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|I recall seeing BILLY JACK (1971) a couple of times at the old Varsity Theater on the Drag in Austin when I was in high school. The first time was in the company of a young lady named Diane Howerton whom I went out with a few times. I remember that she wore a pair of the then popular "hot pants" shorts and I found it exceedingly difficult to keep my adolescent mind focused on the film. |
But when I did focus, I found BILLY JACK to be an amazingly profound film, full of messages about social justice, peace and love versus violence and hate, young vs. old, progressives against conservatives, hippies vs. straights, the generation gap, spirituality and way cool exhibitions of martial arts at the hands (and feet) of star Tom Laughlin. By the way, Laughlin also wrote, produced and directed BILLY JACK (there's an unsubstantiated rumor that he also made and served sandwiches to the cast and crew during lunch breaks). Produced on a shoestring budget, BILLY JACK grossed a pot load of money, making it one of the most successful independent films of the 1970s. And the biggest demographic buying those tickets were impressionable kids like me who thought the movie was an instant classic, ranking alongside WALKING TALL (1973) as one of the films that practically everyone at Austin High saw at least once.
BILLY JACK was actually the second Laughlin production to feature half breed, Vietnam vet, martial artist and peaceful warrior Billy Jack. The first film, THE BORN LOSERS (1967) was marketed as a biker flick but it made enough money to allow Laughlin and his wife (and co-star/co-writer/co-producer) Delores Taylor to make BILLY JACK. The film was initially going to be an American International Pictures production and you can well imagine how that final product would have turned out. Next, the film was in production through 20th Century Fox whose executives wanted to dictate creative terms to Laughlin, who would have none of that. Warner Brothers finally agreed to back the film and I'm sure they were glad they did. Two sequels followed, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK (1974) and BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON (1977). I've never seen any of the other three Billy Jack films but I watched the 1971 entry this afternoon for the first time in forty-seven years.
You'll have to forgive my fifteen-year-old self for thinking that BILLY JACK was a profound film. I simply didn't know any better and was probably caught up in the buzz among my classmates about how great the movie was. I was for sure distracted by those hot pants, which left an, as you can tell, indelible impression upon my memories of the film. BILLY JACK is one hot mess of a movie, a strident, preachy, rambling, overly earnest effort with a patchwork narrative and horrible acting (by both professionals and amateurs).
The action scenes aren't nearly as well staged as I remembered them (any random episode of KUNG-FU had better martial arts fights) and the film is endlessly and needlessly padded with lame comedy improvisation shticks, bad "folk" songs, plot points that go nowhere (what the hell was the whole Billy gets bitten by a rattlesnake ceremony about?), a Chevy Corvette that survives being completely immersed in a mountain lake only to ride high and drive in the next scene, a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't gun rack in a vintage pickup truck and on and on.
The story, such as it is, concerns a pregnant young runaway, Barbara (Julie Webb), who takes refuge from her abusive father, Deputy Mike (genre veteran Kenneth Tobey) in a freestyle "school" on an Indian reservation. The school, in which literally everything and anything goes, is run by Jean Roberts (Taylor) and protected from the bigoted townsfolk by Billy Jack. The stakes escalate when Jean is raped by the son of a powerful local business man. The son, Bernard (David Roya), later kills Martin (Stan Rice), a young Indian boy who is in love with Barbara. All of this ugly violence pushes Billy Jack past the breaking point. He kills Bernard and Deputy Mike and prepares to make his final stand in an abandoned church with Barbara at his side.
While I found BILLY JACK to be a truly terrible film, I have to give props to Laughlin and Taylor for having the courage and determination to take control of this franchise from start to finish and bring their vision, no matter how cockeyed, to the screen. I dunno, maybe things got better in the third and fourth films but for my money, one BILLY JACK movie is enough for this movie watcher.