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)

 

Heavy Hitter: THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK (Warner Brothers 1974)


The last time we saw BILLY JACK , he was being hauled off to jail – and raking in about 60 million bucks at the box office! The eponymous hero of the surprise 1973 indie hit struck a chord with young audiences disillusioned with the Establishment’s endless wars and crushing their hobnail boots on the throats of dissidents (like I always say, the more things change…), and cheered as Billy Jack struck karate blows and Hapkido kicks in the cause of freedom. A sequel was inevitable, with Tom Laughlin returning as star/director/co-writer (along with wife Delores Taylor, who plays Jean) in a film loaded with political and spiritual philosophies designed to open those young moviegoers’ hearts and minds (not to mention wallets!).

But while BILLY JACK (and its predecessor, BORN LOSERS ) are fun flicks, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK suffers from that dreaded disease many filmmakers are prone to – pretentiousness. I didn’t totally dislike the movie, it has its moments, but at a running time of almost three hours, it just goes on too damn long. There are important points to be made, no question (comparing the slaughter of innocent civilians in Vietnam to the slaughter of protesting college students on campuses such as Kent State), but those points surely could’ve been made in two hours. Laughlin and Taylor’s screenplay just seems to meander on and on, and though the two are sincere in their effort to Make A Statement, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK would have benefitted from tighter editing (even though FIVE editors are credited on IMDB!).

Visually, the film’s quite impressive, with much of it shot in John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley by DP Jack Marta. The scenes dealing with Billy’s “vision quest” are gorgeous, and the Cave of the Dead scene is a Cormanesque fever dream. This is where THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK comes to life; when we get into the Freedom School’s dealing with interference from state and Federal authorities, the plight of Native Americans, etc etc, things tend to bog down. Director Laughlin should have told his editors to get their scissors out to make his point more concise, especially some of the lame student songs, but since it’s his daughter Teresa singing most of them, well… nepotism wins out!

There’s some action, but it’s not enough to satisfy the action lover in me. Laughlin’s Billy Jack still kicks some righteous ass, especially when teamed with his Hapkido mentor Master Bong Soo Han , but again it’s too few and far between, as the Freedom School vs Establishment storyline takes up way too much time. The film does too much pondering and hammering the viewer over the head with it’s message to succeed, and suffers for it. That message is important to be sure, and still resonates today, but THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK finds Laughlin taking himself much too seriously as a filmmaker with Something To Say. The movie found an audience though, hungry for a champion of the oppressed, and Billy Jack was a box office sensation once again. The third and final chapter, which we’ll take a look at in a few days, finds Billy Jack up against his toughest foe… Washington D.C.!!

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?!?!

The Origin of Billy Jack: BORN LOSERS (AIP 1967)

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The character Billy Jack, star of the wildly popular 1971 film (and its two sequels), made his debut in this 1967 exploitation flick about a sociopathic biker gang and the lone man who stands up to them. Tom Laughlin, a minor figure in Hollywood at the time who had appeared in GIDGET and THE DELINQUENTS, conceived the character way back in 1954. Unable to get his original screenplay produced, he and co-star Elizabeth James banged out this motorcycle drama and he was given the opportunity to direct by American International Pictures, always on the lookout to make a quick exploitation buck.

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The Born Losers are a degenerate gang of outlaw bikers terrorizing the small town of Big Rock. Ex-Green Beret Billy Jack, a half-breed Indian back from ‘Nam, saves a local kid from getting an ass kicking by breaking out his rifle, winds up the one locked up and given 120 days in jail or $1,000 (plus court costs, of course!). Billy and the gang’s leader Danny go way back, and there’s animosity between the two. Local Deputy Sheriff is also at odds with the bikers.

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College girl Vicki (James) rides her own bike, and the Losers chase her down and take her to their clubhouse. There she finds other local coeds being raped, but she escapes before being “turned out” herself. Vicki runs out of gas though, and is brutally raped by two members of the club. Vicki ends up in the hospital, and six of the Losers wind up arrested for the rapes.

The victims are threatened by Danny and his gang, coerced into not testifying. Vicki’s in protective custody, but the Losers try to kidnap her. They’re stopped by Billy Jack, who takes the girl to his forest hideaway. The Losers then sneak into his encampment and, though the pair aren’t there, they steal Billy Jack’s $600. He confronts them at a gas station, beating the crap out of their biggest dude, and gives them 24 hours to return the money. The gang grab Vicki and another victim, and the local authorities do nothing, so brave Billy Jack goes it alone against the Born Losers, seeking revenge for the girls and himself.

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The Billy Jack character isn’t quite fully formed here, but we’re given a good preview of things to come. He’s a hero to the underdog, a peace-loving man who’s unafraid to use violence to combat the evil in our midst. His martial-arts skills are touched on in this film, though not as much as in the 1971 movie. Laughlin does well in the role and, though never a great actor, has a charming screen presence. His direction (under the pseudonym T.C. Frank) is more than adequate, aided by some fine camerawork from Gregory Sandor.

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Classic film star Jane Russell  appears about halfway through the film as Mrs. Sloan, stripper mom of one of the victims. Russell’s given “Special Guest Star” status in the credits in what amounts to a cameo. She naturally gives the movie’s best performance as a tough-as-nails dame who wants justice for her daughter. This was one of the former RKO star’s last films, and she makes good use of her limited screen time.

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BORN LOSERS is filled with biker genre veterans, including Jeremy Slate as gang leader Danny, who was in THE MINI-SKIRT MOB, HELL’S BELLES, and HELL’S ANGELS ’69. Other biker flick vets are Jack Starrett (HELL’S ANGELS ON WHEELS, ANGELS FROM HELL, HELL’S BLOODY DEVILS), Robert Tessier (THE GLORY STOMPERS,  RUN ANGEL RUN, THE HARD RIDE), and Paul Prokop (THE PEACE KILLERS). William Wellman Jr. , son of the legendary director, appears as second-in-command Child.

Tom Laughlin is rightly hailed today as a pioneer of indie filmmaking. Most of his movies were self-financed, in the days before things like GoFundMe existed. Billy Jack remains an iconic character, his anti-establishmentarianism as popular with young audiences today as it was almost half a century ago. Critics like Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin called Laughlin’s fighting violence with violence stance Fascism, but I see him as an American hero, breaking down the false constructs of legalism in the cause of true justice. There are times when one is forced to make a stand. If you’re interested in the origin of Billy Jack, start here with Laughlin’s low-budget masterpiece BORN LOSERS.

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