SCM’s SEQUELS Month marches into the sunset with a long look at one of the 70s’ most forgotten works of social justice: 1971’s Billy Jack.
The early gasp of the 70s was a time of anger. With the passing of the hippie dream (as previously documented in An American Hippie in Israel), the world gave itself over to either frothing rage or meek indifference, largely directed at the squares in positions of authority. In America, the continuing involvement of troops in Vietnam and civil rights tensions repeatedly flared into violence. The future had seldom seemed so dark.
That’s where Billy Jack comes in. Tom Laughlin, a Hollywood fringe player in the 50s, wrote, directed, produced and starred in a vanity project designed to show the world how fucked it was. Part fable, part hagiography, all self-indulgent metaphor, Laughlin casts himself in the role of the titular small-town messiah, an avenging denim-clad paladin routing injustice with hapkido and a glazed-over stare.
Jean Roberts’ (Delores Taylor, Laughlin’s real-life wife) opening narration tells us that Billy Jack is “a half-breed [Native American/Caucasian]… a war hero who hated the war and turned his back on society”. Jean runs the alternatively taught “Freedom School”, a haven for countercultural types who’ve grown sick of “the Man”, choosing to teach their impressionable students with the power of extended (and excruciating) open mics, improvisatory street theatre and the simple tenets of love, peace, and rainbow children.
Jean is also Billy Jack’s girlfriend, so he appoints himself as the school’s protector. Good thing too, since the corrupt authorities of the local townsfolk – lead by Sheriff Cole (Clark Howat) and cartoonishly douchey Bernard Posner (David Roya) – tumble over themselves in providing plenty of reasons for Billy to go apeshit.
A sequel to Laughlin’s own The Born Losers from 1967, Billy Jack is a crazy work of mounting contradictions, many of which manifest in its hero. A violent man insistent on preaching the superiority of non-violence, Billy is seething with angry cynicism over the nature of an irreparably broken world that’s “one big shitbrick”. Though we are clearly meant to side with him, his predilection for violence and inability to emote makes him seem like a kill-bot, a kind of sociopathic John Rambo with a creator-endowed messiah complex.
He’s a crusader, a martyr, a Jesus, a protector, a lover and a fighter – we know this because people sing out-of-tune songs about how great Billy is. He’s the self-made man, forging his path through the spiritual and material world, reaching an apotheosis of the self via a spirit quest overseen by an ancient Native man. As the film’s conduit for its central message, Billy should really have been an instrument of non-violent action; instead, he remorselessly kicks the shit out of everyone he disagrees with (though it helps that said shit-kick-receivers are crooked and prejudiced rapists).
He’s also the result of a middle-aged white guy trying to craft a modern myth for a fractured nation. Billy Jack is no more than an idea, a myth masquerading as man. Though the film attempts to ground him through his relationship with Jean – that has no chemistry despite the two being married off-camera – he is above the world. Laughlin uses Billy as a means to bring America back to its roots, cleansing the pallet of modernity by retreating into the supposed purity of its pre-colonial past.
His reaction to a group of Native students having flour poured over their heads expresses his “tendency… to, go, BER-SERK!” This results in him karate chopping a man through plate glass. That he does this in front of young students – who largely express their anger with authority by singing songs called ‘Rainbows Made of Children’ – is one of the more egregious examples of internal thematic paradoxes.
Billy’s disillusion with the world flies in the face of the Freedom School’s emphasis on hippie utopianism. The film indulges in lengthy sequences detailing the School’s dealings, focusing especially on improvisational performances that must surely act as a meta-commentary on the scriptwriting process. These scenes go on forever and are loud, awkward and annoying; they are not helped by the terrible sound editing, with audio blips and obvious ADR cuts repeatedly intruding on our ears.
The general editing is slapdash at best, with scenes hard-cut slamming into each other at terminal velocity. One minute, Billy is recovering from a beating; the next, he’s in a mountain cave receiving spiritual guidance from an elder. Huh? The film has the seedy aesthetic of an exploitation film, despite boasting some well-framed shots of rugged canyons that emphasise its grasp for the mythic.
Less engaging is an endless sequence of clamorous din in a courtroom, wherein the students of Freedom School engage in loudly heckling the presiding council. It features a councillor snarking, “You’re a filthy little girl!” before a saxophonist ironically blurts out the American national anthem. What you see with Billy Jack is exactly what you get.
Delores Taylor’s acting is that of a woman fighting to stay awake after taking a lethal cocktail of sleeping pills and Quaaludes. Expressionless and drably monotoned, she sprints through expository lines like her life depends on it.
She looks like she’d rather be anywhere other than in front of the camera, especially when she is subjected to an uncomfortable, ill-advised and entirely unnecessary rape scene – a scene which only exists to spur Billy into full-blown, teeth-gritted angel of vengeance mode.
Despite this, the moments immediately after the rape prove surprisingly powerful; for a first-time actress, at 40+ years old, it’s not all bad. Until her companion yells, “DAMN YOUR PACIFISM!” in her face, of course.
The film culminates in a tension-free stand-off between Billy and the authorities. With Billy barricaded inside a church – complete with lingering shot of the cross! – Laughlin pushes the film further into the stratosphere of overcooked symbolism; he even boasts a gunshot wound in his side. A crown of denim thorns would not go amiss.
As he is escorted away by the police – in an ending strangely reminiscent of First Blood – the Freedom School demonstrate their solidarity by raising their fists to the sky, Black Panthers-style. It’s an oddly militaristic gesture, but hardly a surprising one given what’s come before. It’s just another layer of contradiction in an oxymoron of a film.
Billy Jack is the 70s equivalent of Steven Seagal’s On Deadly Ground: The passion project of an egomaniac determined to make his mark on the culture at large. Laughlin is so eager to ramrod his confused message down its audience’s throat that it never sits down for contemplation. There’s so much constant, screeching noise that we’re incapable of deciphering what the fuck we’re supposed to be paying attention to.
Is it a full-hearted advocate for alternative schooling? Is it a scathing invective on the corruption of middle-aged, white male authority? Is it an appraisal of the merits of improvisational street theatre? All these elements are here but they’re so crammed together, with almost equal amounts of screentime, that it’s difficult to separate one from the other.
Ultimately, something chimed with audiences: the film went on to become the 5th highest-grossing film of 1971. Laughlin, long relegated to the status of rank outsider, had suddenly hit the big time. The film spawned two sequels – 1974’s three-hour The Trial of Billy Jack and 1977’s flop Billy Jack Goes to Washington – but only the former repeated the breakout success of Billy Jack.
“You have to strip yourself of your greed and your ego in order to let the spirit in,” Billy tells a young Native friend of his. Laughlin should have taken the time to listen.