Another feature of...
Billy Jack Goes to Washington -
Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension
Editorial Note: Usually I am loath to review a film that’s been substantially cut. After all, it’s not fair to judge a film or criticize plot holes when they may have been artificially created or exacerbated through editing. I make fun of movies, but I try to be fair to them, too. For instance, I gave up my all but complete review of The Klansman several years ago when, after buying three different versions of the film in varying lengths, I despaired of finding an authoritative cut. (I must admit, though, that there is a standard length cut out there now, and I’ve considered resurrecting the piece.)
As I’ll note below,
Billy Jack Goes to Washington was original 155 minutes. The version now
available, most recently via The Ultimate Billy Jack DVD Collection, is
roughly 115 minutes. Why then do I think it fair to review that shortened
version of the film?
Moreover, as owner of the Billy Jack films, Mr. Laughlin himself is the one selling the shortened cut of the film, which he maintains was butchered by Warner Brothers, with the removed footage apparently lost. If Mr. Laughlin can live with making money off the shortened version, I can live with reviewing it. Moreover, if the longer cut ever rears its head, I’ll be glad—well, not glad—to revise the following review in any appropriate manner.
Finally, there’s the fact that I bought the four Billy Jack films directly from his website back in the day when they were only available on VHS tapes, at something like $35 a shot. That’s right, I paid something like $150 (don’t forget shipping and tax) for four pan ‘n’ scanned video tapes.
A few years later, Mr. Laughlin offered the films in a DVD box set, still in the pan ‘n’ scanned version. For about $40, I went ahead and purchased the four films a second time, eventually giving away my now all but worthless overpriced video tapes with much bad will.
Just recently, Mr. Laughlin made available the Ultimate Billy Jack Collection, finally offering the films in their correct aspect ratio. If I weren’t well aware that Mr. Laughlin hates money-grubbing capitalists, I’d call him a money-grubbing capitalist. In any case, I’m not throwing any further good money after bad. The pan ‘n’ scan versions will suffice, thank you very much. Nearly two hundred bucks and many horrible, painful hours of my life are all you’ll be getting from me, sir.
Tagline: The Most Languorous Billy Jack of All!
We open with several panoramic shots of Washington D.C. landmarks, including the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Per Laughlin’s custom, these first images are accompanied by narration, in this case of the Omniscient variety rather than that of one of the characters. These remarks provide an immediate clue as to where Laughlin intended to take the Billy Jack series:
“The picture you are about to see is dedicated as a loving tribute to that special breed of human being who, from the beginning, has been the backbone and wonder of that spirit that was to become the American dream. [Zoom shot of the Jefferson statue from the memorial.] The individual who would stand up and fight for what he believes is right, no matter how overwhelming the odds.”
With that manifestly patriotic assurance out of the way, we move on to further…panoramic shots of Washington D.C. landmarks. Anyone familiar with Mr. Laughlin’s oeuvre will recognize that he was, perhaps, overly enamored of sweeping helicopter shots. In his previous films, these generally portrayed the majestic beauty of the western landscapes Laughlin so obviously loves. So to that extent, the shots here are interesting, as they perhaps indicate a love also of what we might call Traditional America. (If that is the intent, then it’s an extremely problematic one, given the themes of Mr. Laughlin’s previous work.)
Or perhaps this reflects the fact that Mr. Laughlin tended, as a director, to rely too heavily on a limited array of tools. Certainly his reliance on helicopter shots can be read as another indication of his tendency to strain for the grandiose. One really wonders what his film career would have been like had he not achieved the almost immediate and gigantic box office success of Billy Jack and The Trial of Billy Jack. Mr. Laughlin might have been better served had he been denied the freedom to make his films entirely the way he wanted, which tended to be big in about every manner imaginable. I think sparseness may have suited him better, as there is something to be said for placing limits on artists. Many, perhaps most, seem to do their best work when there are constraints of some sort placed on them.
In any case, lest we have somehow failed to recognize the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Memorial, the Reflecting Pool, etc., the Narrator helpfully fills us in: “The story takes place in our nation’s capitol,” he explains (ah, gotcha), “when certain isolated groups of people were beginning to ask for a freeze on the building of nuclear power plants and the stockpiling of nuclear weapons.”
Of course, nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons are two rather entirely different issues. (Issues that are also rather more complicated than I imagine the film will make them out to be.) However, both have the word ‘nuclear’ in them, so I guess they are both bad. Too bad Billy Jack couldn’t have teamed up with Superman when he was attempting to rid the world of nuclear arms. Then you might have really had something.
The helicopter shot now pans from the Washington Memorial to the White House. “About six months before our story begins, Congress had appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Senator Sam Foley, to investigate the allegations of these groups, that through [*gasp*] campaign contributions and lucrative construction contracts, the nuclear industry had virtually gained control over the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the governmental agencies that were supposed to police it.”
In retrospect, these
fears are more than a bit risible. Due to, among other factors, [*gasp*]
“campaign contributions,” over the last several decades politically
connected environmental groups have managed to virtually gain control over
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and entirely block the building of new
nuclear power plants.
(I don’t usually have much good to say about the French. However, they’ve been using nuclear plants to generate the majority of their electricity for decades now, and without any dire environmental consequences. If they can do it, I don’t see why we can’t.)
“As our picture opens, Sen. Foley, after months of closed sessions [??], without warning abruptly cancels the hearing, and in an unusual move, mysteriously [emphasis in the original] seals all the information uncovered during the investigation, as classified top secret, and then quietly gives the green light for the continued development of nuclear plants and nuclear weapons.”
Wow, where to start. First of all, and pardon my cynicism, but even good Senators and Congressmen (by which I mean, of course, the sort who would be opposed to nuclear power plants / weapons, etc.) are basically camera hogs, and I find it laughable that they’d assemble a committee to go after a juicy target like the Nuclear Industry and then conduct closed sessions. Fat chance, man. They’d want as many cameras in there as they could manage.
Second, and again sorry to be so pedantic, but even assuming a Senator could “give the green light” for the continued development of nuclear power plants, again, nuclear weapons are an entirely different issue. One is a matter of national infrastructure, the other of national defense. Indeed, the mind boggles at the idea of hearings being held on both topics simultaneously, so little do they really have in common.
Third, I find the idea that after months of high profile / secretive closed sessions, all the evidence collected could suddenly be declared “top secret” without a firestorm of media attention.
Instead, we cut to Sen. Foley talking to a small, apparently impromptu grouping of reporters in the Congressional Chamber. Foley, by the way, is an old-school, silvered haired old fart in a polka-dot bow tie, while his aggressive chief interrogator is a young, bearded Woodward & Bernstein type. Just so we know whose side we’re supposed to be on. With It Reporter suggests that it wasn’t Foley who wanted the hearings shut down, and asks the Senator who “ordered” it done. (Three guesses.)
In reply, Foley attempts to soft soap his interrogators, who, as in The Trial of Billy Jack, speak with a collective voice that sounds strangely like Laughlin’s own. (To be fair, that remains largely the case with the press even today.) “With so many accidents,” one woman newshawk picks up, “and so many deaths that have been reported [“That’s true,” another reporter interjects, lest we doubt the assertion]…”
Huh? Deaths? Related to nuclear power plants? That’s a new one on me. On the other hand, I didn’t know that police officers routinely fired thousands of bullets into student dormitories until I saw The Trial of Billy Jack. So you can’t say these films aren’t informative.
Joking aside, whatever stand you take on nuclear power—and there’s certainly room for debate—the nuclear industry in this country has quite possibly the best safety record of any major industry. No fatalities from plant-generated radiation have ever occurred here. Even Chernobyl’s death toll, from a literally catastrophic incident occurring in a facility significantly more primitive than any American plant, numbers well under a hundred people. So while there are legitimate arguments to be made against nuclear power, asserting that the industry was responsible for “many deaths” is, well, just lying. That this case is unavoidably weak is further indicated by the fact that the Laughlins do not attempt to bury us with a slew of deceptively employed facts, as they did in their previous film.
In any case, under this barrage of questions, and more pertinently the strain of having had to bow under to The Evil Nuclear Power Plant / Weapons Industry, Foley walks about two steps and clutches his chest and collapses to the floor. Well, there’s one death that can be chalked up to them, at least.
Here the film’s MacGuffin is introduced. Foley is removed from the Capitol building on a gurney, while his personal assistant Saunders looks on. A guy attempts to hand her Foley’s briefcase, but she is in shock. Dan McArthur, standing next to her, ends up with it when she turns and flees.
He accidentally drops the case to the ground in the turmoil, and amongst the scattered contents is a red-edged file folder marked CLASSIFIED TOP SECRET with “Eyes Only!” emblazoned on it in red marker. The folder gets a big close-up, just so that we ‘get’ it. We are, however, spared the sound of trumpeting horns and a ring of flashing cartoon arrows circling around it. Looking around, McArthur shoves the folder in his jacket and takes off.
Here the credits begin to the accompaniment of Important, Patriotic Sounding Music, complete with a fife and drum beat, and we note a couple of things. First, that we spend three solid minutes of screentime following Foley’s ambulance as it drives to the hospital. This indicates that despite the excised 40 minutes, the two hours remaining will not present a particularly lean narrative.
The second thing we surmise is that, even more than is usually the case, the line between Tom Laughlin and his screen persona Billy Jack is blurry. This film follows Billy Jack as he valiantly tries to join the political Establishment, so as to further the good he can accomplish. Meanwhile, the credits indicate that this film was similarly Laughlin’s bid to make an establishment movie. (It should be noted, moreover, that both Laughlin and Billy Jack failed miserably in achieving their goals.)
Unlike his two previous, largely plotless films, Billy Jack Goes to Washington is not only officially the remake of a venerable Hollywood classic, but features as well a roster of well known veteran actors, including E.G. Marshall, Sam Wanamaker, Dick Gautier (Hymie the Robot from Get Smart!) and Pat O’Brien. Oh, and “Introducing Lucie Arnaz as Saunders”. As well, the one major ‘name’ from his previous film, composer Elmer Bernstein, is back. Since Mr. Bernstein scored Robot Monster, it’s quite possible that he doesn’t consider the Billy Jack pictures the worst movies he ever worked on.
Eventually, all good
things must come to an end. And all boring things, as well, and so the
ambulance finally does arrive at the hospital, at which point we…cut away.
Goodbye, Sen. Foley. We’ll always remember you. Meanwhile, we meet Foley’s
(comparatively) junior Senator, Payne (Marshall). He’s in the waiting room,
and placing a call to their unnamed state’s governor, Hubert Hopper
Hopper is woken by the call, which I can’t quite figure out. Let’s say there’s a three hour difference between Washington and Hopper’s state. It was clearly day time when the ambulance made its epic trek, so…anyway. Maybe Hopper and his wife just like an afternoon siesta. Actually, I guess this is probably meant to be some hours later, since Payne is reporting Foley’s death, but the editing doesn’t come across that way. Besides, wouldn’t Hopper have heard about Foley’s heart attack by then, if that’s the case?
We cut to the next day (I guess), to find Saunders at a country club tennis court. I’m glad she’s bearing up so well. Anyway, she’s being questioned by a Justice Department official as to whether she has Foley’s missing “nuclear file.” I kind of liked that idea, of a giant, roaring file folder shooting ocular ray beams and smashing its way down the streets of Washington. Unfortunately, though, we don’t get anything like that. Meanwhile, McArthur, who I guess Saunders is dating, looks on and smirks. He hasn’t yet clued in Saunders about the file.
The official leaves, and Saunders rejoins her beau. Here, reveling in his power, McArthur spills the beans. (The sound levels are off here, by the way, indicating badly mixed dubbing.) “That, honey, is our ticket up!” he avers. She about to protest—presumably because Murky Forces would Kill to Get This Info—but is diverted when friends approach their table.
Back at Home State
Central, Payne and Hopper are meeting with Bailey* (Sam Wanamaker), who is
apparently the Representative of the Evil Nuclear Power Plant / Weapons
Industry, or a Bigwig Party Hack, or something. In any case, he’s Eeee-vil,
and I guess that’s all we need to know.
The original film’s main character, meanwhile, was Jefferson Smith, as famously played by a young Jimmy Stewart. So here’s my question: why has the villain’s name been changed to that of Jimmy Stewart’s most famous and beloved character? Is that meant to be an ‘homage’ of some sort; a tribute to the actor who played Billy’s role in the original movie? If so, it’s a pretty bizarre one, since the character so monikered is the evilest bastard in the picture. Seriously, what the hell?
(Meanwhile, trivia fans might be interested to know that the actress who played the original Saunders, Jean Arthur, was top billed over Stewart, who actually came into his own as a major star with the success of this movie.
In fact, after losing
that year’s Best Actor Oscar to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips—who
also beat out Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind (!)--Stewart won the
award the next year for his role in Philadelphia Story. He’s really
more of a supporting character in that film, however, and it’s widely
assumed that Stewart won Best Actor that time around as a ‘make-up’ for
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. 1939 was the classic year for
Hollywood, and a full ten films were nominated for Best Picture. Gone
with the Wind took the trophy, beating Mr. Smith, The Wizard
of Oz, Stagecoach and several other classics.)]
Payne is a little concerned about the timing of Foley’s death, lest it draw attention to the obscure section of the bill (“where no one will notice it”) that will covertly gain permission for the erection of the sinister Wood Creek Nuclear Plant. Their one concern is if the man they appoint to fill out Foley’s term should “begin to ask questions.” Since postponing the plant construction is impossible—or so they assure us—their only option is to “appoint somebody we can trust.”
Now, here’s where you’ve probably spit out a mouthful of soda, assuming you’ve been drinking some. Because you’re no doubt thinking, “Wait a minute! Don’t tell me they’re going to appoint Billy Jack, radical anti-everything activist (not to mention convicted murderer), to the job! That would be retarded!” And…you’d be right.
Hopper, however, is leery of Payne’s bizarre idea. “Someone we can trust?” he frets. “Who’d you think we would appoint?” Bailey sneers. “The ‘Chairperson’ of the Feminist League?!” (Payne laughs at this jape, proving himself another corrupt white man. Aside from the fact that he’s, you know, a white man.) Hopper’s fears, however, are directed towards “those people out there”, a.k.a. The Voters, who apparently will rain their electoral wrath down upon his head should he appoint a political hack.
Payne and Bailey dismiss his fears and turn to walk away, but turn back in shock when Hopper declares that he won’t appoint their man. “I’ve got to make Them feel like they have a voice!” he moans. Bailey ignores Hopper’s mild rebellion, contemptuously spits out the name of their man again, and they leave.
However, we then cut to Payne and Bailey, along with the latter’s lackey, McGhan, once more visiting Hopper. (This segue back to Hopper seems a bit abrupt, so this might be a place where a scene or two was clipped). Bailey is raging over the news that Hopper has offered the job to Billy Jack. “A half-breed Indian nut?!” Bailey fumes. Ah, of course, even for Evil Capitalists, race is the primary concern. Oh, woe this benighted world! Oh, woe, I tells ya!
One obvious point is that as a felon, Billy Jack isn’t eligible. (Yes, usually you become a Senator first, then a felon, not the other way around.) However, Hopper has solved that little technicality by issuing a full pardon for all of Billy’s crimes—which, if I remember correctly, include killing a cop. “Governor,” McGhan replies, “that’s the most stupid political stunt anyone’s ever tried to pull on Bailey.” Well, yeah, you’d really have to hope so. I mean, short of, I don’t know, personal officiating over the gay marriage of Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster, I’m not sure what would top it.
Bailey stalks off, but Hopper runs after, hoping to explain his, er, thinking. This scene seems motivated mostly by the fact that Laughlin secured some impressive estate grounds to shoot on, and he wanted to show them off. Thus a reverse angle frames Bailey and Hopper on opposite sides of a lush garden planter, with an impressive fountain in the background. Indeed, the only thing that surprised me was that we don’t get a helicopter shot of the arrangement.
Hopper catches up with Bailey and gives his spiel. He notes that the appointment will only last two months. Moreover, he argues, even if Billy Jack accepts the position, he will certainly “never run for reelection. And he’d never make it if he did run. The man is so disinterested in everything political, he probably wouldn’t even show up in the Senate. And by appointing him, overnight our party gets a whole new image. You know, we get the human-righters, we get the environmentalists, the Indians, the blacks, the Chicano, all those who feel left out. We get the youth vote. Now all that rubs off on us for the next election, and then in two months he’s replaced. Now you tell me, what the hell’s wrong with that?”
Well, OK, since you asked….
First, if the election’s in two months, then presumably we’re talking the normal November election, while the Senate swearing in would occur in early January, so Billy would be a Senator for about three months, not two. (I guess this could be a special election because of Foley’s death, but I really don’t think that’s generally how these things are handled. Usually the appointee serves out the full remaining term until the following election.) Not hugely off, but you’d think actually politicians would be a little more precise.
Second, assuming Billy accepts the appointment, why wouldn’t he run for reelection? Billy’s not the kind of guy to do something just to put it on his resume. And if he turns down the position, wouldn’t that risk embarrassing the administration with the exact groups Hopper wishes to impress?
Third, if you’re salivating over all these voting blocks that Billy’s mere two month presence would supposedly attract, then why wouldn’t he get reelected? The argument seems to be, “He’d be a tremendous electoral draw for the party, but one who couldn’t possibly himself be elected to office?” Huh?
Fourth, maybe you’d be (supposedly) bringing in all these other groups, but wouldn’t Billy also alienate a lot of voters? You’d think. Given the whole, you know, murder thing and all. Oh, and the fact that nearly every white person in Amerikkka over the age of twenty-three, as established in the previous films, is a gigantic racist?
Fifth, if the whole point of this is to avoid drawing attention to this secret bill rider, wouldn’t appointing an infamous radical like Billy Jack be…counter intuitive?
Your biggest mistake, though? Thinking you can control Billy Jack! Watch out, sucka, the shoes are coming off!
Needless to say, though, for the movie to continue, Hopper’s arguments must carry the day. “It makes a lot of sense,” McGhan argues. (Really? Does it?) “It’s very clever,” he continues. (Really? Is it?) Hilariously, Payne not only agrees, but chimes in, “That’s real middle-of-the-road America stuff!” Are you getting this? Billy Jack is now a ‘real middle-of-the-road’ sort of figure. Billy Jack!! Middle of the road!!! Wow, I think my brain just blew a circuit.
Bailey continues to worry, but finally OKs the plan. “But don’t let him open an eye, an ear…or more importantly, his mouth!” he growls. Boy, a plan this flawless can’t possibly fail.
Cut to Billy, walking across a scenic butte—and yes, we get a very long, sweeping, panoramic helicopter shot before the scene is over—while conferring with Grandfather, the Wise Old Indian seen in the previous film. Here we have to get over another hurdle, which is the idea that Billy, the Billy who thinks the government is constantly plotting to assassinate him at the first opportunity (despite the fact that they had have myriad opportunities to do so and never taken advantage of them), who sees a conspiracy around every corner and who thinks that repossessing furniture stores wares that haven’t been paid for is a Call for Revolution, would deign to actually become part of the Very Heart of Darkness.
Basically, we get a few seconds of Billy pondering the idea, after which he’s wisely advised by Grandfather to pray to The Canyon Lady (a spirit seen in The Trial of Billy Jack) for guidance. Grandfather further muses that this might be another test for Billy to overcome on his path towards spiritual enlightenment, as documented in the previous film when he talked to a cartoon flame and punched out Jesus. “Politics is its own form of violence,” Grandfather sagely notes. Furthermore, he opines, “If you want to become a whole person, you must first try to make society better, before you have the right to turn your back on it.” Uhm, OK. If you say so.
Finally, Grandfather explains, “Do the best you can. Then your work will be your prayer, and the results need not concern you.” I’m sure that today’s older Billy is proud to know that this sort of thinking—that if you take the Correct Position, it doesn’t matter one whit whether you actually make things better or worse—is still around today, and in fact remains the central tenet of the sort of political ‘progressive’ that he pandered to back in the day.
Back in Washington, McArthur is waiting on the steps of some marble landmark or other. He’s soon approached by bicyclist Gary, who is wearing, it must be said, a not entirely flattering pair of red bike shorts. He asks McArthur about The MacGuffin File, and McArthur admits to possessing it. They have the sort of conversation meant to blow our minds about the cynical sorts of people who jockey for power in our nation’s capitol.
McArthur seeks to leverage himself a “White House-level appointment, with a salary of, say, 48,000.” (Which I supposed was a fair amount of money back then.) “You play dangerous games, Dan,” Gary warns. Yes. And boring ones. In any case, he sends Gary off with his demands, which if they are not met will result in the File being leaked to the press. “Or maybe I’ll give it to some crusading young Senator who needs the publicity,” he smirks. Hmm, who could he be speaking abou…hey! Billy Jack is now a Crusading Young Senator!!
We cut to a formal dinner where Hopper is standing at a dais and lauding Billy. “We have gathered here tonight,” he explains, “to acclaim and to bid Godspeed to the newest, and maybe in time, the best senator our state has ever seen…Billy Jack.” Meanwhile, I about split a gut when I saw that Bailey was sitting at the dais too. What’s his position, anyway? If he’s meant to be some Shadowy Figure Behind the Throne, he sure is a public one.
Billy, looking a bit verklempt (and, now that we get a good look at him, considerably chunkier than in his earlier movies), stands to make a few remarks. I have to admit, seeing Our Hero in a monkey suit is sort of amusing.
Sitting by his side, meanwhile, is a typically glowering Jean, Billy’s Significant Other. (Played, as always, by Laughlin’s wife Delores Taylor.) Of course, considering that in the previous two movies she’s been raped, beaten, shot and watched as her charges at the Freedom School were mowed down by National Guard troops like so much wheat, I guess I can’t really fault her grumpy disposition. Frankly, given her history, the odds are about even that she’ll end up being tossed into an acid bath before this movie is over.
Here they try to paper over the single biggest plot hole in the movie. I can, just possibly, see Billy taking the senatorial position, if only to shake up The Man. However, the biggest problem with plugging our shoe-doffing hero into a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is that Billy is no Jefferson Smith. Appearing in a film shot back in the ‘30s, a rather less cynical time, and played by a callow Jimmy Stewart, one could buy Smith as an idealistic small town naïf who idolizes his state’s legendary senior senator, and who is subsequently shocked to learn that the latter is a crook.
But Billy Jack? Naïve about our government and those who run it?! That’s a bit hard to swallow, to say the least.
However, since the plot requires Billy, like Jefferson Smith before him, to revere Senator Payne, we now are told that Payne back in the day worked with Billy’s uncle, journalist William Trotter (“the name they put on him in the Christian school,” Billy explains), a.k.a. Land of the Bear, on restoring some land to the Indians. Payne, not being aware of Billy’s connection to his old comrade, looks shocked to learn of this. “My uncle told me that Joseph Payne was the finest man that he had ever known,” Billy concludes.
I have to admit, that’s about as slick a rationale for Billy to blindly accept Payne as you could probably come up with. (Although handily this mirrors how the original film’s Payne was a friend of Smith’s father.) However, we’re still talking Billy Jack here. Aside from maybe John Galt, it’s hard to come up with a character less likely to try to join the establishment.
We cut to a private train, which is carrying Payne, Billy, Jean and several Freedom School students, including Carol (as played by the Laughlins’ daughter Teresa, another character who survived taking multiple rifle bullets in the previous film) to Washington. It actually took me a couple of seconds to orient myself, because I was distracted by the hilariously bad process work used to represent the scenery flashing by the train car’s windows.
The plot will require
Billy to remind Payne of What He Used to Stand For (oops, sorry), and so
Payne starts reminiscing about the Good Bad Old Days. In this scene we get
a sense that Payne and Man of the Bear used to fashion themselves as
fighters for Lost Causes:
“Man of the Bear, and champion of Lost Causes.”
In the end, though, Man of the Bear was assassinated by the Evil Capitalistic Forces—pardon the redundancy—he sought to balk. He was found dead at his desk, shot in the back. “Still with his [trademark] hat on,” Payne sighs. (Reporters always had to wear hats, of course, because that’s where they stuck those big cards that said “PRESS” on them.) That was Man of the Bears reward for standing against Powerful Interests with nothing but guts, integrity and his “four page newspaper.” Given this, you can see why the Powers that Be so feared the Freedom School TV station in the prior movie.
By the way, we now notice one problem with Laughlin’s decision to hire actual, you know, professional actors for this film. Laughlin, as those who follow his work know, tended to hire family members, friends and other locals to appear in his films, and thus his movies are seldom marked by great performances.
Here, however, E. G. Marshall, an old pro, takes a monologue that could be just a maudlin assembly of clichés—well, OK, it is just a maudlin assembly of clichés—and actually makes it affecting. However, this just serves to highlight the fact that all three of the Laughlins sharing the scene with him are hopelessly out of their class. Laughlin’s inert presence seems more like anti-acting than ever before, Delores’ dour puss is even more one-note, and young Teresa frankly just can’t act. (And Heaven knows, as proved in the prior movie, she can’t sing.) In their appearances in the series, none of them were prone to attempt overacting, and thus generally at least they didn’t call attention to their paucity of talent. However, acting opposite Marshall isn’t doing any of them any favors.
Back in Washington, Saunders comes to Payne’s office. She is tendering her resignation, feeling that her talents are not being exploited in her current position. Meanwhile, Payne’s secretary comes in to announce “five minutes, Senator. You’ve got to get to the floor!” Payne acknowledges this, and demands that she “get that foreign relations material ready.” Wow! “The floor”! “Foreign relations materials”! Such verisimilitude!! Take that, West Wing!
The secretary leaves, and Payne leans on Saunders not only to stay, but to see that Billy Jack is kept occupied with safely inconsequential matters. In other words, she’s the Jean Arthur analogue from the first movie, the cynical pro turned mushy by her charge’s unexpected honestly and forthrightness.
Saunders resents the assignment. “Sir,” she huffs, “when I first got to this city, my eyes were big green question marks. Now they’re big green dollar marks.” Pretending that he knows what the hell she’s talking about, he agrees to see that she’s properly recompensed should she successfully keep Billy away from “anything that smells of politics.” Well, that shouldn’t be any problem. The permanent Washington bureaucracy has been keeping Senators and other elected officials from involving themselves in political matters for centuries now.
We cut to Billy, wearing a conservative suit and walking for the first time through the halls of the Capitol Building. (Is this when Laughlin’s fantasies about being elected President—a position he’s run for on several occasions—first roused themselves?) He’s stopped by a reporter who asks if he’ll be voting for the “Energy Bill.” (Bum bum bum) Needless to say, he’ll be voting against it, because energy is icky and provided by Big Evil Corporations.
Pardon the redundancy.
To Billy’s shock, however, he enters the House Chamber to find Payne giving a speech in favor of the Energy Bill. Needless to say, this can’t just be a disagreement over an issue, but is rather his first clue that Payne has become a Pawn of Evil Forces.
On the other hand, I have to give the movie this; Payne is seen bloviating to a largely empty chamber, whose other occupants are entirely ignoring him. These speeches are called “special orders” and given on the floor only so as to get them officially printed up in the Congressional Record. This sort of thing has become well known—well, at least amongst political junkies—since C-Span started showing them, but was pretty much under the radar when this movie was made.
In fact, if I remember correctly, the Senate eventually changed the rules so that C-Span couldn’t show the whole chamber during these speeches, since the congressmen quickly understood that the sight of them orating pompously before an empty room made them look like jackasses. They still want C-Span’s audience to see them making the speeches, though, so now the cameras—which are owned and placed by Congress, not C-Span—stay tightly focused on the speech giver.
Anyway, Payne finishes orating and Billy ambles over to see what’s up, since his impression was that Payne was also voting against the bill. Payne agrees that this is the case. He laughs and explains to the confused Billy The Way Things Are Done: “You see, half the people back home wanted a speech urging passage of the bill, the other half wanted us to vote no. This way, everybody’s happy.”
Needless to say, as an Agent of Truth, Billy can’t quite wrap his head around such dishonesty. He reacts with visible dismay (not very visible, of course; we’re talking Tom Laughlin here) to words like “sugarcoat.” Even worse, rather than Forthrightly and Boldly Carrying the Flag Against the Forces of Evil, Payne intends to see that the bill is buried in committee, so that it never comes to a vote at all. “You’ll get used to it,” he chuckles.
Uh, uh, Mr. Man. Billy Jack don’t play that.
We cut to Billy and Jean meeting with Payne in his hilariously plush D.C. residence. Billy, shocked, shocked, I tells you, but the perfidy of politicians—apparently he never had any idea that they engaged in, well…shenanigans—has decided that he might have made a mistake in accepting the appointment. Of course, this is the moment, another of them anyway, when the obviously ludicrous idea of giving Billy Jack a Senatorial seat could be corrected. Agree with Billy, and send him, Jean and his Hat home on the next train, and then see the Evil Nuclear Power Plant safely to fruition.
However, and again pretty much solely because the script requires it, Payne doesn’t grab this freely offered brass ring, but instead talks Billy into staying. The wedge he uses is Billy’s hope of creating a National Children’s Camp.* He proposes that Billy and Jean draft a bill for the idea and present it to Congress. The idea fires Billy up, since it would allow him to accomplish One Great Thing before he goes all Cincinnatus. Of course, Payne’s real intention is to keep the two safely busy and out of his hair.
[*Egad, is any ‘progressive’ trait more ghastly than their wont to make everything ‘nationalized,’ i.e., overarching and uniform? (Well, OK, there’s their tendency to slaughter millions whenever they actually manage to seize power. But aside from that?) No one must escape the scope of their intentions!
Look at how they continue to hound smokers, for example. First they make it illegal to smoke inside public buildings, and then when smokers go outside, they do their best to make it illegal to smoke out there. Get with the program, they don’t want you smoking at all, get it?! Stop making choices they don’t agree with! And that includes driving SUVs! The whole point was to get rid of cars by making them less attractive, smaller and more dangerous and more uncomfortable! Having people instead opt to drive even bigger vehicles ruins the whole thing!
And finally, yes, I know that a national kid’s camp—well, ‘boy’s’ camp—was what Jefferson Smith wanted to do in the original movie. However, that was in 1939, not long after the Depression, and before grim decades’ worth of bloody lessons about the failure of expensive government programs to solve social problems. Forty years later, it’s harder to grant Billy’s good intentions while overlooking what an obvious boondoggle his “national children’s camp” would inevitably be. Ironically, voting for the supposedly villainous nuclear power plant would have served the country far better than creating yet another government entitlement program.]
At what I believe is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—hey, there’s so much great stuff to shoot in Washington!—we see McArthur and Gary standing on opposite sides of the street. After a bit of sightseeing padding, the two end up conveniently alone on a tram.
Gary confirms that McArthur will have his choice of position, either with the White House or the State Department. (I suspect that we’re supposed to be aghast at these gross negotiations going on against the passing background of thousands of soldiers’ gravestones at Arlington. And it works, but damn, it’s a bit on the nose, and I’m not sure that Laughlin’s use of the graves is any less cynical.)
When Gary asks how he’ll know that McArthur hasn’t kept a copy of the file, the latter reacts with umbrage. “You have my word!” he responds. I think this is meant to be ironic or comical or ironically comical, given the circumstances.
Perhaps, but amongst a society of crooks, honestly among thieves is actually pretty essential. In the real world McArthur would get what he wants—which after all is just a patronage position, when you get down to it—and he in turn would give the other guys what they want. That way everybody wins and all the wheels are greased and everything continues on smoothly. Only in the movies would Gary twirl his mustache after getting the File, laugh manically and pull a lever dropping McArthur into a piranha tank. Which might be a little melodramatic, but is probably more or less what will happen here.
Cut to McArthur on the phone with his girlfriend Saunders. We get the impression that he’s going to dump her when it’s convenient, because he’s a Weasel and all. However, when they hang up, the line button remains lit for a few seconds. Obviously his phone is tapped. (You’d think the Evil Guys wouldn’t be so inept at such tasks, but there you go.)
We next go to Billy’s office, where Saunders is meeting with him, Jean and a whole passel of the Groovy Gang. This is the scene—remember, the film is meant to be educational, which would be laudatory is it were done better—where they painstakingly (not to mention painfully) explain what all must be gone through before a bill can be introduced, sent into committee, debated and then finally, hopefully, passed. Frankly, the audience would have been better served had they just shown the “I’m Just a Bill” cartoon from Schoolhouse Rock, but that wouldn’t have allowed for a lot of oh-so-superior guffawing and self-righteous headshaking over the Process.
Actually, for those of us who believe we’d be better off if Congress did a lot less, the system as described sounds pretty good. Sadly, though, it’s not nearly as chock full of check-and-balances as is indicated here. Of course, progressives like Billy are impatient with check and balances in any case, since all that really needs to be checked and balanced is the other guy, who after all is all evil and stuff. The Good People, meanwhile, should be allowed to grab those Levers of Power with as little impediment as possible, since they know best. In other words, there should be checks on the kind of people who want to build nuclear power plants, say, but not on those who want to commission a series of National Children’s Camps. I mean…obviously. Right?
By the way, everything explained here is, at best, high school-level knowledge. I therefore don't expect high school or even college graduates to know this, because we don’t seem to teach that level of stuff to students anymore. However, Saunders’ audience is made up of staff and students from the Freedom School. I thought they were all super edimacated and stuff. And Billy is a grown man who’s been fighting political battles all his life. Should he really have to ask what a “steering committee” is? Especially since the name ‘steering committee’ is pretty self-explanatory?
Moreover, all the grim looks at the idea that lobbyists and even corruption might be involved in all this is laughable. Good grief, this is the same bunch that was harassed by the FBI, had their phones illegally tapped, and shot up by an illegal murderous raid by National Guard troops, which happened after some police officers tried to assassinate a handcuffed Billy in the desert. And now they’re all “Golly gee willikers, that’s awful!” about everything? Please.
There’s also a lot of glowering at the idea of horse trading, but in the end, isn’t that just compromise? Again, I don’t want to be as pedantic as Mr. Laughlin himself, but the whole purpose of Congress is ultimately to reconcile competing interests. “Making everybody happy” sounds bad only to those so sure of their beliefs that the very idea of compromise is distasteful and unacceptable. There’s a word for people like that, and it’s fanatic. We see those throughout the political spectrum, of course, but that doesn’t make Billy and his smug crew look any better.
Normally, this abhorrence of conciliation, of crafting legislation that gives everyone something and nobody everything, would be sub-textual, given that the position is, after all, inherently childish. However, say what you will for the Laughlins, but they proudly display their politics on their sleeves. After all, we’ve already been told that Billy subscribes to the idea the only Lost Causes (i.e., those that can’t be won) are worth fighting for, and moreover that base considerations like results need not concern him. Only with attitudes like that can one keep himself pure and unsullied. I mean, if getting some of what you want means giving the other guy some of what he wants….brrrr. Did it just get colder in here?
So anyway, in another of the director’s trademark hamfisted attempts at comedy—he’s got a touch for humor quite nearly as light as that of the Germans—Saunders spends all this time explaining how it’s almost impossible to get a bill passed, and Billy blithely responds, “Well, let’s get started then,” and Saunders drops her mouth and goes all “Whaaaa?!” and oh my sides.
At this point, it’s time to actually get the, you know, plot going. And this film actually has one, since it’s appropriating that of Mr. Smith. So Billy and Jean and Saunders work deep into the night, hashing out the bill. Eventually, though, Billy mentions his proposed location for the Camp (I guess there’s only one camp, so I’m not sure how it’s ‘national’), and Saunders freezes up a bit. Obviously this is the exact same location where the villains intend to put the nuclear power plant. Bum bum bum!
Saunders has brought McArthur (wearing a spectacularly ugly patterned sports jacket over a yellow shirt and striped tie—what the hell was with the ‘70s, anyway?) up to the Hill to watch Billy present his bill. “Keys to the safe deposit box” are mentioned for no apparent reason, other than to alert us that Saunders will have access to the MacGuffin File after her boyfriend’s untimely demise. (Oops, sorry.) By the way, keeping the file in a safe deposit box? Wow, that’s brilliant, Mr. Bond. Nobody would ever think of that. However, maybe sticking it under your mattress would have been even wilier.
We now get a wide shot of the cavernous Senate Floor, and for good reason. Laughlin was denied permission to actually shoot in the real chamber—well, what do you expect from the Evil Forces of the White Man’s Government?!—and spent a huge amount having a replica of the chamber built. Money out of his own pocket, moreover.
Again Saunders lays out everything for us imbeciles in the audience, in this case by yakking to the press in the viewer’s gallery about the upcoming fireworks. She even draws the reporters’ attention to the nearby sitting McGhan, Bailey’s lackey if you can remember that far back. (One press wag dubs him “Bailey’s Deep Throat.” Huh? What does that mean?)
I can’t figure out what Saunders is supposed to be up to. This woman is a Senatorial aide who’s banking on a promotion from the Powers that Be? One who we were earlier told “wild horses”—and gee, that’s a fresh metaphor—couldn’t drag confidential information from? I mean, if this were closer to the end of the movie, I’d assume that she had outright decided to throw her support behind Billy and was going for broke. However, we’re only half an hour in, and there’s still an hour and a half to go, so frankly I really have no idea what the hell she’s about here.
She goes even farther. Not only does she tell the press to keep their eye on Payne when Billy presents his bill (while calling him the “Man of the People” in a scornful tone), but she specifically draws the reporters’ attention to any mention of Willet Creek, where the plant / camp is to be built.
Again, this seems way early in the movie for her to so totally throw her weight behind Billy, which is the only possible thing I think she can be doing here. However, maybe—just maybe—the majority of the forty minutes cut from the film had been scenes that would have occurred before this, meaning that her change of allegiance wouldn’t have come quite so early in the proceedings in the longer cut. Even so, her actions here just come completely out of the blue, since just a while ago (as the film now stands) she was agreeing to work for Payne.
Actually, the oddest thing is that McArthur just sits there and listens to all this, and even tosses in a few ‘cracks’ of his own. (Again, the film’s stabs at humor, even when delivered by a pro like Lucie Arnaz, are thudding at best.) Shouldn’t he be panicking by now? His promotion relies on shadowy dealings with the forces behind the power plant. Don’t his girlfriend’s attempts to blow the whole thing sky high by clueing the press into everything threaten his plans? If so, you wouldn’t know it from his reactions here.
The session begins, and the Senate Chair announces that the presentation of new bills will commence. Billy jumps up awkwardly and shouts for attention, and then looks chagrined at his faux pas. Of course, he’s a man of direct action and thus isn’t used to all this high falutin’ rigmarole. The Chair chuckles at his exuberance and recognizes the junior Senator of whatever state Billy is supposedly representing. After embarrassing himself by shouting, Billy now overcompensates by speaking too softly. Cue further good natured laughing from the gallery at Billy’s awkwardness. Man, that’s good comedy.
Once Billy gets going, though, he unsurprisingly quickly masters the procedure. Humorously, his bill actually calls for the proposed camp to reimburse the government for the cost of establishing the facility through future “voluntary fund raising.” Considering that this is the universe in which local donations largely paid for the construction of the hilariously gigantic Freedom School, as documented in the previous film, there’s no reason this wouldn’t be quickly achieved.
Please note, it’s not
the idea of such facilities repaying the government and becoming financially
self-sufficient that I find humorous. Indeed, the idea is intriguing.
However, I can’t imagine any Congressional bill actually including such
provisions. Imagine if the citizenry started demanding that sort of thing
more often? Then were would we be? Congress keeps itself in business by
spreading money around. Such an idea would seriously threaten the pork
trough, and there seems little chance a provision like that would make it
through the conciliation process.
Then, right after I wrote that, Payne himself leaves the chamber right in the middle of Billy’s proposal, and meets with McGhan in the public and quite crowded adjacent hallway. Man, shadowy forces just aren’t as shadowy as they used to be. Again, Payne, before the assembled press and in front of all his colleagues, left the chamber as his newly minted junior senator was proposing his first bill. Maybe if he’d been wearing a spinning neon bow tie that went WHIZZZZZZ! he could have drawn even more attention to himself, but I doubt it.
McGhan rues that they’ve all been considering Billy to be dumb (I’d be more worried about his, you know, serial murderousness), and reminds Payne that Billy is in fact a West Point graduate. A West Point graduate?! Really? I don’t remember that coming up before. In fact, I thought in the previous movie that Billy was just a grunt in Viet Nam flashback. However, West Point graduates are commissioned as second lieutenants. Of course, in Born Losers we were told he had been a Green Beret, too, so I guess continuity on this stuff wasn’t really much of a concern.
The worst part is that the very next day is when the Evil Bill will be introduced. (But isn’t the power plant part buried deeply in this huge bill? They don’t read all those, do they? Isn’t that the point of riders and such, to serve as backdoors for bringing legislation?) They worry about Billy hearing the proposed location for the plant and all hell breaking loose. Of course, Billy has just publicly requested the same land for the camp, so even if he’s not there, I can’t see how the issue wouldn’t end up being debated. Anyway, McGhan wants to call in Bailey, but Payne argues against it. “He’d come in with a bulldozer,” Payne frets.
Instead, Payne is soon meeting with Saunders. We sort of come in mid-scene, with Saunders mentioning a grassroots citizens’ organization on (*gasp*) nuclear power that Billy has been invited to speak to the next day. Payne orders her to see that Billy and Jean and whoever are at the meeting, rather than sitting in session when the Evil Bill is proposed. So Billy is going to skip one of the few sessions of the Senate occurring during his stint? Whatever.
Next, in an eye-rollingly contrived bit, Saunders leaves Payne’s office, whereupon we see McArthur just outside the door, waiting for her. As Payne holds the door ajar following her exit, McGhan begins talking about how dangerous Billy and the Freedom School kids are to their eee-vil plans. “His little raiders are digging up some very sensitive material on the whole nuclear program,” he cautions. This is to provide McArthur an opportunity to eavesdrop—with Payne’s secretary sitting facing him about four feet away!—and again one can only marvel at how clumsy old hands like Payne and McGhan are at skullduggery. Dude, wait until the door is friggin’ closed, you moron!
We cut to Carol rapping about the citizen’s action committee’s goal of a nuclear freeze (typically, one of the more benighted and counterproductive political movements of the last several decades) with the other members of the Groovy Gang. It’s pretty obvious that this wasn’t scripted, and to be frank Teresa flounders horribly as she attempts to ad lib her way through the necessary info. Let’s just say that I don’t think Christopher Guest will be inviting her to appear in one of his mockumentaries any time soon.
This is again a scene where Billy plays the dullard—and he’s a West Point grad!—so that others can explain the most elementary political concepts to him and, by happenstance, to us in the audience. Here we are, about 34 minutes into the movie, and there’s already been more than one scene like this. Can you imagine what the original version, a full forty minutes longer, must have been like? Well, OK, if you’ve seen the three-hour The Trial of Billy Jack, then yes, you probably can.
The kids, in agreement with the Citizen’s Action Committee, are pushing for a system of “national initiatives.” Billy, per his role, admits that he doesn’t know what that means. “The initiative basically means that people can write their own laws, and that if they get enough signatures on a petition, it goes on the ballet for all the people to vote for,” one kid explains.
Of course, several states have such initiative processes, but the idea of a national version is, uh, problematic. I don’t even want to get started on all the drawbacks of this—and I’m generally in favor of the state initiative process—because my hands are starting to cramp here.
One obvious drawback, however—I just can’t help myself, can I?—is that, whatever people like Billy (or Laughlin, more pertinently) think, a lot of people disagree with them on a lot of issues, and not just because they’ve been brainwashed by the Forces of International Capitalism and the White Man’s Patriarchy. Chances are that the Groovy Gang wouldn’t always like the result of letting people bypass the legislatures and the courts on the issues dearest to them. They certainly don’t seem to have enjoyed seeing a parade of mostly Republican presidents over the last forty years.
Second, one of the major, explicit goals of our system of government was to insulate the process from a simple ‘majority rules’ kind of thing. This is exactly what the kids are advocating here—as the scene goes on, and on—basically because again they can’t wrap their heads around the idea that maybe The People don’t want the same things they do. Again, if the ends come out correctly, that certainly justifies the means, right? If you keep jiggering with the rules long enough, sooner or later you’ll find a system under which you can win, and that’s all that’s important. That seems to be the idea, anyway.
Basically they justify it with exaggerated rhetoric about the corruption of Congress. Congress is corrupt, of course, as all human institutions become in time. Not, however, in the direct manner and to the degree expressed here. Again, to folks like the Laughlins, the issue isn’t applied pressure per se, but on who is applying the pressure. When industry gives Congressmen money, it’s a bribe. When a union or environmental lobby gives Congressmen money, it’s a concrete manifestation the Will of the People.
Oddly, moreover, nobody mentions the courts, which seem a bigger issue here. Even if you successfully bypass Congress to pass laws, pretty much each passed initiative is going to be challenged in court. Of course, this was the ‘70s, and progressives pretty much counted on the courts being in sympathy with their goals, so I guess that might not concern them much. Assuming the courts did in fact vote in their favor, that is. Otherwise, a mechanism for bypassing the judicial as well as the legislative branch of government would have to promulgated as well.
And then there’s, well, you know, the fact that a National Initiative system would inherently require a complete rewriting of the Constitution. I seriously doubt that Congress could pass a law giving away such a huge hunk of its primary constitutionally delineated duties sans a full constitutional amendment.
And then there’s the issue of why Congress, if it is so corrupt, would voluntarily pass a law that so radically reduced the institution’s own power and influence…
Soon the Gang is fantasizing about how such an initiative process would have allowed The People to vote against the Viet Nam war. Again, this is hardly conclusive; especially back in the day when public sentiment was more pro the war. However, one really doubts that the Laughlins and the people they knew could have possible imagined such a thing. Pauline Kael Syndrome* definitely seems to play a part in the Laughlins’ worldview.
[*Not to insult my readers by explaining the obvious, but this is a reference to New York film critic Pauline Kael’s famous—albeit possibly apocryphal—bewildered reaction to Nixon getting reelected: “How is that possible? No one I know voted for him.”
However, a similar and properly documented event is hilariously described in P.J. O’Rourke’s tome Give War a Chance. Reporting from Nicaragua the day after Violeta Chamorro was elected in the country’s first free election, he describes watching a parade of shell shocked celebrities, including aging party girl Bianca Jagger and Ed Asner, stagger around in shock. They had come down to party with communist leader Daniel Ortega, and were flabbergasted and appalled to learn that the Nicaraguan citizenry had overwhelmingly voted in the same way that Ronald Reagan would.]
In any case, they not only want Billy to sponsor this national initiative, but also to appear as Grand Marshall at a supposedly huge upcoming rally and parade for the nuclear freeze. Carol issues this invite, and again, you can practically see Teresa’s flop sweat as she struggles to get her unscripted lines out.
By the way, aside from Billy sponsoring a pretty much clearly unconstitutional bill before the Senate that actually aims to limit the power of the Legislative Branch—yeah, that will pass—there’s the issue of how much time he has left. Certainly you’d think it would have taken him at least a week to craft his National Camp bill. And he’s already skipping congressional sessions to meet with groups like this one. How effective do they think he’ll be in the short time remaining to him?
We then cut to McArthur, who is standing alone in some darkened vast outdoor auditorium—good grief, yes, you’re in Washington D.C., we get it—waiting for a Sinister Rendezvous of some sort. Gary arrives, and we see that McArthur has brought the MacGuffin File. He hands it over, and gets whacked. Well, OK, that hasn’t happened yet. First there’s some ‘suspense,’ and then…ah, there we go. Despite begging for his life, McArthur is stabbed to death. Well, that’s some fine family entertainment there.
Cut to Saunders in her office, clearing out her things after learning of her boyfriend’s death. Jean and Billy are on hand to commiserate. Billy asks if anyone had it in for McArthur, and Saunders sneers at his naiveté. “This is Washington, baby! The Big Leagues! Murder is just a way of life here!” Well, maybe in the movies. It still seems to me that giving McArthur a phony baloney job (which would have moreover tied his fortunes to theirs forever) would have been easier and rather safer than killing him. But then I’m just a naïve dupe, I guess. I’m sure this sort of thing happens on a nearly daily basis.
When Billy seems shocked (!!!!) at the idea that McArthur was assassinated, Saunders screams, “They murder Presidents here, Billy! They murder men who are running for President here! They murder the Martin Luthor Kings and the Jimmy Hoffas! Lobbyists, like Dan? They’re small fry! They go one a week! It’s always made to look like a heart attack, or a rape / murder, an overdose, or a suicide...”
You know, I’m not even going to dignify that with a response. You’d think by now I’d be beyond being shocked by this guy’s movies, but…wow. However, I think this explains why Laughlin’s final Billy Jack movie bombed so badly. (It failed so badly, in fact, that it was barely released, and just three years after The Trial of Billy Jack was a stupendous box office hit. Laughlin has his own theories on why it never saw a wide release, though, and we’ll get to those later.)
By 1978, the issues that had divided America were largely resolved. Nixon had resigned, the Viet Nam war was over and (perhaps most importantly) the military draft was history. I imagine most people wanted to put the whole period, with its divisiveness, overheated politics and social turmoil, behind them. At the same time, Laughlin’s movies were becoming even more insanely radical and paranoid. Remember, Ronald Reagan would be elected in a landslide only three years after this film tanked. The Billy Jack moment had passed, and wandering out even further into the political wilderness was not going to bring any sort of sizable audience back.
Billy continues to ask whether they can do something to help catch the murderer. In response, Saunders—and again, it’s instructive to watch Lucie Arnaz, who is actually a pretty good actress, in contrast to the stonefaced Laughlins—gives forth another spiel about all the money and interests that rule the capitol. She ends by shoving a copy of the Evil Bill in Billy’s face. “Read this, Senator!” she sneers. “Check section number forty! You know what’s going up right where your little camp is to be? A nuclear reactor!” Then she spills the beans about why he was appointed in the first place, to a powerless vote-getting tool for The Man.
This is actually another example of one of the series’ most interesting traits, to wit their tendency to have the characters advance the most paranoid political conspiracies at the same time the actual events we see undercut them. In The Trial of Billy Jack, both Jean and Billy more than once express at length their belief that the government is waiting for the slightest excuse to assassinate Billy. When he’s serving his light sentence for murder, as an example, Jean tells a reporter that Billy will never leave the prison alive.
He does, however. In fact, despite the characters’ rhetoric, which of course we’re to take as gospel, we actually see the government doing all it can to keep Billy from coming to harm. In Billy Jack, after killing at least two men and shooting another police officer, Billy is trapped in a building. The governor (Hopper?) sends a representative down to make sure Billy isn’t killed, despite the fact that such a shooting would obviously be completely justified. In fact, the representative is so desperate to keep Billy alive that he allows Jean to blackmail him for state funds to run the Freedom School. Those actions don’t really comport with Billy and Jean’s fears, do they?
Here we see why killing ‘one person a week’ wouldn’t work very well either. Eventually you’re going to drive people to extremes of action, as we see here with Saunders. Even the Mafia didn’t whack civilians willy-nilly, because it drew too much heat. Again, McArthur wanted a patronage job, of the sort that the government hands out every day. Why would they murder the guy instead of just giving him a job? The stuff we get here is right out of The X-Files, and most people (I hope) never took that show’s views on government very seriously.
Billy, back in his denim Indian getup, including, of course, The Hat—thus signaling the reemergence of the Old Billy—heads right over to Payne’s house with Jean and Carol, despite the late hour. (You know, it’s actually kind of annoying how he takes those two with him everywhere. Some action hero.) Payne comes down in his pajamas and robe, although when he calls out, a fully dressed McGhan emerges from the kitchen. (??) Super bad guy henchmen are always ready for action, I guess.
Billy confirms, to his sorrow, that Payne knows about the nuclear plant. Billy then argues not against its construction, but in one of the series’ weird occasional attempts to seem ‘fair minded’ (which are naturally overwhelmed by the films’ more systematically displayed radical sentiments), against its placement at Willet Creek. “Senator,” Carol pipes up, “that’s right next to a big earthquake fault.” (!!)
Leaving aside the question of why Billy wants to build a National Kid’s Camp on the same site, although that is an amusing point, this is yet another unwittingly laughable example of the Laughlins’ tendency towards cartoonish levels of deck-stacking. Despite Payne’s demurrers that the fault issue was “all checked out*,” it’s this sort of thing that elevates the Billy Jack movies into the purest comedy. In the end, to the question of why anyone would choose to build a nuclear plant atop a fault line, when, as Billy ‘reasonably’ suggests, “there are at least a hundred places in the state that are obviously safer,” there can be only one answer: Because the people out to build the plant are eeeee-vil.
[*According to Payne, the site was examined and given the thumb’s up by “the finest seismologists and geophysicists in the country.” First, I’m not sure how these eminent authorities were called in without the issue becoming public. More importantly, though, the Billy Jack series often calls upon the work and research of ‘experts’—although generally in a vague sort of fashion, as in “there was a top scientist at MIT who…”—to substantiate their critiques of the Establishment. Thus it’s a tad hypocritical to shrug off the findings of these experts. Unless the idea is, of course, that The Man’s experts are obviously all corrupt, while those on the other side of things are, equally obviously, all inherently beyond reproach.]
Billy, still wearing his reasonable hat, sorrowfully tells Payne that he won’t vote for the bill until he “has a lot of questions answered.” (This, again, is just silly. The idea that Billy would vote for a nuclear power plant under any circumstances is patently ludicrous.) When Bailey—and the shadowy forces he represents, presumably—is mentioned, Payne asks if they are accusing him (Payne) of being in on some corrupt deal. Being Reasonable and Politically Naïve folk, however, both Billy and Jean instantly reassure him that this isn’t the case. Carol, however, with the Wisdom of Youth, seems less convinced. (Wow!)
The conversation continues, but we follow McGhan as he slinks into a side room. He calls Bailey and reports on the situation. Following that, we cut to Billy, Jean and Carol as they walk past the night-shrouded Capitol Building. Billy confirms his plans to set the entire Groovy Gang to work digging up info on Bailey. And don’t laugh, because these are the same kids who back at the Freedom School uncovered the truth about Watergate. (See the previous movie.)
Billy wants to know what sort of *gasp* profits Bailey might make from the plant, and who in Washington he’s paying off. “Just find the secret file Foley had on him when he had his heart attack,” Carol suggests. Ah, nothing like the Insta-Plot Resolution MacGuffin, is there? By the way, the fact that Carol knows about a purportedly “secret file” suggests that it is, in fact, insufficiently ‘secret.’ Lest we’re complete morons—and I’l give the Laughlins this; they know their audience—they have Billy wonder why the file would be important, so that we again can have this spelled out for us. “We’re pretty sure it contained all the names, dates and amounts of all the nuclear pay-offs, including Bailey’s,*” Carol replies. “Not to mention who’s been canceling all the nuclear hearings.”
[*Uh, OK, but why exactly would you believe the file contained all that info? Other than the fact that you guys wrote the script?]
Noble Billy, being entirely Too Innocent in the Ways of Politics, finds this a dubious claim. “Next you guys will think Bailey can reach all the way into the White House,” he joshes. [This being the guy who in the previous movie testified in court that his unit in Viet Nam had received orders directly from the White House that they should illegally massacre a village of innocent civilians.] Carol, ‘startlingly,’ actually believes *gasp* that to be true. “Are you kidding?” she snorts. “This town is just one big clique, and everybody is in bed with everybody else.” What a powerful piece of truth-telling this film is!
Glutton for punishment? GO TO PAGE 2 OF "BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON"
-Review by Ken Begg