Movie: The mythos surrounding the antihero has actually been around for a very long time although it wasn't until the 1960's and 1970's that the concept really took off in Hollywood productions. The idea is simple, you take a protagonist that isn't fettered by the usual societal norms, instead living up to a moral code of his own choosing, who does all the things you'd like to do but feel morally, ethically, or socially unable to do. For example, most of us have been taught that it's wrong to punch someone in the nose in anger over something they say to offend you. That doesn't mean you don't want to smack said person upside the head, just that you'll be frowned upon due to the programming most of us have had to live with in an orderly, civilized, society. The antihero is someone without the social graces to live by society's rules of conduct and as such, we feel guilty taking him on as a role model but often do appreciate the results they achieve. How many of you would like to be stopped by "Dirty" Harry Callahan for speeding, given his complete disregard for human life, yet still want him around to deal with the punks that slip through the cracks of our system? Well, today's review is of a similar character's four releases in a boxed set; Billy Jack: Complete Collection.
For the uninitiated; Billy Jack is the fictional character created by actor Tom Laughlin back in the 1950's that ended up the focus of four movies between the late 1960's and the mid 1970's. Billy was an ex-military man, branch of service often a bit fuzzy (called a Marine, a Green Beret, and seen serving as a regular army man at different times), that was half white and half American Indian. He espoused a philosophy that boiled down to leave him alone or get a kick to the face (or other body part) all while embracing the non-violence movement occurring in the country during our social revolution several decades back. Fans liked that he didn't care about the odds when fighting, his then-unique style of karate, and how he stood for something (anything!) in a time when the USA had seemingly lost its way. As the series progressed, so too did the ultra leftist politics Billy and company would preach about, but except for the last movie, Billy Jack Goes To Washington, there was an ample sample of action offered up and the kung fu craze at the time helped propel Laughlin's character far beyond what would've been the case otherwise (I was there folks and still have numerous martial arts magazines featuring the man).
Billy was the champion of the downtrodden, especially American Indians and abused children, so it's hard to dislike the guy. Truth be told, he was something of a role model for me as a relatively young guy, and I'll always have fond memories of the character, no matter how weak the movies were. Here's a look at the titles in the boxed set with some comments afterwards:
The first movie in the series was The Born Losers. It was made on a shoestring budget with all the usual corners cut by director Tom Laughlin (using the alias T.C. Frank) as well as some interesting camera work. As something of a blueprint for independent filmmaking, it stands up well even nearly forty years later, incorporating guerilla tactics in getting the movie made, and distributed, in a time when it simply wasn't done. The story involved a small town where Bikers were all but in charge of things. They raped and pillaged as they wanted, with no one able to stand up to them. If this sounds familiar, it's because the story wasn't new then and has been copied thousands of times since in one form or another. The cops are ineffective at handling the menace and hotties like Vicky Barrington (Elizabeth James) were shown that they weren't able to get justice; that is, until Billy Jack takes up their cause.
A horse trainer back from a stint in the military, Billy finds the world has left him behind as the need for his skills is limited. He defends a youth from a motorcycle gang and finds himself a victim of the same system that slaps the bikers on the wrist (he gets $1000 fine or 120 days in jail for stopping them while they get $100 fine for nearly killing the guy). After a series of rapes, he intercedes when some of the bikers try to kidnap Vicky and becomes embroiled in the struggle between good and evil. The movie ends somewhat tragically but the repeated message that the establishment was corrupt and ineffective was just what some people wanted to hear at the time. Consider Billy as the original Rambo and you'll know more than you need to know about him for this movie.
The second movie in the set was the now infamous Billy Jack, again starring Tom Laughlin but the lead female then his real life wife, Delores Taylor. Billy now protects an Indian reservation from poachers (including lots of corrupt cops and politicians) as well as his girlfriend's alternative school for wayward children. His message is still clear; he hates violence but freely uses it when he feels the need (not just when backed into a corner as a modern day version would be thanks to political correctness). Taking on rich white men (in his movies, there rarely seems to be any other kind) who seem to "own" the two near the reservation, Billy defends the defenseless against aggressors of all types. The school becomes a focal point of the authorities when it shelters a pregnant runaway daughter of a local deputy. The hippy school challenges the conservative rural American values that are held so closely and they eventually get fed up with Billy's rampages through town. They are intolerant of change and the school's denizens are intolerant of the status quo so the stage is set for several confrontations, not all of which were winnable by good old Billy Jack. In the end; tragedy strikes and off Billy goes, the victim of the mean old establishment once more.
The third movie in the series, The Trial of Billy Jack, started off in flashback form with his then girlfriend, Jean Roberts (wife Delores Taylor), in the hospital looking back at a series of events that ultimately caused her to question her beliefs (after numerous body counts from confrontations across the country where stupid kids attacked armed authorities with expected results). Billy is in jail for involuntary manslaughter, her "Freedom School" exposes are causing the mean old corporations to look bad, the corrupt cops are still causing problems, and the local rich guy (you know he's white) wants them out. Billy tries to find inner peace through a vision quest and ends up doing what he always does when the bad guys cause problems; kick them silly. The all white townsfolk are virtually all evil because of their lack of willingness to embrace the counter culture ideals of the kids as well as the supposed crimes of their ancestors (you mean old white people should just sail back to wherever you came from…). The kids at the school are partially to blame this time when they refuse to listen to Jean, in an homage to Lord of the Flies. Needless to say, it all ends sadly badly with a few rays of shining hope for all concerned, except Billy Jack.
The fourth and final movie in the series was Billy Jack Goes to Washington, a remake of the classic James Stewart movie with Billy hanging up his martial art skills in favor of becoming a Senator, albeit only as a temporary fill in, in order to get a nuclear power plant built to enrich the white man. The conspiracies to promote this evil form of power generation take backseat to the usual political intrigue as Billy finds himself out of his league until a disgruntled insider (played by Lucie Arnaz, daughter of the brilliant comedienne) assists him in curbing the maze of political maneuvering by his opponents. In basic terms, this movie has been done many times before (and far better) but it seemed slightly less preachy than the previous two so your mileage may vary.
Okay, remembering that the movies were made in very different times, looking at any of the Billy Jack movies requires a person to acknowledge all the spiritual baloney being hawked by anyone with an axe to grind or a pocket to fill. Martial arts were very much in vogue (Kung Fu's David Carradine, Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, etc.) so any movie with so much as a hint of butt kicking action was essentially guaranteed a profit. Tom Laughlin's biggest claim to fame outside the obvious way he made the movies with Delores and family was how he marketed them. Making between 75 and 100 times the cost to finance the films was enough to gain attention all by itself; The Born Losers might've cost a few hundred thousand dollars to make but raked in tens of millions of dollars off the word of mouth alone. Using real Hell's Angels (with shirts reading "Born To Lose" across their chests) to save money and add an air of authenticity was smooth but the profitability allowed him to make the movie he wanted to make, Billy Jack, even if it went through multiple companies and ended up being released twice; one time making for a major change in the industry.
Unhappy with the way Warner Brothers released the movie; he sued them and settled by making a deal. The film would be released in test markets of their choosing. Tom aired television commercials and eventually started the then trend of releasing a title all across the country at once, making scores of dough (reportedly, over 50 million tickets were sold this way). Regardless of the series itself, that led to other films making far more than they had previously and set the stage for a virtual renaissance for the movie industry to capitalize on.
The tree hugging philosophies aside, Native American rights were a big issue back then (now they seem focused on how large they can build their casinos), as were the various other causes tossed in, allowing everyone upset at their place in life to rebel via the movies. The nuclear power matter was icing on the cake, allowing the country to embrace a "nuclear power is bad" approach that has further led us down a path of reliance on Middle Eastern oil, causing many of the problems we've had in recent years (Iraq, $3+ gasoline, and related matters) as other countries embrace the technology. Having met miners dying of black lung disease (circa my participation in an environmental program out of Clark University in the mid 1970's, Explore Your America), I'm sure they felt like the relatively clean source of power was such a tragedy to fully fund and investigate in favor of killing off them and their friends. Keeping in mind that the hodge podge of ideals espoused in the movies were a veritable laundry list of alternative beliefs, you can take them for what they have (mostly) been discovered to be or not, but they were an integral part of the series since far more time was used on them than on what most fans went to see; Tom kicking ass.
The Billy Jack: Complete Collection was the first time on DVD have the movies been released in their original widescreen formatting and they did look substantially better (sounding better too) than the previous offerings. That alone rated them as Rent It but unless you truly believe the line of horse hockey sold in the flicks, that's all you can expect of them. In short, if you're a fan of Billy Jack movies you'll want to own the set but if you're not, the pacing, wooden acting, poor story and multitude of technical flaws will prevent most of you from truly enjoying them as anything but cheesy movies lost in a time capsule.
Picture: Billy Jack: Complete Collection offered up the movies in the same aspect ratios as they were shot in from 1967 through 1977. The Born Losers and Billy Jack were presented in 1.85:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen color. The Trial of Billy Jack and Billy Jack Goes to Washington were presented in their original 2.35:1 widescreen anamorphic color. This is in stark contrast to the previous full frame editions released on DVD (and VHS) but even better than that was that the movies were mastered using some original 35mm negatives. The set itself was produced by Frank Laughlin, who made it a point to describe the processes used to repair damage and otherwise enhance this 35th Anniversary release set. All of the movies looked low budget though and especially the first two seemed to be made so cheaply that many faux pas were obvious with grain, lighting, and other issues popping up all the time. Thankfully, I had the initial DVD releases to compare them with and the new ones looked superior in every way. The prints had some scratches (as did the original releases) and were weak by current standards but held up nicely to similar movies from their time.
Sound: The audio was presented with a choice of 2.0 Dolby Digital or a new 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround mix. Keeping in mind that the original two releases were recorded in monaural, the cleaning up of the tracks did help them sound better on both my home theatre set up as well as on my home computer. There wasn't a lot of separation on the 5.1 track and the dynamic range was limited to the original material but the revamped version sounded better in all ways to me. The second two releases were originally recorded in 2.0 stereo although the only times they really sounded like it was during some of the music portions of the movies. In all, don't expect a whole lot but it was better than any of the versions I've heard to date (including the laserdiscs for two of them).
Extras: Okay, owing to the fact that director Tom Laughlin was a rookie director, there was a lot of additional footage available for deleted scenes, behind the scenes, and other featurettes but sadly, none of that was offered up here (maybe on the 40th anniversary edition?). On a bright note, the movies each contained two commentaries; one from the set released in 2000 and the other made earlier this year. The early commentaries offered Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor providing background anecdotes on the movies and their making while the 2005 version had Frank Laughlin (the guy who made the set) join in. There were a lot of differences between the commentaries, not least of which was Frank's inquisitive nature getting Tom to really open up while the original commentaries had Delores more actively participating. In each case, it seemed as though all of the principles were a bit wistful of some events and totally forgetting others until brought to the attention by one of the others. For fans of the series, these were great and I think independent filmmakers will find a lot to appreciate too.
Other extras included trailers, a photogallery with subtitles to help tell the story of the shots better, a short documentary where Tom Laughlin discussed the series, a "cut your own fight" game where you could assemble footage to make a better fighting scene, a trivia game asking questions about Tom and his movies, and a book excerpt (I couldn't figure out how to assemble the fight or read the excerpt though). The DVD case was a book styled "digistack" offering holding all five discs but the spindles were tight and the cardboard sleeve got battered up easily by the outside case when I slid it in and out a few times (it would catch on the case too easily).
Final Thoughts: Billy Jack: Complete Collection will delight fans of the series and even managed to get me to hold back my claws at the politically lame messages the films espoused. The movies were clearly labors of love for all involved and the bottom line is that no one ever went to see a Billy Jack movie for acting, a script, or technical excellence by the director-turned-star. Compared to the original releases on DVD (laserdisc and VHS too), this set was great although I had hoped for more of the footage left on the cutting room floor. The historical significance of the movies has provided lots of fodder for historians and the movies, however flawed, serve as reminders of a time long ago when the country was dealing with plenty of social turmoil. Check the set out and you'll see what I mean.