Strange Bedfellows: BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON (Taylor-Laughlin Distributing 1977)

Billy Jack, hero of the oppressed, goes up against an enemy he can’t wrap his head around – the politicians of Washington, D.C. in BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON, the final chapter in the Billy Jack saga. I know I harped on the fact that the last film, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK , didn’t contain enough action, and this one has even less, but I liked this film better. It’s a remake of Frank Capra’s 1939 classic MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Capra’s son is the producer), retooled for the modern era and casting Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack character in the Jimmy Stewart role. You’d think a forty-plus year old political film would be dated, but truth to tell, not a lot has changed since then… if anything, it’s gotten worse.

When Senator Foley has a heart attack and croaks, the powers-that-be look for a patsy to replace him in order to get their nuclear reactor project passed. The crooked pols (party bigwig Bailey, Governor Hopper, and esteemed Senator Paine) all have a financial stake in the game, and though Bailey wants to pick a pliable judge, the Gov gets the bright idea to appoint… Billy Jack, the mystical ass kicker who’s fresh out of prison, and has no political experience whatsoever! Meanwhile in D.C., lobbyist Dan has swiped Foley’s top-secret nuke file, with all the dirty info, and is looking to play Let’s Make A Deal.

Billy Jack, along with Jean and some Freedom School kids, head for Washington, and Paine and his aide Saunders (who happens to be Dan’s girlfriend) are put in charge of schooling him in the hard facts of political life. Billy has a proposal for a national initiative to build a camp for kids; unfortunately for him, it’s on the same land Bailey and company wants to put their power plant. Dan (remember him?) gets murdered, and Saunders lets BJ know what’s going down. The junior senator from Ass-Kicker Land takes a meeting with power broker Bailey, who explains the facts of life to Billy. He responds by karate chopping a glass table, because he’s Billy Jack!

Since BJ won’t play ball, Paine starts a smear campaign, stating Billy is the secret owner of that land and is out to profit from it (which is actually what the grimy pols are doing!), leading to Senate hearings and investigations (sound familiar?) and Billy about to be expelled from his seat. Billy spends the night wandering Washington and, inspired by the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, decides to fight fire with fire… not with his Hapkido skills, but a filibuster! The exhausted Billy finally collapses on the Senate floor, causing a repentant Paine to confesses his guilt in the whole sordid mess.

Laughlin and Taylor’s earnest screenplay is full of anti-nuke, anti-corruption, and pro-environmentalist polemics, as you would expect. Fitting Billy Jack into Capra’s classic story may seem weird, but somehow the darn thing worked for me. There’s only one action scene for fans, where Billy and Jean save Freedom Schooler Carol (played by the couple’s daughter Teresa) from a gang of thugs with their martial arts expertise – yes, pacifist Jean gets to kick some ass at last! The scene with BJ late at night visiting the ghosts of Thomas Jefferson et al is corny but effective, as is the dark scene where Dan gets killed, allowing Laughlin and DP Jack Marta to show off their talents.

Laughlin rounded up a strong supporting cast for this one. E.G. Marshall adds gravitas as Senator Paine; he’s almost as good as Claude Rains in the original  (Rains is a tough act to follow!). Veteran Pat O’Brien , still with that Irish twinkle in his eyes at age 76, plays the Senate president. Sam Wanamaker as Bailey makes a slimy villain, but Lucie Arnaz can’t hold a candle to Jean Arthur as Saunders (to be fair, the part is split between her and Taylor’s Jean). Others in the cast include Dick Gautier as the Governor, Kent Smith as the doomed Foley, Stanley Brock, Kathy Cronkite (daughter of newsman Walter), Peter Donat, Don Keefer, political columnist Joe Klein (who later wrote the novel PRIMARY COLORS), Sarah Purcell (TV’s REAL PEOPLE), Richard Sanders (WKRP’s Les Nessman), Julie Webb (Jack’s daughter), and Laughlin’s pal William Wellman Jr.

Laughlin and Taylor couldn’t get a major distributor for the movie, not even Sam Arkoff at AIP. So they did it themselves, and BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON saw a very limited release, then quietly went away. Laughlin said it was a conspiracy, but in all honesty the studios were probably right. Fans wanted to see Billy Jack kick some righteous ass, not pull a filibuster on the Senate floor. While I personally liked it, I wished Billy Jack would’ve got up and started kicking some Senatorial ass myself! This was Laughlin’s last movie, though in 1986 he did begin a fifth in the series, THE RETURN OF BILLY JACK, but an injury during shooting and lack of funding shut production down, and the film was never finished. The rarely seen BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON isn’t perfect, but fans will find it a fitting coda to the Legend of Billy Jack.

The BILLY JACK Series on Cracked Rear Viewer:

“One Tin Soldier (Theme from Billy Jack)”

BORN LOSERS

BILLY JACK

THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK

Delores Taylor (1932-2018) and Tom Laughlin (1931-2013)

 

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