‘The Trial of Billy Jack’ (1974): A spectacularly unwieldy mess of a movie

Ready for some more Billy Jack? Of course you are.

By Paul Mavis

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 third film, 1974’s The Trial of Billy Jack.

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As an eagle flies over Monument Valley, the dead and wounded in various college campus riots are listed. Fade up to Jean Roberts (Delores Taylor), founder and president of the “Freedom School,” laying in a hospital bed, recovering from several gunshot wounds. Talking to a reporter about how the massacre at the “Freedom School” went down, Jean recounts two separate but ultimately intertwined stories. First, Jean recounts the trial of Billy Jack for the murder of Bernard Posner (in the previous movie, 1971’s Billy Jack). Billy (Tom Laughlin)  gives an accounting of his eventual “break” with the United States due to his witnessing a My Lai-like massacre of civilians during the Vietnam War—and America’s subsequent support for the guilty officers as well as President Nixon’s refusal to investigate the crimes. He’s convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison.

Meanwhile, the “Freedom School” thrives from the publicity generated by Billy Jack’s stand against the police. Eventually, the school finds new digs (in a converted military base, naturally), and through donations, music sales of Billy Jack protest songs, marching band contests—and one would assume a whole lot of bake sales—they also manage to build their own TV station, where the students start digging up muck-racking exposes against the “Establishment” authority figures who rape the land and bleed the citizens dry.

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Unfortunately, this kind of grass-roots political activity doesn’t sit well with the corrupt Federal government, which immediately starts tapping the school’s phone lines and conducting surveillance on the student body. After a side-trip for a discussion on child abuse, we’re brought back to the saga of Billy and Jean, when Billy is finally released from prison and reunited with his first loves (that would be Jean and himself).

Billy’s triumphant return to the “Freedom School” is immediately marred by the disappearance of two hikers up in the snowy mountains. Helping to locate them, Billy is ready to perform minor surgery on the surviving frostbit hiker when the hospital refuses to treat the Native American, but he’s relieved of that duty when Doc (Victor Izay) shows up and takes charge. After the hiker is charged with trespassing, while town fat cat Posner (Riley Hill) hosts a debauched retreat for other bigwigs like the Lt. Governor on Indian reservation land now “terminated” with no consequences, Billy and his Native American brethren decide to photograph the influential high muckety-mucks in an effort to shame them.

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Tensions build again between the town and the school, but Billy Jack is nowhere to be found, having gone upon the mountain again to take the terrifying “Inward Journey” in The Cave of the Dead (yes…just like those weekly Mary Kay sales meetings). As Billy confronts his personal demons yet again, Jean must deal with the television station being sabotaged, and the townspeople’s prejudice against the school, with a horrific confrontation between the military and the school the end result.

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A spectacularly unwieldy mess of a movie, clocking in at almost three hours (yes…just like this review), The Trial of Billy Jack is fascinating nonetheless just to see the Laughlins’ marriage of sheer megalomania with crass commercial considerations, thrown up on the screen in an ungodly epic format. Unbelievably incoherent, The Trial of Billy Jack is almost impossible to discuss in terms of content, because its form is so overwhelming and intrusive. There is little logical flow from sequence to sequence, or even scene to scene, but once its intentions are finally sussed out amid the endless dross, its final impact is remarkably muted (this translated to the b.o. grosses; it made a lot of money…but nowhere near the amount of the the first two in the series).

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Clearly two entirely different films awkwardly combined as one, The Trial of Billy Jack looks not only at the continuing mythologizing of the Billy Jack character (here finally attaining—with a straight face, no less—a god-like level of awareness and power), but also the final corruption and defeat of the sixties youth movement through the manipulated and manufactured massacre at the school. Along the way, we’re treated to extended looks at the problems of child abuse, the corruption in the Bureau of Land Management, Indian rights, the criminality of covert Federal spying agencies, and of course, hapkido demonstrations, all of which might have made interesting subplots if some kind of directorial and editorial choices—and hard ones, at that—had been made. And this isn’t just coming from me: Tom Laughlin, to his credit, speaking on the DVD commentary, repeatedly cops to the film being entirely too long…and not particularly well structured or written in his opinion, either.

According to Laughlin, The Trial of Billy Jack was produced as a direct response to the student riots that were happening on college campuses in the late 60s and early 70s. Fair enough: that’s a subject worthy of a big movie. But soon, various plot elements and thematic asides begin to overwhelm the movie’s focus, with the viewer jerked back and forth between sequences that refuse to flow into each other. The Laughlins’ take on the campus troubles is seemingly summed up by Jean, who in her hospital bed, states, “Students are slaughtered by trigger-happy police types and nothing is ever done about it,” a statement that seems to indict a perceived mindset as well as an entire segment of the population: the police/military (sound familiar today, kids?). This is further emphasized during a scene where the cops hassle the “Freedom School” kids in town, going so far as to beat up one for daring to suggest he’d rat them out for their unlawful behavior (Billy Jack comes to the rescue in a dispirited, anticlimactic fashion: he doesn’t even fight the cops; they just run away).

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Certainly, the beginning of The Trial of Billy Jack touches on Billy’s revulsion for the United States government in general, when he recounts his “break” with America after he witnesses a My Lai-like massacre in Vietnam, and when he says the American public rallied behind the killers, with the politicians doing nothing about it. But later, The Trial of Billy Jack starts to blame government agents for fomenting dissent and actively starting the riots in an effort to shut down exposes of crooked federal deals, while the average law enforcement officer or solider is shown as merely an innocent pawn in the high-stakes games between corrupt officials (the William Wellman, Jr. solider who has a nice family, and who doesn’t want to take part in the massacre…only to wind up accidentally shooting the little boy with only one hand). As usual with the Laughlins, this seemingly even-handed approach may suggest complexity of characterizations, but up on the screen, it comes across as merely perplexing intellectual vacillation, made even more schizophrenic by their haphazard moviemaking technique.

The Trial of Billy Jack is such a strange movie because it so desperately wants to be not only “about something,” but “about something on a grand scale”…and yet it feels remarkably small and limited despite its form. Endless talk certainly doesn’t help matters here, particularly when most of the dialogue is written for signpost obviousness on subjects that seem, at best, tangential to the task at hand. And the scenes themselves, except for Billy’s spiritual journey into the Cave of the Dead, come off as stilted and constricted, and certainly not “epic” in either conception or execution. The exception are the desert scenes, which achieve quite a majestic beauty by cinematographer Jack A. Marta, in the first Billy Jack film shot in 2.35:1 widescreen (the rest of the movie looks surprisingly dingy and cramped).

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The mythologizing of the Billy Jack character reaches truly ridiculous proportions here, with Billy likened to a god in many scenes. When Billy first meets up with Jean, he stands still by a river as a wild eagle, from out of nowhere, suddenly lands majestically on his arm, as if called to by his master (it looks like something out of CBS’ Circus of the Stars). Billy’s eventual decision to take the terrifying “Inward Journey” in the Cave of the Dead is probably the movie’s most compelling sequence. Unfortunately, it’s marred by constant cross-cutting with other subplots, while its resolution is badly handled: Billy meets his own worst enemy—his shadow self…which is Laughlin again but now in bright blue makeup (yes. He looks like a Smurf). A “spirit guide” then wraps up this bummer ride by taking him on a tour of badly-staged “tableaus” out in the middle of the desert, illustrating the various levels of enlightenment a man must go through.

All of this spiritual awakening comes to naught, though, because how can Billy Jack “be” the Billy Jack of the movies if he achieves total enlightenment? How can we have a “Billy Jack movie” if Billy doesn’t blow his cool and start busting heads? Of course, that’s the central cheat of all the Billy Jack movies: action that contradicts “message” in the service of commercial viability.

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There’s a noticeable increase in action in The Trial of Billy Jack over its predecessor, but that welcome addition is negated by the film’s excessive length. If there were any doubts about the motives the Laughlins may have had for including violence in a film like Billy Jack that espouses non-violence, those doubts are laid to rest in The Trial of Billy Jack. The central fight scene, which is fairly well-staged (with one incredible moment where a stuntman takes a horrendous two-story fall on his neck), is merely an excuse for Billy to reject his teachings and go against the spiritual enlightenment he supposedly attained.

The final massacre of the students, however, is pure, calculated exploitation, regardless of any protestations to the contrary as to its good-will intentions. Certainly the violence is nothing compared to today’s films, but the sight of a one-handed boy—holding a bunny, for christ’s sake—getting shot down by a soldier, has absolutely nothing to do with the Laughlins’ wobbly diatribe against the powers-that-be, and everything to do with fashioning a remarkably crude (and intellectually suspicious) emotional moment. Even more incredulously, the moviemakers have the nerve at the end of The Trial of Billy Jack to indict the audience for any potential criticism they may have towards the depiction of violence in the film, stating we’re all accomplices: such goofily wrong-headed chutzpah I have never seen in a moviemaker before The Trial of Billy Jack.

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Then, once you realize that The Trial of Billy Jack will be more of the same as Billy Jack—far too much wonky talk and far too little hapkido—the viewer has to fall back on trying to make sense of the never-ending dialogue scenes. Jean says Billy was really put on trial because the “Establishment” wanted to quash “each man’s right to find his own center…to do his own thing.” Billy states Death is his constant companion who frees him from worries of trivial things but allows him to appreciate each moment (but I thought everything ticks off jittery Billy?).

Billy says the “American consciousness is dead,” and that the “spirit of Boston and Virginia could never be revived.” Jean invokes the memories of our Founding Fathers as well, in a pointless scene about child abuse (today, she’d be pilloried for praising slave holders, no doubt), and later says what she does at the school could quite literally save the world (a megalomaniacal moment in the film that would make Jerry Lewis weep with envy). Jean states winning or losing or getting good grades aren’t important at her school (remind me not to fly in a plane engineered by one of her students), and Billy is serenaded by a student who warbles—without a trace of irony, and with a straight face—”Are you crying, are you dying, just for me, Billy?”

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Later, Billy attacks the history of White Christianity, citing abuses by St. Augustine, Richard the Lionhearted and Kit Carson (yup…those three pretty much cover the whole of Western civilization), while of course failing to mention inconvenient truths about Indian-led massacres, Indian slave holdings, and Indian-led atrocities (doesn’t fit in with the P.C. Muzak, you see). We’re told to love child abusers, because yelling at them or punishing them doesn’t work, while Jean tells us, “Where there is power, there is no love. And where there is love, there is no need for power,” (jesus christ). And finally Running Bear screams, “Congress is a bunch of filthy, rotten, lying thieves!” (the sole voice of sanity in this film).

All of this blather—most of it offensive—would be comical if The Trial of Billy Jack itself didn’t take such a ridiculously straight-faced, insufferably smug attitude towards its own messages. I have no doubt that the Laughlins believe in their causes they discuss on the DVD commentaries (the poor dears), but I also firmly believe that the Billy Jack movies aren’t the pure exercises in hoped-for social engineering the Laughlins would like us to believe. These are calculated efforts designed to exploit buzz-worthy subjects, with head-whompin’ thrown in to jingle the box office cash boxes.

It’s a preachy commercial mix that certainly worked in terms of box office in Billy Jack‘s case, but one that seems forced and bloated and patently false here (accounts vary as to how successful The Trial of Billy Jack was: some say it was a substantial hit, due to its saturation bookings across the country—a first for this kind of studio film—while others say it debuted strongly then tanked). What a shame that Laughlin couldn’t leave the lofty, phony pretensions of the character behind, and just embraced the “badness” in Billy Jack; he might have come up with a kick-ass movie that entertained its audience (while still subtly slipping in a message here and there).

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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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