Sunday, July 1, 2012

Billy Jack (1971) & The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) & Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977)

          Actor-turned-auteur Tom Laughlin first portrayed Billy Jack, a karate-chopping recluse who fights for righteous causes, in the 1967 biker movie The Born Losers. Laughlin occupied several behind-the-scenes roles on the picture but used pseudonyms for directing, producing, and writing—one gets the impression he wanted to downplay the idea of his movie as an ego trip. Furthermore, The Born Losers hinted at Laughlin’s agenda of creating a platform for sharing progressive political ideas. Combined with the inherently weird nature of the Billy Jack character, a spiritually enlightened pacifist who solves problems by killing people, The Born Losers revealed that Laughlin was one complicated cat. However, The Born Losers was just the overture.
          After other, non-Billy Jack projects fell through, Laughlin returned to his signature role for the 1971 release Billy Jack. In the series’ defining installment, Billy Jack is the guardian of a hippy-dippy school in rural California, so when local thugs prey upon the school—going so far as to and murder a Native American student and rape saintly teacher Jean (played by Delores Taylor, the real-life Mrs. Laughlin and his constant cinematic collaborator)—Billy Jack springs into action. He carves his way through a goon squad of redneck locals determined to undermine Jean’s flower-power educational aspirations, using the martial art hapkido and the lethal skills he learned while serving as a Green Beret in Vietnam.
          Laughlin stacks the narrative deck, presenting the bad guys as one-note ogres and the good guys as paragons of virtue, with Billy Jack occupying a weird middle ground between the opposite poles. The movie is a disaster politically, arguing that violence is the path to peace, and it’s strange from a storytelling perspective, with meandering sequences that depict touchy-feely rap sessions and other with-it school practices. Yet the cumulative effect of the movie is quite something, one man’s plea for greater compassion in modern society.
          Laughlin also cuts an impressive figure, dressed in head-to-toe denim and sporting one of the coolest hats in ’70s cinema, a flat-brimmed black cowboy job with a multicolored band. Billy Jack became one of the most successful independent movies of the era—although originally delivered to theaters by Warner Bros., the movie was re-released by Laughlin once he regained distribution rights, and the second time around, Billy Jack did bang-up business. Further sequels therefore became inevitable, though Laughlin quickly lost sight of what made Billy Jack popular.
          For instance, the next installment, The Trial of Billy Jack, is a three-hour death march into the surreal wilderness of Laughlin’s imagination. Weakly framed around vignettes of a hospitalized Jean (Taylor) recovering from a mysterious incident at the school, the picture weaves together three primary storylines—Billy Jack’s legal struggles stemming from the events in the last movie; the ongoing culture clash between the locals and Jean’s school, which escalates to even greater levels of violence; and, finally, Billy Jack’s Native American-styled vision quest in the desert.
          Although the movie includes a few exciting fight scenes, Laughlin also makes room for embarrassingly sensitive musical numbers featuring students at Jean’s school, to say nothing of interminably earnest and repetitive speeches. The Trial of Billy Jack is Billy Jack on steroids, but not necessarily in a good way—it’s among the most excessive and indulgent movies of the ’70s, a period not known for cinematic restraint. By the time the threequel climaxes in a ridiculous bloodbath meant to evoke the historical atrocities of My Lai and Sand Creek, it’s clear The Trial of Billy Jack has left the normal realm of human consciousness. Depending on what you bring to the movie, you’ll either find this singular experience a heavy trip or a major bummer.
          Unfortunately, no such ambiguity is needed when appraising the final opus in the series, Billy Jack Goes to Washington, which is wretched. As the title implies, the movie is a direct remake of the Jimmy Stewart classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). And, yeah, that means we get to see Billy Jack in a suit, filibustering Congress, which is exactly as awkward and uninteresting as it sounds. Beyond being insipid, Billy Jack Goes to Washington is the only movie in the series badly marred by technical shortcomings—whereas the other pictures have a certain kind of swaggering style, Billy Jack Goes to Washington suffers from dodgy sound work, with many scenes featuring distractingly overdubbed dialogue. Unless you’re determined to see every frame of this series, the final film is to be avoided at all costs.
          Given the diminishing returns of the series, it’s unsurprising Laughlin never completed his proposed fifth entry, The Return of Billy Jack, production on which began and ended quickly in 1985. But, to his credit, he’s still regularly issuing messages on his website, circa 2012, claiming that a brand-new Billy Jack picture is in the works. You’ve been warned.

Billy Jack: GROOVY
The Trial of Billy Jack: FREAKY
Billy Jack Goes to Washington: SQUARE

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