The Most Underratedly Insane Film Franchise Ever Made
The Billy Jack movies are not things that I would describe as "good." I would hesitate to even describe them as "competent." Actually, it's honestly a bit of a stretch to describe the Billy Jack opuses as movies, as opposed to assemblages of amateur footage into what can generously be described as narrative form.
But just because the Billy Jack movies are dreadful does not mean that they are not important. These morbidly fascinating time capsules were bafflingly popular. Billy Jack was the fifth-highest-grossing film released in 1971, and 1974's The Trial Of Billy Jack was the third-highest-grossing movie of that year, beating out Young Frankenstein and freaking Godfather Part II. And it accomplished this feat despite being almost three hours long and borderline unwatchable.
Since I'm pretty sure you're never going to watch a Billy Jack movie, and equally sure you probably shouldn't, I therefore feel it is imperative to share five reasons the Billy Jack series is the most insane popular, influential blockbuster franchise you've never heard of.
The Billy Jack Themes Do Not Match The Hero
Perhaps the nicest thing that can be said about the over-the-top, bordering-on-minstrel-show version of Native American life depicted in the Billy Jack franchise is that it is well-intentioned. The writer, director, and star of the series, Tom Laughlin, clearly respects and looks up to Native Americans. But by treating them as cardboard saints bedeviled by cartoonish white devils and saved by the Action-Christ-like power of Billy Jack, he ends up robbing them of their humanity. On a side note, if this plot aspect sounds familiar, it's because the movie Avatar is essentially Billy Jack Goes Spacin'.
The films attempt to compensate for earlier depictions of Native Americans as subhuman by painting Billy Jack as downright superhuman. But even if Laughlin were Native American (he is almost remarkably white), there'd be something off-puttingly narcissistic about him casting himself as a god. Laughlin is living out his corniest Native American noble warrior fantasies on screen, and the results are consistently embarrassing, as well as endearingly strange.
Laughlin is so square that if he were to encounter a joint, he'd try to either karate-chop or lecture it, yet he is surprisingly open-minded in depicting the counterculture not as seedy or debauched, but rather as home to society's greatest hope and purest spirits -- after Native Americans and Billy Jack, of course. The hippies are on hand mainly to worship Billy Jack, but he was a square who was 150 percent behind the kids, who have seldom been as alright as they are here. In this time period, hippies were mostly in movies to give the film a higher body count before the villains finally made it to the last house on the left.
The accidentally high-camp approach to Native American mythology in the Billy Jack series involves such psychedelically misguided set-pieces as a snake bite ceremony involving a vision quest, an eagle's feather, a old wise man with a halting, wooden delivery, and Laughlin dancing around a rattle snake wearing what appears to be a cross between unusually trendy buckskins and a Super Friends disguise. Laughlin fake-Indian dances like only a white man from Milwaukee can fake-Indian dance, while being bitten over and over by a rattlesnake that I like to imagine is punishing him for his vanity and Jesus complex.
Laughlin's trippy visions leads him to "The Fourth Way," about which, well, the less said, the better.
Just as Laughlin obviously had enormous respect for Native American customs, he also has incredible reverence for Eastern martial arts. But he expressed that affection in sometimes-problematic ways. Billy Jack and The Trial Of Billy Jack helped popularize Hapkido in the United States, but that also meant making a beefy, stoic white dude from the Midwest the face and particularly the feet of the form.
That said, I would be lying if I was to claim that Billy Jack wasn't at least a little bit awesome. There's a reason the film series took up permanent real estate in the brains of folks like me. Part of it is the hat. Part of it is the name. And part of it is scenes like the following, wherein Billy Jack is outnumbered by a whole squad of evil bystanders, yet slowly, confidently tells the creep in charge, "I'm going to take this right foot, and I'm going to wop you on that side of your face, and you wanna know something? There's not a damn thing you're going to be able to do about it."
You know what? That's exactly what he does, and it's pretty badass.
The Sex And Violence Were Meant To Promote Progressive Ideas
Laughlin and his wife/co-writer/co-star Delores were keen to use the drive-in-friendly medium of the bloody revenge movie to agitate for their progressive beliefs regarding alternative schooling. These ideas manifested themselves in the Freedom School, a totally chill and super alternative bastion of forward-thinking learning, protected by the angry scowl and athletic foot of Billy Jack.
One of the Laughlins' progressive ideas about education involved the role Second City/UCB-style improvisation might play in tuning into the peculiar frequencies of young people and uptight townspeople alike. To that end, there are two separate scenes involving a comedy troupe blowing squares' minds and opening the minds of the young people with some Improv Everywhere shenanigans. These involve a bit of street theater so realistic that it fools a dopey police officer and a skit about, get this, cops smoking marijuana. I know. Get back in line, George Carlin. There's a new king in town.
Yes, the Freedom School is a pretty groovy place before a bunch of squares get all up in its business, but in The Trial Of Billy Jack, the school has ballooned into the alternative school of Laughlin's wildest fantasies. It says a lot about the kind of guy that Laughlin was that I suspect that his wildest fantasies all involved running large, ambitious alternative schools.
The Freedom School is no longer just a school; it's a way of life, man. Inspired by the example of Billy Jack, whose trial made him a "symbol to live by," the embodiment of all that is right and holy and sacred in this corrupt world, they decided to make the Freedom School "bigger and better than ever before." If that sounds like a really nice way to say "You're gonna get these movies' themes and YOU'RE GONNA LIKE THEM," that's because it definitely is.
Freedom School 2.0 is built over an abandoned military academy and owned by the students, who "govern themselves on the simple philosophy that where there is power, there can never be love, and where there is love, there is no need for power." Simple, huh? Why can't the rest of society be governed by that clear, not-at-all-confusing-or-nonsensical dictate? The programs at the school include "belly dancing, music, band, drill team, arts, crafts, advanced physics, mathematics, psychology, the classics, even into athletics, which they called yoga athletics." And that still doesn't include the students' foray into extensive activist journalism, a plot point that was added just in case audiences started enjoying themselves.
So while it might suck to have Billy Jack, the finest human being since Jesus Christ, in prison, maybe it's worth it if it means the creation of the only school in the world offering advanced physics, yoga tennis, meditation, and the opportunity to bring down entire corrupt industries with muckraking Nader-style exposes. We can see why Billy Jack was willing to side-kick the whole world in its face for it.
It's for the kids.
The Trial Of Billy Jack Was A Bizarre Manifesto About Countless Timely Events
Billy Jack overflowed with ambition and self-indulgence, but it was reigned in by budget, runtime, and genre demands. Unhappy with the way Warner Brothers handled the movie's initial release, Laughlin re-released it himself in over a thousand theaters simultaneously and advertised extensively on television. That run's success gave Laughlin complete creative control over his next project: an epic 170 minutes of free-floating craziness.
More importantly, since Billy Jack ended with Billy Jack in custody, the natural path for a sequel would be to follow his trial. A trial for Billy Jack would provide Laughlin with what little excuse he needed to plant Billy Jack down on a chair in a courtroom and have him discourse angrily about the sins of the Nixon administration, the mistreatment of Vietnam veterans, and the folly of war for minutes at a time, all with his trademark look of sour gym teacher disapproval.
With a bigger budget and scope, Laughlin could do things like film flashbacks to Billy Jack's hilariously overwrought time in Vietnam, although that does not explain why these sequences feel like they were shot in the cinematographer's backyard and performed by people who had seemingly never heard of acting before they stumbled there.
The Trial Of Billy Jack boldly announces its pretension with an opening sequence recounting the body count of real-life instances in which our country killed student protestors while an eagle soars and a wise old Native American man chants, ending with the Freedom School: "3 Dead, 39 wounded." That's right, Laughlin paid reverent homage to the student martyrs of Kent State by comparing their real-life deaths to the make-pretend bloodshed that concludes the film. And it somehow only gets crazier and more self-indulgent from there.
In Trial Of Billy Jack, we learn that Billy Jack's disillusionment with the United States really kicked into high gear when he was posted in Vietnam. This approach demands at least some kind of subtlety, but the Billy Jack franchise makes Vietnam seem like it was largely a matter of American soldiers hurling grenades at terrified widows and feasting on Vietnamese baby barbecue. The movies see everything in moral absolutes, with Billy Jack and his rainbow brigade of hippie dreamers and Native Americans as eternally right and the evil white establishment as absolute wrong.
So even though Billy Jack is the one on trial in The Trial Of Billy Jack, the evil that's really on trial is the Washington war machine, a corrupt administration, and a complicit media that covers their crimes. The Trial Of Billy Jack finds Laughlin in a confrontational and angry mood, as always. As prosecutor, jury, judge, and executioner, Billy Jack finds the establishment guilty of pretty much everything and sentences them to all getting karate-chopped.
COURT IS ADJOURNED.
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington Was Remade As A Billy Jack Film
The Trial Of Billy Jack was one of those movies seemingly everyone saw but no one liked. A high level of deeply personal, idiosyncratic craziness is to be expected, even demanded from Billy Jack films, but The Trial Of Billy Jack was too much Billy Jack for even the most hardcore obsessive.
Still, the film was an astonishing commercial success. It kind of originated the conceit of a movie opening so big and with so much attention that it's almost impossible for it to fail. Since Billy Jack spent The Trial Of Billy Jack railing against Washington and all those clowns known as "Congress," the natural next step was for Billy Jack to go to Washington.
Thankfully, a template already existed for a movie in which a hero goes to Washington to combat corruption. It was called Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and despite being the work of a lesser filmmaker like Frank Capra and starring the less charismatic and likable Jimmy Stewart, Laughlin nevertheless dug it so much that he decided that he would straight-up remake it as a Billy Jack movie. Because for some reason he could do that.
Thus was born 1977's Billy Jack Goes To Washington, in which Billy Jack becomes a senator and stands up to nuclear power to fight for a youth camp. Yet despite the popularity and influence of Billy Jack and The Trial Of Billy Jack, this installment never got a real theatrical release.
How did Billy Jack Goes To Washington essentially become one of the most expensive direct-to-home-video films of all time? According to Laughlin, it was political pressure. In 2005, he told Showbiz Tonight:
"At a private screening, Senator Vance Hartke got up, because it was about how the Senate was bought out by the nuclear industry. He got up and charged me. Walter Cronkite's daughter was there, Lucille Ball. And he said, 'You'll never get this released. This house you have, everything will be destroyed.'”
The failure of Billy Jack Goes To Washington sadly precluded subsequent Laughlin vehicles that puckishly placed its hat-wearing, karate-chopping hero inside other classic movies. We were sadistically spared It's A Wonderful Life For Billy Jack (why should Mr Smith Goes To Washington be the only Frank Capra classic improved through the addition of Billy Jack?), When Billy Jack Met Sally, Bob & Carol & Ted & Billy Jack, Billy Jack's Casablanca, and of course, The Billy Jack Horror Picture Show.
After Billy Jack, Laughlin Repeatedly Ran For President
The non-start of Billy Jack Goes To Washington did not deter Tom Laughlin from continuing the Billy Jack legend. In the mid-'80s, he planned for a sequel called The Return Of Billy Jack, which would follow the saintly Native American warrior taking on New York child pornographers. The production was decidedly not successful, as it was held up when Laughlin injured his head when a prop didn't work. He also broke up a New York fight and made a citizen's arrest during the shoot. At that point, he was more likely to bust someone despite not being a cop than he was to actually finish a movie project.
The Laughlins continued to try to bring Billy Jack back to the screen for decades after that. A 2005 New York Times article describes their plans for an aughts-era Billy Jack sequel that "will take on social scourges like drugs, and power players like the religious right. They say they will also outline a way to end the current war and launch a political campaign for a third-party presidential candidate. They have already formed a 527 nonprofit committee with the aim of ending the war, and say they will run full-page ads in major newspapers beginning next month explaining their plan to withdraw from Iraq. (Money raised for that committee is separate from the film project.)"
In a shocking turn of events, this film was not made. And my memory is fuzzy, but I also don't remember Laughlin ending any war ever or being behind a legitimate third-party presidential run. The Laughlins continued to work on their dream of a Billy Jack comeback movie, and their plans for it grew more ambitious with time. In keeping with their fierce antiwar views, the couple toyed with titling this comeback vehicle Billy Jack's Crusade To End the War And Restore America To Its Moral Purpose, and having Billy Jack "debate" George W. Bush through movie magic. Laughlin told a reporter from The St. Petersburg Times that it "will influence the presidential election in 2008."
Not coincidentally, Laughlin himself ran several times for president as a Democrat, Republican, and Independent. Your history books are not lying to you -- he did not win. In fact, he didn't really win anything but the knee-jerk scorn and pity that typically greeted novelty presidential runs in the age before Trump. They seemed so innocent then.
When not being elected president or finishing late-period Billy Jack sequels, Laughlin whiled away the time the way old folks do, writing books about Jungian psychology and cancer and, in a departure, the movie business. Laughlin never seemed to have given up on his ferocious dream of changing and saving the world through Billy Jack, but at a certain point, the public did.
For more, check out 4 Ridiculously Underrated Movies From 2016 and 8 WTF New Movies No One Is Talking About (February 2017).
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