When last we saw Billy Jack, he was dismantling a brood of outlaw bikers in BORN LOSERS . This time around, he’s taking on a whole town’s worth of rednecks as Tom Laughlin’s half-breed ex-Green Beret returns in BILLY JACK, the wildly popular film that combines action with social commentary, and helped kick off the martial arts craze of the 70’s.
BILLY JACK almost never saw the light of day, as Laughlin’s financing was shut off by American-International Pictures. 20th Century-Fox then picked it up, but didn’t think it deserved to be released, so Laughlin went the indie route, under the banner of National Student Film Co. in 1971. Poor distribution and poor reviews caused the film to tank, but the good folks at Warner Brothers saw something in it, and gave it a national release two years later. Young audiences of the day flocked to it in droves, cheering as Billy Jack took on the establishment and kicked their asses, and the studio had an unexpected hit on their hands!
The movie begins as local bigwig Stuart Posner and his boys, including Deputy Mike, conduct an illegal wild mustang hunt for a dog food company on Indian land. Here comes Billy jack, defender of the land, animals, and the downtrodden, astridehis horse and toting a rifle. “When policeman break the law, there is no law”, he says, “only a fight for survival”. The group of poachers back down, because he’s Billy Jack, and they’re not!
Mike gets home to find his wayward daughter Barbara has been retrieved from running away to Haight-Ashbury (where all them damn hippies live!). Not only is she pregnant, she doesn’t know who the father is, so loving dad Mike gives her a punch in the face! She runs away again, passes out in the woods, and is naturally found by Billy Jack, who takes her to the Freedom School, run by progressive pacifist Jean Roberts, where the kids learn to develop their passions for music, poetry, and acting.
Some of the kids head into town, and are harassed at the local ice cream parlor by bunch of toughs who pour flour on the Native Americans, turning them white. Guess who happens to show up? If you said Billy Jack, give yourself a hand! This is a great scene, with Billy Jack doing a real slow burn, his anger building, finally kicking the crap out of the bullies. One of the punks is Posner’s snotty kid Bernard, and the rich father sends his goons after Billy, who gets to strut his Hapkido stuff, including this…
…kick to Posner’s face (doubled for this one kick by Master Bong Soo Han of KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE fame). But the odds are against him, and Billy Jack takes a beating by the thugs until the sympathetic town sheriff puts a stop to it. Tensions mount, and the Freedom School students attend a City Counsel meeting in a rowdy, rambunctious Town Hall scene that features an 11-year-old reading a speech on law and order given by Hitler in 1932, a fiery debate on constitutional rights, and insults hurled between the establishment and the kids (Councilman: “When was the last time you cut your hair?” Student: “When was the last time you brushed your teeth?”). It’s like something straight out of today’s cable news!
Now comes the Ceremony of the Snake scene, in which Billy Jack has to endure being bitten repeatedly by a rattler in order to receive a vision from his ancestors in the spirit world. Yeesh! Creepy Bernard takes the gullible Miss False Eyelashes for a ride to the lake in his $6,000 Corvette, then tries to molest her while digging for info on Barbara’s whereabouts. You guessed it, Billy Jack shows up (the man is everywhere!), and gives Bernard a choice – get your ass kicked or drive that ‘Vette into the lake! Cowardly Bernard chooses the latter, but gets his revenge by tying up and raping Jean in a brutal scene.
Jean confides in student Cindy, but makes her promise not to tell Billy Jack for fear of a violent reprisal (“Damn your pacifism!”, says Cindy). Barbara gets injured in a horseback riding accident and loses her baby, then Posner, Mike, and company kidnap passive Indian Martin, who they suspect is banging Barb. Cindy brandishes a shotgun and helps him escape, but the rednecks grab her. Yup, Billy Jack pops up out of nowhere and saves her! Martin is hunted down and killed by Bernard, and now Billy Jack, having ferreted out the truth from Jean, is out for blood. Jean tries to stop him, but Billy’s having none of it:
Billy: “You worked with (Martin Luther) King, where is he?”
Billy: “Where’s Bob and Jack Kennedy?”
Billy: “Not dead, their head’s blown off, because your people (the whites) wouldn’t even put the same controls on their guns as they did on their dogs, their cats, their bicycles!”
And with that, Billy Jack goes into action, catching Bernard in bed with an underaged girl, taking a gunshot in the abdomen, then icing the punk with one swift karate chop. Deputy Mike comes after Billy, and receives a bullet in the head! Now Billy Jack holes up in an old church as local and state police arrive, along with the requisite media circus. There’s a violent shootout as Billy holds the cops off, but Jean, the sheriff, and a sympathetic local doctor (there’s ALWAYS a sympathetic local doctor in these type of films, isn’t there?) finally persuade him to give himself up. In return, Billy asks for certain conditions to be met regarding the school and the Natives. As our hero is cuffed and led away, the kids all raise their fists in the “Power to the People” salute as the theme song plays in an emotional final scene.
Star Tom Laughlin, director T.C. Frank, and co-writer Frank Christina are all one and the same person. Co-writer Teresa Christina is Laughlin’s wife Delores Taylor, who plays the pacifistic Jean. Even the couple’s daughter Teresa gets into the act as a student who warbles a bizarre tune called “My Brother’s Dead”. Of note in the cast is 50’s sci-fi stalwart Kenneth Tobey (THE THING , BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA ) playing Deputy Mike. As opposed to his creature feature heroics, Tobey’s a real S.O.B here. Most of the rest of the cast isn’t well-known, except Bert Freed (Posner) and Richard Stahl (council president). The improv group The Committee (with a young Howard Hesseman, billed as Don Sturdy) play members of the school faculty and engage in some skits.
Say what you will about BILLY JACK: it’s dated, its politics is reactionary, it’s platitudes are self-righteous. Makes no differences to me, I freakin’ LOVE this film! Tom Laughlin scored a bull’s-eye for many moviegoers with BILLY JACK, stating sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. It’s a bold statement, and one that’s not very popular with some, but BILLY JACK is the little exploitation film that made good because it struck the right chord with its audience ( including yours truly), perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of the times. Plus I’ve always wanted to use the word “zeitgeist” in a post!
Fashions and hairstyles may have changed, but people are still politically polarized, the establishment still holds all the cards, young people are still as disaffected as ever, and Town Hall meetings are still rambunctious. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and there’s no one willing to stand up and fight for the little guy anymore.
Where are you now when we need you, Billy Jack?!?!