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The early 1970s brought forth a number of violent exploitation features claiming new insights into an American scene troubled by the War in Vietnam and political polarization at home. Some of these pictures were wildly popular, especially in markets far removed from the cultural centers of New York and Los Angeles. Phil Karlson's pro-vigilante saga Walking Tall concerns a Southern sheriff's battle against local gangsters. Rural audiences loved the movie, as it blamed the South's problems on city criminals and the federal government; only local boys like the church-going, brutal hero could be trusted.
Tom Laughlin's wildly popular Billy Jack character is an equally exploitative concept. An American Indian ex- Green Beret, Billy Jack battles motorcycle gangs and land barons like a re-born Lone Ranger. Laughlin's ambition to become a film producer paid off in 1967 with the first Billy Jack film, The Born Losers. A moderately competent actor partial to imitating the mannerisms of Marlon Brando, Laughlin fought hard to retain control of his work. He and his wife, writer/actor/producing partner Delores Taylor used fabricated credits to make their films seem less like family productions.
Image Entertainment's The Complete Billy Jack Collection DVD set begins with The Born Losers, an update of Marlon Brando's motorcycle gang classic The Wild One. A renegade biker club terrorizes a California beach city, beating up innocent motorists and gang-raping foolish young girls. The devilish gang leader Danny (Jeremy Slate) kidnaps and threatens co-ed heiress Vicky Barrington (Elizabeth James). She escapes after witnessing the rape of two other young local girls, who are too frightened to testify in court. Laconic horse trainer Billy Jack (Laughlin) enters the fray to protect Vicky from more brutality.
A western with jeeps and motorcycles instead of horses, the crude but effective The Born Losers exploits its rape scenes while claiming outrage for the traumatized victims. To the film's credit, the girls admit that they were indeed looking for kicks; one teen intent on escaping parental control shouts that she liked being gang-raped. Guest star Jane Russell overacts as a cocktail waitress (or prostitute?) tearfully shielding her daughter. The girl practices striptease dancing in her spare time, eager to follow her mother's example.
The townspeople and their sheriff are craven cowards easily intimidated by bikers with comical names like Gangrene and Speechless. William Wellman Jr. is a biker called Child and the popular Robert Tessier debuts as the formidable Cueball. The usual swastikas and iron crosses are featured, although Danny wears rather silly-looking plastic sunglasses.
The direction and acting are wildly uneven. Star Elizabeth James is quite natural in some scenes but contributes her fair share of groan-inducing line readings. Repetitive standoffs and hostage negotiations slow the story to a crawl. We're quite happy when the amiably violent Billy Jack commences killing the bad guys, just to stop the endless talk. At 113 minutes the film is at least a half-hour too long.
As "T.C. Frank", director Tom Laughlin gives himself plenty of adoring close-ups. His camera blocking reveals a fondness for images borrowed from Sergio Leone (some in-depth compositions) and Howard Hawks (the bikers' war-whoop). The editing is particularly chaotic, as seen in a final escape scene. Vicky bolts from the biker's lair. Six or seven long cuts later, when Vicki should already be halfway to town, she's still exiting the house. The movie begins and ends with slow zooms to the setting sun, perhaps foreshadowing Laughlin's later affectation with spiritual themes.
Released by American-International, The Born Losers earned sleeper hit status. Laughlin and Delores Taylor redoubled their efforts on 1971's Billy Jack, which became a major phenomenon. The noble loner hero has moved to Arizona to defend Indian rights and liberal values against a rural county run as a racist fiefdom. Local big shot Stuart Posner (Bert Freed) steals horses from Indian land to be sold for dog food, and browbeats his son Bernard (David Roya) into criminal acts against the Freedom School on the reservation. The federal school's curriculum consists of horse riding, spiritual enlightenment, political songwriting and improv theater. One of the drama teachers is played by Don Sturdy, a.k.a. popular actor-comic Howard Hesseman.
Troubled teen Barbara (Julie Webb) returns from Haight-Ashbury defiantly pregnant, prompting a beating from her father, bigoted deputy Mike (red-haired Ken Tobey). Freedom School director Jean Roberts (Delores Taylor) takes Barbara in, and the teen soon warms to the pacifist communal atmosphere. Native American spirituality figures heavily in the school's counterculture philosophy. Whiny folk songs and weak improv comedy routines pad the film's running time out shamelessly.
The slow talking, fast kicking Billy Jack hovers over the school like a protective Shane, forcibly ejecting Posner and his crooked deputies from Indian lands and fighting back against town bullies taunting the Indian children. Laughlin's well-choreographed Hapkido moves were considered a sensation in the film's one major fight set piece; Billy Jack preceded the 70s wave of martial arts epics. In his broad brimmed black hat and bare feet, Billy Jack became an instant icon.
The plot mechanics soon boil down to more hostage-taking and ugly rape scenes. Billy Jack retreats into noble posturing, mumbling about the spirit power he derives from a ceremony in which he subjects himself to several rattlesnake bites. Second lead Delores Taylor is particularly weak in scenes that require her to cry over the threat to "the children". She suffers a rape in silence, so Billy Jack won't run wild to avenge her. The movie adds up as a particularly flaky stacked deck of hippie philosophy, Native American Pride and bitter distrust of governmental institutions.
Billy Jack followed a crooked path to success. Abandoned by two studios during production and denied satisfactory distribution by Warners, Tom Laughlin successfully took back control of his film and reissued it in 1973. Instead of hiring a distributor to contract with theater chains, the Laughlins took their show directly to theaters, renting facilities for a flat fee and handling ticket sales on their own. The much publicized technique came to be known as "four-walling". Billy Jack broke independent box office records everywhere. Taking control of the "first coin" directly from the box office yielded a far higher return for the filmmakers, and gave credence to the notion that distributors and exhibitors routinely cheated film producers.
Laughlin even fought Warners over the rights to the anti-war song heard over the opening and closing titles, "One Tin Soldier". The recording used in the film more or less replaced the superior original radio hit from 1969. At that time the song was considered a reaction to atrocities in Vietnam, in particular the previous year's My Lai Massacre.
The finale of Billy Jack saw our hero a Christ figure in chains, unjustly charged with murder. 1974's The Trial of Billy Jack is a wildly overwritten and overwrought direct sequel. Stepping onto a cinematic soap box, Laughlin's confused harangue wrings emotional clichés from twenty hot-button political topics yet refuses to truly deal with any of them. Billy Jack and Jean continue their struggle against the corrupt system. The movie wants to be sincere but comes off as ludicrous. Some subplots, such as an abused, crippled child with a pet bunny, make us think we're being kidded, as in the spoof Airplane!
The frankly irresponsible message is that the government is too corrupt to function and must be resisted at all costs. Supposedly a liberal cry of outrage against right-wing attacks on college campuses (Kent State is evoked several times), The Trial of Billy Jack is more likely to inspire political extremists on the right. The finale, a massacre of innocent kids by mindless National Guardsmen and State Police, is compared via flashback to a My Lai- like Vietnam atrocity. Infantryman Billy Jack refused to participate, thus forming his identity as an anti-establishment rebel.
While Billy Jack serves four years in prison, Jean Taylor develops the Freedom School into a self-governing Utopian commune. Freed from the presumed oppression of state schools, Jean's self-taught students make breakthroughs in the rehabilitation of abused children. They also "dig for the facts" to expose governmental corruption, especially on the issue of Indian land management. The school spreads its findings via its own television station, a gambit that provokes the wrath of powerful interests.
Once freed, Billy witnesses more injustices to his Native American tribe and expels a camping party of fat cat politicians and their prostitutes illegally poaching Indian game. The "liars and thieves" in Washington have been stealing large parcels of reservation property. Billy goes on an elaborate spiritual quest for the next level of enlightenment. He's forced to defend the Freedom School students from redneck vigilantes, knowing that powerful interests are looking for an opportunity to have him killed.
The Trial of Billy Jack benefits from Panavision and a score by Elmer Bernstein. Key scenes are played out against the backdrop of Monument Valley, just for postcard appeal. But in expanding his franchise Laughlin has lost all narrative sensibility. At three hours the show lacks forward momentum and soon breaks down into a series of position speeches and lectures. A narrator rattles off a laundry list of flaky buzzword activities at the Freedom School: bio-feedback, anybody? We never learn how the students ferret out secret political conspiracies in Washington; they simply report their shocking findings as absolute proven fact.
The acting is worse than ever, with Delores Taylor spending at least half of her scenes weeping with a runny nose. Daughter Teresa Laughlin (Kelly) offers more ear-grating folk songs. Billy Jack is either off painting himself red to meditate or engaging in irrelevant Hapkido fights against various redneck goons. Positively nothing happens that's not preceded by a long speech, or three. Laughlin's staging of a Vietnam War atrocity is offensive in too many ways to list, as is the inflammatory massacre of scores of unarmed kids at the finish. The parallels with the notorious Waco, Texas standoff twenty years later are disturbingly prophetic. The paranoid hysteria of The Trial of Billy Jack has since been co-opted by radicals at the other end of the political spectrum.
1977's Billy Jack Goes to Washington is a full-on remake of the 1939 Frank Capra film. Taking up the Jimmy Stewart role of a gee-whiz junior congressman, Billy Jack brings his kickboxing skills to the Beltway. Produced by Frank Capra Jr. but rewritten by Laughlin and Taylor, the film adds a disturbingly cynical twist to the original: it maintains that all business in the Federal Government is done at the behest of lobbyists for major corporations. They control not only our elected officials, but the media and the intelligence agencies as well. The once all-wise Billy Jack has been re-imagined as a naïve outsider, achingly reverent of Jefferson and Lincoln and shocked to discover that our government is a complete fraud.
A senior Senator dies unexpectedly, and a crooked governor appoints the newly pardoned Billy Jack to fill the vacant seat. As in the Capra original, Billy Jack only slowly learns that he's the dupe of grafters pushing through a bill to build a nuclear plant. When Billy objects, the full weight of Washington corruption comes down on his head, with falsified charges accusing Billy of profiting from a land scheme. New sub-plots portray Washington D.C. as a Sodom and Gomorrah of political corruption. An ambitious lobbyist is murdered for trying to blackmail his way into a cushy White House job. The paranoia meter hits the ceiling when black hoodlums threaten Billy's young associates: they turn out to be F.B.I. or C.I.A. agents working for evil lobbyist power brokers.
Production values are reasonably high, and with good actors assaying roles firmly associated with the likes of Claude Rains and Jean Arthur, most of the dramatics are at least competent. Sam Wanamaker, Pat O'Brien, E.G. Marshall and Lucie Arnaz are at least watchable. Delores Taylor returns to contribute a weeping scene or two. The film never received a general release and for video was cut by at least half an hour, minimizing or eliminating familiar faces from the earlier films. Suzanne Somers appears in the cast list but seems to have been dropped as well. The editorial cut-down must have happened in 1979 after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, as Billy Jack's filibuster speech has been amended with new dialogue referring to the partial meltdown.
The film reaches a high level of demagoguery when an uproar from the Senate gallery interrupts government business. Billy Jack preaches that "the people" need to retake control of their own Government, and it is presumed that all Real Americans support him. It's also disturbing to see Billy Jack, formerly a monastic loner distrustful of all social interaction outside of tribal matters, now quoting Jefferson and imbued with a righteous spirit of democracy. When it comes time to replay the original film's filibuster scene, Tom Laughlin drops some of his Brando mannerisms in favor of the halting speech patterns of Jimmy Stewart and does reasonably well. "One Tin Soldier" plays again over the end credits, but the franchise's emotional call for revolution is as irrational as ever.
Image's four-disc DVD set of The Complete Billy Jack Collection uses good enhanced transfers with a decent level of encoding. Born Losers (incorrectly dated 1969) looks far better than old A.I.P. television prints. All of the films come with two sets of audio commentaries, a 2001 track with Delores Taylor and Tom Laughlin and a newer one that adds son Frank Laughlin to the mix. I audited the tracks only briefly; near the end of Billy Jack Goes to Washington Tom Laughlin expresses his belief that American democracy is irreparably broken. Although Laughlin's ambitions were to make the Billy Jack character a political symbol, most of his fans were more interested in the escapist action thrills of his first two features, and deserted the franchise when it took itself too seriously.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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