Billy Jack is one of those films that's just as interesting, if not more so, for how it came to be made rather than for the story that it tells. Writer/director/star Tom Laughlin was appalled to see Native Americans mistreated in small town where his wife grew up and took it upon himself to champion their case by writing the screenplay for the film after guest spotting the character in Born Losers. He started shooting Billy Jack in 1969 but studio hesitation and problems resulted in an unpublicized theatrical release which he fought against, only to win and have Warner Brothers give it a proper run in theaters. His gamble paid off and Billy Jack did big numbers for its time. It's interesting how, in some ways, the struggle that the film had to find its audience kinda-sorta parallels the fight against the system that we see its core characters engage in.
The film tells the story of an ex-Green Beret, named Billy Jack (Laughlin), back from Vietnam and now doing his best to act as a sort of unofficial bodyguard for the staff and students at a school housed on a reservation. This isn't your average school, it's a free thinking and free spirited place where students are encouraged to create and think outside the box - and it's also home to a large native population. When some of the students get into trouble with a few racist idiots in town, Billy Jack literally kicks some sense in to them and this gets him into trouble with the local authorities.
Complicating matters further, the unwed pregnant daughter of a local sheriff (Kenneth Tobey) is sent off to the school after her dad slaps her around. Here she winds up hanging out and paling around with Billy Jack, who takes her under his wing and sees in her a kindred spirit of sorts. When her dad comes to check in on her, Billy Jack hides her where he can't find her. On top of all that, in retaliation for Billy's kicking various people, a local redneck kills a student and rapes the school's head honcho (Delores Taylor), who just so happens to be one of Billy's best friends. Understandably pissed off about all of this, the fast kicking Billy Jack decides that enough is enough and he soon has to decide if he's going to abide by the school's pacifist teachings or wage a one man war against the authorities who are all too eager to turn a blind eye to all of this.
Made for under a million, Billy Jack did big time box office business and wound bringing in over sixty-five million dollars. Not a bad return on a modestly budgeted movie about a martial arts loving Native American hippy type. The film struck a chord with audiences of the time, tapping in to anti-war sentiment and playing the notes that the flower child movement of the era wanted to hear. Witness the scenes where the students attend a town hearing for example. The dialogue from the stuffed shirt establishment types very definitely paints them out as narrow minded and ignorant as they're easily shot down by the free thinking, open minded and much younger students of the school who eventually win a few of them over by inviting them to take in some improvised theater! Full of anti-war songs and fairly heavy handed diatribes the film was and still is absolutely a product of its time and in some ways it feels pretty dated even if its message is still one worth listening to.
Obviously a very personal project for Laughlin (who would go on to create three sequels and who still periodically makes noise about shooting a fifth installment - in fact he started but never finished one in 1985) the picture would go on to inspire knock offs like Johnny Firecloud but also carry an influence into the modern day (tell me Walker: Texas Ranger doesn't have Billy Jack overtones!) - this is a film that a lot of people went to see and, at the time at least, it was a film that spoke to a lot of people. It's message is harder to discern for modern audiences who will no doubt (and understandably) get a chuckle or two out of the dated fashions, slang and politics but despite all this the picture is still a good one. It's got some great action scenes highlight by some nifty slow motion Hapkido moves and it's got a great soundtrack. The acting, from a pretty varied cast, is authentic enough to work and the pacing is fine. The picture might lose focus towards the big finale but you can't help but get a little teared up just before the end credits role, even if you realize how corny it all is by modern standards. This is truly one of those films where you can say 'they don't make'em like they used to' but Laughlin should take that as a compliment. As an action heavy drama the film might not be a classic but as a time capsule of American pop culture and politics the picture is invaluable.
Billy Jack looks surprisingly good in this AVC encoded 1080p 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Restored from the original elements by Tom Laughlin's son, Frank Laughlin, the image has been nicely cleaned up without excessive DNR or grain reduction. Some minor print damage pops up here and there but if you're not looking for it you probably won't notice so much. Color reproduction is strong though there are some spots where brighter colors like orange and red are just a bit too hot looking. Black levels are strong and consistent and contrast is good as well. Detail levels are far, far stronger than any previous DVD incarnation of the film ever was and while this still looks like an older modestly budgeted picture, you'll pick up a lot more texture and tone in this picture than you have before. Skin tones look pretty good for the most part if a bit pinkish in spots, but overall, this is a really nice looking transfer.
The sole audio option is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix which will annoy those who wanted the original mix to be included but probably please everyone else. The music sounds nice and punchy, particularly 'One Tin Soldier' as it plays over the opening and closing credits, while dialogue stays consistently clean. There's some quirks in the levels and you'll notice sometimes that the sound effects are pretty high up in the mix, but the film has always had this going on. Surround usage is sparing at best and this is a pretty front heavy affair but the low end sounds okay and for the most part there's really not too much to complain about here. No subtitles or alternate audio tracks are provided.
Image has supplied a pair of commentary tracks for this release, the first of which features Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor and is from 2000, the second of which also features Laughlin and Taylor in addition to Frank Laughlin, and it was recorded in 2005. These two tracks cover a lot of the same ground and there's a ton of repeated information in them so you probably won't need to listen to both of them - with that said, the addition of Frank to the second track helps flesh it out a bit more as he was on set as a young teenager when the movie was being made and offers up some additional input that his father and Taylor don't touch in the first track.
A fourteen minute standard definition documentary on the history of the film is also included, and it's worth checking out. It starts off by explaining how atypical the set was during the production of this film by explaining how all involved were worried about what an owl might be telling them. From there it talks about how it brought together such an unlikely group of people to make a movie together. The piece continues by discussing the picture's remarkably box office success, how it was re-released by Warner Brothers after much wrangling on the part of Laughlin, and about the film's influence.
Rounding out the extras are seven and a half minutes of standard definition television spots, animated menus and chapter selection.
While it might be undeniably dated in many ways, Billy Jack is still a relentlessly entertaining movie with some stand out moments and which obviously had its fair share of influence. Image treats the film with respect on Blu-ray, affording it a very strong transfer, a decent sound mix, and some good extras - recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.