped out in these early archetypal films was further ossified in subsequent Westerns such as High Noon (1952), Shane (1953) and The Magnificent Seven (1960), which provided audiences with recurring generic codes and conventions that advanced powerful and deeply held socio-political values that centred on traditional concepts of what constituted a typical American individual. However, due to the tumultuous socio-political landscape of America in the 1960s that was characterised by political assassinations, the Civil Rights Movement, domestic unrest and the war in Vietnam, the traditional and dominant cultural expressions of a desirable American identity became untenable. The strict Manichean borders between good and evil, and the Self and the Other, that were previously applied to cultural representations began to break down in the wake of Martin Luther King’s and Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, reports of atrocities being committed by US soldiers in Vietnam and the growing distrust over leaders such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. The result was a crisis in confidence over cultural forms that enabled alternative representational strategies to emerge. One such outlet was New Hollywood2 which, in the studios attempt to reconnect with an ever disillusioned younger audience, permitted narratives of not only a more sexual and violent nature to be realised, but also enabled alternative cultural representations to be forwarded. In many ways this characterised a revisionist cinema in that dominate narratives and cherished myths were undermined in a range of genres from the war film to the film noir and the gangster film. It was, however, the Western that best encapsulated the revisionist form in its dismantling of dominant images and narratives set by Hollywood and which resonated powerfully within the American popular consciousness. A key example of New Hollywood’s revisionist Western cinema was Little Big Man, in that the film both undermined traditional and dominant cultural expressions and pointedly addressed the socio-political landscape of America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That is to say, central to Little Big Man’s representational strategies is an interrogation of American identity that was under threat in both cultural and political realms at the time. Therefore, the film serves as a useful example, with which to examine, how cultural texts respond to traumatic historical events, and how the resultant narratives make sense of complex, contested and controversial understandings of the American past, and notions of American identity that are being articulated at the time. In particular, this article will analyse how American identity is depicted in the film, in terms of how it acts as a mechanism to critique both the United States Cavalry’s treatment of the Native American and the US Army’s actions in Vietnam, while conterminously exonerating a ‘typical’ white American identity from guilt or complicity in the actions of either. Or, to put it another way, how in portraying the genocide of the Native American as a lamentation on their disappearance from the American West Little Big Man exculpates white America’s guilt and burden of that history, while conterminously forging direct associations with the war in Vietnam and the huge loss of life experienced by the indigenous populations of South-East Asia. Both these elements of Little Big Man have important repercussions, in judging, how effective revisionist or alternative historical narratives were, in challenging dominant cultural forms, and their usefulness in shaping socio-political discourse in late 1960s and early 1970s American society.


Aston, J. (2011). The ethics of remembering: Little Big Man and the exoneration of American guilt. In A. Karatzogianni (Ed.), Violence and War in Culture and the Media : Five Disciplinary Lenses (78-91). London: Routledge.

Online Publication Date Dec 8, 2011
Publication Date Dec 2, 2011
Deposit Date Dec 19, 2014
Journal Violence and war in culture and the media: five disciplinary lenses
Publisher Routledge
Peer Reviewed Not Peer Reviewed
Pages 78-91
Book Title Violence and War in Culture and the Media : Five Disciplinary Lenses
Chapter Number 6
ISBN 9780415721349; 9780415665230
Keywords REF 2014 submission
Public URL