‘Billy Jack’ (1971): Long, talky, action-sparse – a mixed-signals ‘message’ exploiter

“Watch his feet, man. He can kill you with his feet.”

Revisiting the films of my youth, Image Entertainment some years back released The Complete Billy Jack Collection on DVD and Shout! Factory through their Shout Select line released Billy Jack: The Complete Collection on Blu-ray; both sets include all 4 of Tom Laughlin’s pacifist whup-ass epics: The Born Losers, Billy Jack, The Trial of Billy Jack, and Billy Jack Goes to Washington. Let’s take a look at the second film, 1971’s Billy Jack.

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High in the Arizona hills—and illegally trespassing on Indian reservation land—town big wheel Stuart Posner (Bert Freed) has gathered some of his men and sheriff’s deputy Mike (Ken Tobey) to rustle and slaughter wild mustangs for the dog food companies. Also along for the ride is Posner’s weakling son, Bernard (David Roya), who doesn’t want to shoot the horses, despite repeated threats by his domineering father. Right before the butchering begins, though, a menacing figure on horseback emerges from the brush: it’s Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin), the half-breed ex-Green Beret loner who lives somewhere in the hills with an ancient medicine man, learning secret Indian ways (uh….huh). Calling out Posner and particularly the bought-and-paid-for Deputy Mike for their blatant flaunting of the law (“When policemen break the law, then there isn’t any law. Just a fight for survival,”), Billy draws down on the men and forces them to retreat.

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Back in town, Deputy Mike’s wayward daughter, Barbara (Julie Webb) has finally returned home pregnant, unsure of the baby’s father’s race, and contemptuous of her father’s mixed messages of indifference and concern—all of which enrage Mike, who beats her severely. Found unconscious by Billy out on Indian land, Billy takes Barbara to Jean Roberts’ (Delores Taylor) “Freedom School,” an alternative school for students who don’t feel valued at home or in the more conventional educational system. Barbara is cared for by Doc (Victor Izay), the school’s physician, and she’s welcomed by the school body, including Martin (Stan Rice), a quiet, spiritual Native American who likes Barbara, but who respects her enough not to respond to her sexual advances.

Sheriff Cole (Clark Howat) is sympathetic to Barbara’s plight—as well as to Jean’s “Freedom School”—and he agrees to let Barbara hide out there from her father. But when Posner helps Mike try to find his daughter, tensions rise between the town and the school. Worse, Posner’s cowardly son, Bernard, increases his humiliating treatment of various Native American students, until he makes a move against Jean—eventually leading to a violent showdown between Billy Jack and the Establishment.

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Anyone who grew up during the early seventies has memories of the character of Billy Jack on a par with that decade’s most recognizable action movie icons; he’s right up there with John Shaft, James Bond, and “Popeye” Doyle for moviegoers from my generation. And certainly for most kids my age, that summer of 1973, when Billy Jack was re-released to overwhelming box office success, you couldn’t get away from the intense marketing hype any more than you could turn on the radio and not hear that god-awful trilling dirge One Tin Soldier schmaltz by Coven every half-hour on the AM dials (“Go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend. Do it in the name of Heaven, you can justify it in the end. There won’t be any trumpets blowing, come the judgment day. On the bloody morning afterrrrrrrrherherrrrrr….one tin soldier rides away.” Blech) Watching Billy Jack today, it is so “outside” the experience of catching the movie back during its releases in 1971 or 1973 that it’s quite difficult to understand just exactly why anyone thought this long, talky, action-sparse, mixed-signals “message” exploitation film was worthy of seeing over and over again.

RELATED | More 1970s film reviews

As I wrote previously, the Laughlins introduced the Billy Jack character in their biker exploitation flick, The Born Losers, because no studio would touch their original “Billy Jack” screenplay. With the healthy box office success of Losers, the Laughlins were then able to parlay a deal with AIP to green light Billy Jack, with filming beginning in November and December of 1969. Production was then shut down by the Laughlins when they discovered that AIP was exercising options outside of their contract, with the Laughlins eventually brokering a deal that allowed another studio to buy out the film.

That studio, 20th Century-Fox, got production rolling in the spring of 1970, but once again, outside the confines of the Laughlin contract, they began to edit the film prior to Tom Laughlin’s final cut (Laughlin insists it was Richard Zanuck, cutting out among other scenes, the town council sequence where characters bad-mouthed then-President Richard Nixon). The Laughlins, independent as always, apparently snuck onto the Fox lot and stole the audio tracks for the film, where they then threatened to erase one reel a week until the film was returned to them (oh if only…). Fox had no alternative but to acquiesce, and Warner Bros. stepped in to release the film in 1971.

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Now, here’s where stories begin to conflict. The official version is that Warners didn’t properly promote the film during this first 1971 release. The resulting low box-office led the Laughlins to sue Warners over the supposed botched handling of the movie, with the couple eventually winning the right to control the re-release strategy (with Warners sharing the actual distribution duties). But several sources I’ve read indicate that this first release was still enormously successful (historian Danny Peary puts this first gross at over $30 million—phenomenal for 1971 standards), and that the Laughlins sued because they felt even more money could have been made from the film (I betcha the real reason was profit-participation, since Warners had bought the film outright from the Laughlins—the Laughlins probably didn’t get a dime).

All accounts do agree at this point, though, that once the Laughlins and Warners settled out of court, a new release was planned, utilizing not only a saturation publicity campaign (I remember the radio ads being almost non-stop), but also the unheard-of (at least for a major studio release) practice of “four-walling” Billy Jack. With “four-walling,” Warners and Laughlin would jointly rent movie theatres outright in various markets, and collect 100% of the ticket grosses (the theatre owners only received the rental fee, along with their concession sales). The risk was enormous—if nobody showed up (after all, the movie had already played only two years before), the studio and Laughlin were stuck with expensive rented theatres and no patrons. But if the movie clicked (and how couldn’t it with the massive, catchy ad campaigns?), the profit potential was staggering. And indeed, the marketing campaign, emphasizing Billy Jack‘s counter-culture chic allied with ass-kicking actioner cred, resulted in even a higher gross than the first 1971 release…with plenty of coin this time going directly in the Laughlins’ pacifist pockets.

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I detailed Bill Jack’s hectic production and release history because I think it goes a long way towards explaining the film’s popularity. If you listen to the commentary tracks on the DVDs, you’ll hear the Laughlins describe the Billy Jack character as a legitimate source of idolatry for young moviegoers who, according the Laughlins, responded to Billy Jack’s political messages, and kept coming back for more. And that reason may very well have been true for a number of patrons who continued to buy tickets for the film.

However, my experience with Billy Jack—particularly during the 1973 mega-hyped re-release—didn’t have a thing to do with politics…and I suspect neither was it so for my older brothers, or my friends, or their reluctant parents who were dragged along to go see this “must-see” movie of the year (I clearly remember, at the end of the movie, my old man turning to me and saying only three words: “I blame you,”). It was the marketing—specifically: Billy Jack was touted as a “new kind” of Western/action picture that upturned the traditional cowboy hero by making him a counter-culture “half-breed” (the film’s term) and an ex-soldier, who used the Asian art of hapkido (we just called it karate) to decimate his foes.

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The marketing campaign hit on several major hot-button issues at that time—the Vietnam War, Indian affairs (the Wounded Knee incident of 1973 had captured headlines for months at the beginning of the year), women’s rights, minority rights—while over-inflating its action credentials. In particular, after the standard drive-in exploitation angles were covered (Jean’s rape, some brief nudity), Laughlin’s use of martial arts took on new significance in 1973, since Bruce Lee’s popularity (and notorious early death that summer) had caused a world-wide explosion in popularity for the sport.

All of these factors contributed to a feverish marketing campaign that hit practically every conceivable demographic and created a palpable sense of anticipation for Billy Jack, with the studio touting it as trouble for “the Establishment” (certainly its troubled production and first “botched” release were a factor, too: was the “botched release” p.r. angle specifically created to generate fodder for the re-release’s publicity?). Now…were kids actually going around preaching Billy’s credo and changing their lives, as the Laughlins claimed in every interview…or were they more likely acting out his hapkido moves on the playground, or going over them in their heads while they tried on that new Wrangler jeans jacket that looked just like the one they saw in the film?

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I certainly have my doubts as to how widely influential Billy Jack was on a political and sociological level for its patrons, but if it was, I have to wonder what kind of head-scratching went on in theatres as kids and students tried to follow just what the hell was going on inside Billy’s and Jean’s noggins. Technically sloppier than The Born Losers (which wasn’t exactly a model of proficiency, either), Billy Jack‘s political meanderings are as choppy as its exposition. And it’s hardly the “original” that its creators claim it is—either in its message or its execution. Billy Jack‘s emphasis on showcasing the differences between emotionally distant parents and searching, spiritually lost kids; between political wheeler dealers who control men and their towns, and the loners and outsiders who have to fight the system, weren’t exactly novel concepts in 1969-1973 (you could get the same story elements out a handful of Mod Squad episodes). In their DVD commentaries, you can hear the sincerity of the personal beliefs the Laughlins hold, but regardless of whether or not you agree with the validity of those beliefs (um…no), it quickly becomes apparent that their limited scriptwriting and filmmaking skills only further obfuscate their already fuzzy thinking when it came to getting their messages across through Billy Jack.

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While I happen to believe that the main purpose of Billy Jack is manufactured mythmaking to realize a commercially viable movie (i.e.: a con to make coin), if you try and follow the logic of the movie’s interior, you quickly get lost. A good example is the town council sequence. Many critics pointed to this scene as one of Billy Jack’s strongest moments, where the students express loud, pointed contempt for the council’s arbitrary actions concerning the “Freedom School’s” ability to function in the town. To be fair, Laughlin does capture a free-wheeling feel of give-and-take, aided by stocking the crowd with members of the Los Angeles improv group, The Committee, and by letting some real councilpeople throw out lines among the actors (interestingly, one real councilwoman states the meeting shows both sides in less-than-ideal lights).

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But then Laughlin’s “solution” for the meeting is to have the wary council invited out to the school to see the kids in action, to which they are then treated to an incredibly lame skit by The Committee involving drugs. I thought “no drugs” was rule number one at the “Freedom School?” If so, why are they a source of “with it” amusement for the kids, and why present that skit as representative of the school? If Jean wanted to impress the council and reassure them that the kids are involved in wholesome, meaningful, spiritual pursuits, why not let the actual kids perform, instead of obviously adult “students” like Committee members Allan Meyerson and Howard Hesseman (and Richard Stahl as the head of the council, who also takes part in the skit)? It’s a crass, goofy move on the Laughlin’s part.

Indeed, that kind of addled padding is present throughout the middle of Billy Jack, and it’s a crucial miscalculation in establishing the “Freedom School” as a believable entity, as well as establishing a meaningful set-up for the film’s central conflict. After all: why is Jean continuing to lament the town not understanding the school…when the council members leave the demonstration satisfied and happy that the school is doing good work? Doesn’t their “guerilla street theater,” complete with Sheriff Cole’s cooperation, also generate an appreciative crowd (by the way: if the answer to social harmony is more “guerilla street theater” such as showcased here…then the wrong heads are getting busted in Billy Jack)?

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So if we don’t believe the “Freedom School” is truly threatened by the town, we don’t believe Billy Jack’s and Jean’s continued actions directed at “saving” the school—and there goes your whole movie. While it was relatively unique to see the Laughlins try and inject an even-handed humanism to not only their heroes but their villains in the exploitation filler, The Born Losers, such efforts aren’t any more successful here than they were in that first movie. Jean is labeled a pacifist, but her feelings for the violent, often uncontrollable Billy are confused at best. She hates his fighting…but she admits she likes the fact that others are scared of Billy, so no further harm will come to the school. She keeps telling Billy he can’t make his own laws…but she keeps excusing his behavior when he does make his own laws. She knows she shouldn’t let the students go into town…but she wants them to make their own decisions, so, she keeps quiet and lets them go into town—a most irresponsible action for a teacher/parent (an action, by the way, which negates her calling out Billy during his last siege with the cops, when she says she put her kids first rather than tell Billy about her rape).

Certainly, character complexity is a desirable end, not a fault, in a movie. However, Billy Jack has been sold (and continues to be sold) as some kind of parable for kids to emulate, a life-changing experience that also happens to exude an exceedingly smug, self-satisfied tone about its propositions…propositions that sound half-baked, facile, and contradictory—not complex or shaded.

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And nowhere is that smugness more pronounced than in the central character himself, Billy Jack. His character, shielded by the cloak of Native American spirituality (a spirituality that’s presented here as unassailably positive and “real”—while remaining largely unexamined for faults—while Christianity practiced by Whites is singled out as incompetent and devoid of true spiritual depth), the Billy Jack character may whine a bit more about his feelings, but he’s truly not that much more evolved from Eastwood’s inexpressive killing machine, The Man With No Name. A mass of contradictions that are continually called out in the movie but never looked at too closely, Billy is led to temporary madness when he sees what Bernard does to Martin and the other Indian students at the ice cream shop (Bernard pours flour on them to make them “White”). But later, when Bernard almost rapes a student at knifepoint in his Corvette, Billy and Jean literally chuckle and shake their heads at his shenanigans (perhaps their attitude comes from the fact that this older White girl is presented as sexually “loose”—which only makes Billy’s and Jean’s reaction more contemptible).

Billy laments the fact that great leaders are shot down in America because there are no gun laws…but he rides around with a lever-action carbine which he freely pulls on anyone who gets in his way (sound familiar today, kids? A bit of liberal “do as I say, not as I do”?). Jean refuses to tell Billy he must get Cindy out of harm’s way during the police shoot-out; thus her continued inability to make a decision is no more surprising than Billy’s earlier stated credo that allows Cindy to hang out while the bullets fly: “What will be, will be” (See? Even that’s not original to Billy Jack: Doris Day sang it first, folks).

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Billy is upbraided by Jean for his drama-queen heroics during the final shoot-out…while his admirers throw him the Black Power salute (sure. right.) as he’s led off in chains (what “victory,” exactly, are they saluting?). We’re supposed to feel that Billy’s rage is as inexplicably dark and mysterious as his secret Indian training up in the hills, but often times, he comes off as a petulant child who isn’t fighting personal demons as much as a bad case of pique and immaturity. Prior to the final fight, he dares Jean to name one place on earth where man loves his fellow man, and when she cannot, he leaves in an “I told you so!”-like huff to carry out his violence. Watching this scene, a viewer can’t decide who’s more clueless: Jean, who could certainly at least point to her own school as an example, or Billy, who, after all that spiritual training, can’t say, “The entire world, actually,” since love and hate co-exist together in any human society, not in separate voids (Gee-zus your average Sunday School student could have parlayed that mind-blowing concept to you, Billy).

Of course, Billy’s ass-kicking philosophy in the name of peace is the one thematic element that skeptical critics and audience members always immediately latch onto with the character, but for me, that aspect of Billy Jack isn’t deserving of much more than an afterthought, primarily because Billy Jack has so few action scenes. That, ultimately, is the movie’s biggest cheat. As the Laughlins correctly point out in their commentaries, Jean was the pacifist, not Billy; Billy struggled (however incoherently) with his violent demons throughout the movie.

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So…he’s basically absolved of all responsibility towards pacifism; he can head-stomp with abandon and chalk it up to “personality conflicts.” Where Billy Jack truly cheats its audience is in presenting a scenario and repeated set-ups that promise action—that’s certainly the angle that was promoted in the marketing campaign, as well as the totally inexplicable cache Billy Jack once held as one of the great martial arts films of the ’70s—only to fail to deliver them, falling back on endless talk. Frankly I was shocked at the paltry amounts of action in the movie, even back then, a sentiment echoed by Tom Laughlin himself when he realizes there’s really only one major fight scene. And while that particular sequence is well choreographed and executed, it’s nowhere near the duration nor the intensity of a random five minutes from any Bruce Lee action sequence (the magic of DVD/Blu-ray clarity now permanently ruins the illusion that it’s Laughlin himself doing the difficult kicks; we can now clearly see it’s Laughlin’s martial arts advisor, Bong Soo Han, doing the trickiest moves).

It’s not enough to give the “okay” to this sequence, as Laughlin does in the commentaries, because it’s the “first American martial arts film,” as he states…which isn’t even technically true. Considering how short the main fight sequence is here, you could say John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate could qualify then as the “first” in America, with its still-terrific fight scene featuring Frank Sinatra (you might even make a case for James Cagney’s 1945 Blood on the Sun, or Gary Cooper’s 1946 Cloak and Dagger, both of which featured some cool judo sequences. Or how about Sean Connery’s 1967 Bond epic, You Only Live Twice, made with American money?).

No, Billy Jack “cheats” because it’s clearly designed as an exploitation number, and its scenes are arranged and tempoed to lead to numerous action scenes, and yet it pulls back time and again, and denies the audience those moments, instead falling back on endless dime-store philosophizing and cheap-jack dramatics. One could say Billy Jack‘s confusion over what kind of movie it is (or should be) is just as central as its thematic political and sociological puzzlements, and its characters’ schizophrenic bewilderments. Things would only get worse with the next installment in the Billy Jack saga….

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Our Billy Jack reviews:

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

 

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