National Student Film Corporation/Warner Bros.
Directed by T.C. Frank
Produced by Mary Rose Solti
Written by Frank Christina and Theresa Christina
Don’t get me wrong…I do understand why modern day movie fans who weren’t even a glimmer in the eyes of their parents back in 1971 have a hard time understanding why this movie was such a massive hit back then. I do understand why they call the movie “corny” and “cheesy” (and that is the absolute first and last time you’ll see that hated word used here). They don’t understand because they weren’t there
BILLY JACK was made during a time of extreme turbulence in American culture. We were in the middle of the civil rights movement, Native American rights movement, protests against the Vietnam War. The youth of our country embraced the counter-culture (“Hippie”) anti-government/anti-authority philosophy of the movie’s main characters. In addition, the movie has a strong theme of pacifism (embodied in the character of Jean Roberts) vs. the use of violence to defend one’s self and one’s beliefs (as embodied in the character of Billy Jack) The bottom line is that if you weren’t there, I can understand why BILLY JACK wouldn’t resonate with you. But it’s a movie I highly recommend that you see. If you’ve been reading my reviews then you know that I always recommend movies made in earlier times as time capsules of what was going on in America at the time they were made. And BILLY JACK does indeed have a lot to say about what was going on in 1970s America.
Billy Jack (Tom Laughin) is the self-appointed protector of The Freedom School and the Navajo land it is built on. Billy Jack is more than qualified for the job, being a decorated Green Beret veteran of the Vietnam War and a master of the martial art of hapkido. Billy Jack protects the wild mustangs of the land against local rich fat cat Stuart Posner (Bert Freed) who hunts them and sells the meat to dog food companies and The Freedom School against the nearby townspeople who just don’t like them damn dirty hippies.
A young runaway girl named Barbara (Julie Webb) returns home, pregnant and mean as barbed wire. Her father (Kenneth Tobey) beats her nearly to death after she taunts him that she has no idea if the father is black, white or Indian. Sheriff Cole (Clark Howat) pleads with Billy Jack to take the girl to The Freedom School, a progressively innovative school that doesn’t follow traditional methods of teaching. The school is run by Jean Roberts (Delores Taylor) who is a dedicated pacifist and is always trying to get Billy Jack to use non-violent methods to resolve his disputes with Posner. Billy Jack takes Barbara to the school and while Jean civilizes her, Billy Jack’s war against Posner and his son, Bernard (David Roya) escalates. It doesn’t help that the elder Posner uses Barbara being at The Freedom School for his advantage.
Now, so far I’ve been going on about BILLY JACK’s cultural value. But it’s also a pretty damn good entertaining movie. The scene where Billy Jack beats up Bernard Posner and his boy in an ice cream parlor is a classic. And rightfully so because Tom Laughlin takes about three minutes to do a slow burn that is unmatched in film history. And there’s a scene after that where Billy Jack has to take on about a dozen opponents that is quite realistic. His enemies rush at him in a mob instead of attacking one at a time and so Billy Jack has to keep moving. He’s not a one-man army and is eventually overwhelmed. Billy Jack doesn’t beat every ass in sight and to me, this contributed to the character. And there are several discussions between Billy Jack and Jean where they argue about pacifism vs. violence that made me think and if you see this movie I highly suspect they’ll make you think as well.
And speaking of the character of Billy Jack, I read every once in a while about this movie being remade and it simply can’t. Tom Laughlin was Billy Jack and that is apparent in every minute he’s on camera. He and his wife Delores Taylor made the Billy Jack movies not for money but for spiritual and political beliefs that they felt very deeply and those beliefs come across in their performances. These were movies made at a specific time in American history and unless a remake is going to deal with current issues as fearlessly as BILLY JACK did about the issues back then, there’s no point in remaking it. We’d just end up with a generic action movie and don’t we have enough of those already?
So should you see BILLY JACK? Absolutely. While the politics and philosophies espoused in the movie may seem to be questionable now, mind you that they were indeed politics and philosophies that were important and discussed in that day. The performances of Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor are honest to their characters and that’s all I can ask for. BILLY JACK is a movie that knows exactly what it wants to be and does it in exactly the best way it can and that’s good enough for me.