The Legend of BILLY JACK Continues! (National Student film Co 1971, re-released by Warner Brothers 1973)

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?”

Jean: “Dead.”

Billy: “Where’s Bob and Jack Kennedy?”

Jean: “Dead”.

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?!?!

Creature Double Feature 2: IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (Columbia, 1955 & 1957)

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Let’s return to those thrilling days of yore before CGI and enter the wonder-filled world of Special Effects legend Ray Harryhausen! I’ve covered some of Harryhausen’s fantastic work before (ONE MILLION YEARS BC EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS THE VALLEY OF GWANGI ), and most of you regular readers know of my affection for his stop-motion wizardry. So without further ado, let’s dive right into IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA.

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An atomic submarine picks up a mysterious large object on its sonar. The sub’s hit hard, and radiation is detected in the surrounding area. The damaged sub is taken to Pearl Harbor for repairs, and a substance found on it is determined to be from a “living creature” by eminent scientist Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis) and beautiful marine biologist Prof. Leslie Joyce (Faith Domergue ). Sub Commander Pete Matthews (Kenneth Tobey ) and Leslie immediately butt heads, which means they’re going to hook up before it’s all over. But let’s face facts, no one cares about the romantic subplot, we’re here for the monster, determined to be a gigantic octopus!

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Ocky (as I’ve taken to refer to him) has been disturbed by H-Bomb tests in the Pacific, and his radioactivity has caused the fish he usually feeds on to flee, so now Ocky is going after larger prey. He attacks a tramp steamer and eats everyone but a small raft of survivors, who confirm Leslie’s theory. The U.S. Navy goes out in full force hunting for Ocky, who eats a deputy sheriff off the coast of Oregon. The entire Pacific Coast is shut down, as Ocky makes his way to San Francisco, wreaking havoc at the Golden Gate Bridge. The fabled bridge has been wired with electricity to shock the beast, and Pete and Dr. Carter board the sub with a special jet-propelled torpedo to launch into Ocky’s brain. Meanwhile, Ocky’s on the loose in the Market Street area, causing destruction, snatching a helicopter out of the sky, and allowing the filmmakers to add plenty of shots of panicked citizens running down the streets of San Francisco!

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Army flamethrowers drive Ocky back to the sea, and our intrepid heroes launch their super-duper torpedo. But Ocky catches the sub in it’s six-armed grip- that’s right, el cheapo executive producer Sam Katzman held the budget reins so tight, it only allowed Harryhausen to animate six octopus arms! Anyway, Pete scubas out and uses a harpoon gun to shoot plastique explosives at Ocky, but isn’t successful, so Dr. Carter bravely does the deed, hitting Ocky square in his octopus eyeball and blowing his head off, making the Pacific Coast safe for surfers once again!

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Ocky’s stop-motion scenes of destruction are exciting, but there’s only so much you can do with a giant octopus. The monster in our main attraction is another story. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH begins with a spacecraft crash-landing off the coast of Sicily. Some brave fisherman (with bad Italian acc-a-centas) board and find two humans still alive. They pull them off before the ship sinks, and little, annoying Pepe (played by future VEGA$ co-star Bart Braverman) is sent to get help from a visiting doctor (Frank Puglia ) , but Dr. Leonardo is only a zoologist, so he sends his med student granddaughter Marisa (Joan Taylor) to attend the surviving crewmen. One dies, but Col. Bob Calder (William Hopper, PERRY MASON’s Paul Drake) demands to speak to his superiors, butting heads with Marisa in the process (and you already know what that means!). Meanwhile, enterprising Pepe finds a capsule loaded with a mysterious, jellylike substance, so he sells it to Leonardo for 200 lira (so he can buy a “Texas cowboy hat”!).

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The jelly hatches a tiny, strange-looking creature, so Leonardo and Marisa put it in a cage with plans to take it to the Rome Zoo for study. But next morning the thing has grown larger, and escapes while in transit. Annoying Pepe tells Air Force brass he sold the stuff in the capsule to Leonardo, and they track him down. Seems that spacecraft was a secret expedition to Venus, and the creature in question is a Ymir (though it’s never called that in the film).

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The Ymir wanders the countryside scaring horses and sheep, coming across some sulfur in a barn, which happens to be the Ymir’s favorite food. While snacking, Ymir is attacked by a dog… bye, bye dog! The local farmer stabs it with a pitchfork, and Ymir attacks him! This pisses off the local Commissario, who no longer wishes to cooperate with the Americans and wants Ymir dead. The Italian higher-ups give Calder one last chance to capture Ymir, and they do, using a net and zapping poor Ymir into unconsciousness with high voltage.

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Ymir (who’s now grown to gigantic proportions!) is kept sedated by electricity and studied at the Rome Zoo. The Air Force holds a press conference and allows three reporters to view the beast. When an accident short-circuits the electricity, Ymir breaks free from his bondage, and engages in a titanic battle with a zoo elephant. Ymir goes on a rampage through the streets of Rome wreaking havoc, and you guessed it, we get shots of panicked citizens fleeing for their lives! The armed forces can’t stop Ymir as it heads to the Colosseum, where bazookas finally take it down, as it hangs on for dear life before plunging to its demise.

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The Ymir is Harryhausen’s most iconic (and lifelike) creation. Like Frankenstein’s Monster and King Kong before it, the Ymir is a frightened and misunderstood creature  trapped in a world it never made. The scene where police are tracking down Ymir with dogs is reminiscent of an old Universal horror; all that’s missing are the torches and pitchforks. Ymir definitely gets the viewers to sympathize with its plight, and I felt sorry to see the poor beast persecuted to its inevitable doom.

20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH is my favorite of the two, and I consider it Harryhausen’s masterpiece. IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA is fun, but the story of the Ymir still resonates, and is a certified science-fiction classic. See them both and enjoy the genius of Ray Harryhausen!

Devil in Disguise: ANGEL FACE (RKO 1952)

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I saved ANGEL FACE for last in this week’s look at RKO/Robert Mitchum films because it’s been  hailed as a near-classic by many film noir fans. It’s certainly different from HIS KIND OF WOMAN and MACAO; much darker in tone, and features an unsympathetic performance by Mitchum. It’s more in the noir tradition of bleak films like DETOUR and BORN TO KILL. But better than the other two? That depends on your point of view. Let’s take a look:

An ambulance screams its way to the Tremayne home in ritzy Beverly Hills. The wealthy Mrs. Catherine Tremayne has been subjected to a gas leak of unknown origin. One of the ambulance drivers, Frank Jessup, comes across beautiful Diane playing the piano. She bursts into hysterics, and Frank smacks her, receiving one in return.  After she calms down, Frank and his partner Bill head home. Frank has a date with his girl Mary tonight. But Diane has followed him, and he blows Mary off as the two end up going out for a night of dinner and dancing. Diane tells him her father was a novelist, and remarried after her mother was killed in the London blitz. She asks a lot of questions about Frank, who confesses he was once a race driver before the war, dreaming of the day he can open his own garage to work on sports cars like Diane’s fancy Jaguar XK.

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Next day, Diane meets Mary for lunch. She tries to play coy, offering Mary a grand to help Frank achieve his dream of opening a  garage. But Mary ends up fighting with Frank, and he takes a job as the Tremayne family chauffeur. Catherine pans on investing in Frank’s garage, but before she can, she and her husband are killed in a suspicious auto accident. Frank is questioned by the police and before you know it, the two are on trial for murder.

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To go any further would spoil the plot for those of you who’ve not seen ANGEL FACE. I’ll just say there are lots of twists and turns to come, and that the ending will hit you with full force! It took me by surprise, which is pretty hard to do. Writers Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard (with an uncredited assist from Ben Hecht) crafted a marvelous screenplay, and Otto Preminger directs with style. Preminger was one of film noir’s top directors, having lensed the classic LAURA, as well as WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS and WHIRLPOOL (all of which are sitting in my DVR, waiting to be reviewed!) The director was responsible for the controversial (at the time) THE MOON IS BLUE, and top-notch films like RIVER OF NO RETURN (with Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe), THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (one of the first mainstream movies to deal with heroin addiction), and ANATOMY OF A MURDER. But by the Sixties it seemed Preminger’s time had passed, and films like HURRY SUNDOWN and the excruciating SKIDOO bombed t the box office. Preminger also acted in film and TV, most notably as the Commandant in STALAG 17 and as the chilling villain Mr. Freeze on BATMAN. Preminger died at age 80 in 1986, no longer a Hollywood A-lister. His film work is worth rediscovering for anyone unfamiliar with it.

Jean Simmons plays Diane, the ANGEL FACE of the title. Her character, like the best femmes fatale, is both beautiful and deeply disturbed. Diane’s a scheming, pathological liar, willing to go to any lengths to get what she wants. Simmons is one of the screen’s great beauties, a talented actress whose films include David Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Olivier’s HAMLET, THE ROBE, GUYS AND DOLLS, and SPARTACUS. Robert Mitchum’s Frank isn’t very likable here, easily seduced by Diane. It’s to Mitchum’s credit that he does manage to elicit some sympathy for Frank, considering how he dumps Mary so unceremoniously, then expects her to take him back with open arms. It’s a tricky role, but our boy Bob is more than up to the task.

The supporting cast features solid actors like Leon Ames, Herbert Marshall, Barbara O’Neil, Kenneth Tobey, Mona Freeman, and Jim Backus. A special Cracked Rear Viewer shout out goes to Bess Flowers in the tiny role of Ames’ secretary. Miss Flowers didn’t do many speaking parts; she was known as “Queen of the Hollywood Extras”, appearing mainly in background scenes in over 800 film and TV appearances! Her list of credits is WAY too extensive to go over here. Her best known and largest role is probably as the rich wife who hires Moe, Larry, and Curly as interior decorators in the 1938 Three Stooges short TASSELS IN THE AIR.

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Bess Flowers with The Stooges

So is ANGEL FACE better than the two previous Robert Mitchum films I’ve reviewed this week? As a film noir, the answer is yes. It’s dark and downbeat, like the best of the noirs, with that foreboding sense of doom inherent in the genre, right up to the powerful ending. But for me personally, I prefer the anarchic spirit of HIS KIND OF WOMAN, which takes the genre and turns it on its ear. Like I said earlier, it depends on your point of view.

Keep Watching The Skies!: THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (RKO 1951)

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UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) were making headlines during the late 1940s/early 1950s. The sightings of UFOs in 1947 near Mt.Rainier, Washington, and Roswell, New Mexico brought about a government investigation called Project Sign, later replaced by Project Blue Book. Reports of “flying saucers” were coming in from around the globe, and no answers were in sight. Citizen’s nerves were already frazzled with the threats of “The Red Menace” and potential nuclear holocaust,  and the possibility of an invasion from outer space just added to the collective existential angst.

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Hollywood discarded its Old World horrors of Vampires, werewolves, and mummies and boarded the science fiction rocket ship. By 1951 a slew of space invaders was unleashed on box offices across the nation. That year alone studios released features THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, FLIGHT TO MARS, SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN, The Man from Planet X , and the serials LOST PLANET AIRMEN and CAPTAIN VIDEO: MASTER OF THE STRATSOSPHERE. But the film that stands out as most frightening is Howard Hawks’ production of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD.

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At an Air Force outpost in Alaska, Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his crew are sent to investigate a report by Polar Expedition 6 of a mysterious craft landing 48 miles east of their encampment. They fly out to the frigid wasteland, nothing but snow and cold for miles around them and, accompanied by lead scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwait) and his fellow researchers, find a large object embedded in the ice. It’s metal is of unknown origin, radioactivity emits from it, and it’s perfectly round shape lead them to one conclusion…they’ve stumbled upon a flying saucer. Their attempt to thaw it out using a thermite bomb destroys the ship, but not it’s occupant, an eight-foot humanoid encased in ice. The crew bring the body back to examine and discover it’s still alive.

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‘The Thing’ escapes after being thawed, killing some sled dogs but losing an arm in the process. The scientists run tests and believe it’s a highly evolved species of vegetable, with the intelligence of a human. The arm on the examination table moves, and the scientists conclude ‘The Thing’ has fed on the dog’s blood, rejuvenating it. Carrington and his cohorts want to capture and communicate with it, but Hendry and his men seek to destroy it. When the alien visitor kills two scientists, hanging them upside down to drain their blood for nourishment, all but Carrington agree ‘The Thing’ must be stopped for the sake of humankind.

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The ensemble cast isn’t made up of stars, just competent actors who give fine, realistic performances despite the fantastic nature of the script by Charles Lederer (based on the short story “Who Goes There?” by sci-fi author John W. Campbell). Tobey is perhaps the best known, gaining some fame in the syndicated 50s TV show THE WHIRLYBIRDS. Margaret Sheridan represents the love interest as Nikki. Her brief film career includes playing Mike Hammer’s secretary Velda in 1953’s I, THE JURY. Other familiar faces are Dewey Martin, Eduard Franz, Ben Frommer, George Fenneman (Groucho’s sidekick on YOU BET YOUR LIFE), and voice actor Paul Frees in a rare onscreen role. And we can’t forget about ‘The Thing’ himself. If you’re reading this, you probably know it’s James Arness, brother of Peter Graves, and star of the long-running TV Western GUNSMOKE. Yep pardner, that’s Marshall Matt Dillon himself playing the bloodthirsty alien under all that makeup in one of his earliest roles.

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Christian Nyby is credited as THE THING’s director, but rumors abound that Hawks really called the shots. It’s never been proven or disproven, but there are so many Hawksian  touches in the film it’s hard to believe he didn’t direct it. Nyby was editor on four Hawks films before taking this assignment. All I can say is Howard Hawks was one of the most distinguished directors in Hollywood, responsible for classics like SCARFACE, BRINGING UP BABY, HIS GIRL FRIDAY, SERGEANT YORK, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP, and RIO BRAVO (which has a lot in common with THE THING). Christian Nyby had a mostly undistinguished career as a television director, with only four other features to his credit. I have my opinion; you can watch and judge for yourself.

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TEH THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD inspired a remake in 1982 by John Carpenter, an admitted devotee of Hawks. The remake is excellent, but I prefer the original. The black and white cinematography by Russell Harlen makes the frozen North seem so much colder, adding to the feeling of isolation and fear. It’s a true classic of sci-fi, and movies in general. And remember, “Keep watching the skies!”

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