Movies We Like
Billy Jack was a minor cultural phenomenon back in 1971. Written, directed, produced by, and starring Tom Laughlin, he probably made the set coffee in the morning as well. A vanity project, to say the least, but one that entertains and works as a document to the issues of the day, though the themes and ideas are incredibly muddled, which makes it all the more fascinating. Laughlin plays Billy Jack, a decorated Vietnam vet ("who turned his back on the war") and karate expert, he’s a "half-breed," hip to the philosophy and ways of the Native Americans. Billy rides around in his Jeep (and motorcycle and on horseback) toting a rifle - he uses violence for peace. Billy Jack, the film, has a lot of hippie mantra spoken, but underneath the grooviness it's actually a perfectly crafted, good, old fashion, revenge-driven, exploitation flick.
The character of Billy Jack first showed up with his badass black cowboy hat in Laughlin's earlier film, The Born Losers. In that one, Billy used his karate and his shotgun to protect a small town from a pack of scumbag bikers. Now he is protecting "The School," a different kind of educational institute, deep in the mountains of a hostile small Southwestern town. This is a place for hippies and pregnant girls and minority kids to learn chanting, ride horses, sing songs, and do groovy improv, questioning the man (led by Howard Hesseman, then of the far-out improv group, The Committee). The School is run by Jean and she is also Billy's girlfriend, or at least his biggest booster, though she digs his Indian mysticism she doesn't cotton to the violence. Laughlin’s real life old lady, Delores Taylor, plays Jean. She also co-wrote the script (under the pseudonym Teresa Christina), as well as its two unwatchable sequels, Billy Jack Goes To Washington and The Trial of Billy Jack. Taylor may know how to type pages but as an actress she is utterly uncomfortable in front of the camera, as if egged on by her boyfriend. Mercifully she has never appeared in any films outside the Laughlin canon.
This is no Room 222. Things get hot for The School after a local bigwig's pregnant daughter goes into hiding there. But it gets especially ugly when Billy gives a whuppin' to the local rich kid racists, even after The School's improv group wins over the City Council with their stoner comedy (two excruciatingly long skits). This leads to some random violence and melodrama including a shootout, a miscarriage, and Jean getting raped. It culminates in Billy being taken away by the pigs, but inspiring the kids to keep fighting for their rights, all to the tune of Coven’s (Jinx Dawson) minor hit anthem, "One Tin Soldier."
In a great little speech Billy asks Jean what happened to King and Bobby and Jack Kennedy. He says they're dead because people won't put the same controls on guns as they do with pets and cars. Cool liberal sentiment, but then Billy goes out and karate chops a guy to death. This is such a strange and gloriously mixed-up flick. In ’71, Billy Jack was considered some kind of anti-war or alternative lifestyle tome, riding the Easy Rider wave, though here the town sheriff (Clark Howat) is actually sympathetic to the freaks. It’s much closer in spirit to the '70s vigilante movement with more Libertarian fare (or some would call Fascist) like Joe, Death Wish, and Dirty Harry. As Billy says to Jean, "When that set of laws is applied to everyone, then I'll turn the other cheek too." This script seems to have both Laughlin and Taylor’s voice in it. A call for pacifism, but frankly what makes the film really exciting is watching Billy give the townies the ass-kicking they deserve.