Another feature of...
The Trial of Billy Jack -
Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension
Assuming you don't
Moreover, should you decide
Editorial Note: This review was begun last year (2004, for Visitors from the Future), to be posted with a tandem review of the film by Andrew Borntreger over at Badmovies.org. However, Andrew is a member of the U.S. Marines, and learned that he was being sent to Iraq. The good news is that Andrew recently returned safe and sound from his overseas stint. The bad news is that this meant I actually had to finish this article.
Back while I was writing the initial portion of this piece, President Ronald Reagan passed away. It was impossible not to be struck by the profound difference in how Reagan and Billy Jack portrayer Tom Laughlin viewed America. To Reagan, America was the oft-cited shining city on the hill, a glowing lantern of liberty offering hope and inspiration in a dark world. To Laughlin, America was an evil, racist country, one so hopelessly corrupt that, in the end, its overthrow was the only hope for world peace and progressive human enlightenment.
Motivated by his beliefs, Tom Laughlin made a handful of films, and many millions of dollars. To his credit, he reinvested his money in his pictures, hoping to convince others of the validity of his beliefs. The result was that he lost much of his fortune when his moment passed. His vision of America lost favor with even the majority of those who once shared it, and his final film was barely released at all.
Motivated by his beliefs, Ronald Reagan was twice elected President of the United States. His successes were many. The one that overshadows all others, however, was his aggressive prosecution of the Cold War against an enemy that he rightly named an Evil Empire. In the end, his policies were instrumental in triggering the collapse of the Soviet Union. One result was perhaps the single most inspiring event of the 20th century. A few years after Reagan left office, the peoples of a divided Germany rose up and, as Reagan had once demanded, tore down a wall that had stood as one of history’s starkest symbols of tyranny.
Lech Walesa, another key player in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, noted upon President Reagan’s passing, "When talking about Ronald Reagan, I have to be personal. We in Poland took him so personally. Why? Because we owe him our liberty. This can’t be said often enough by people who lived under oppression for half a century, until communism fell in 1989. Poles fought for their freedom for so many years that they hold in special esteem those who backed them in their struggle. Support was the test of friendship. President Reagan was such a friend."
Soviet dissidents also lauded Reagan. Natan Sharansky recalled that
while languishing in a Soviet prison in 1983, he had read of Reagan’s speech
in which he named the Communist state an Evil Empire. "I remember what a
burst of enthusiasm this gave us political prisoners. Finally, here was a
Western leader willing to call things as they are and expose the true
essence of the Soviet Union. We dissidents always knew and felt that the
most important thing was not to give in to illusions, not to be deceived by
the Soviet Union. And that one day when the West finally saw the Soviet
Union for what it was, there would be hope for victory."
At the time of Tom Laughlin’s greatest influence, he
considered America to be in its twilight, a mindless, malign and brutish
monster, and hoped to hasten its fall. At the time of Ronald Reagan’s
greatest influence, he considered America to be in the morning of its
greatness. Laughlin sought the destruction of a tyrannical nation that never
existed outside his own mind. Ronald Reagan sought the destruction of
tyranny itself. His work remains unfinished, but his legacy can be found in
the broken shackles of millions upon millions of his fellow human beings.
God bless you, Ronnie.
Mr. Laughlin, who wrote, directed and starred in the films, often under a variety of assumed names, was definitely an auteur in the classic sense of the term. Watching his films is akin to striking up a conversation with an intelligent and personable stranger. You might not find yourself agreeing with his views, but they are well articulated and interesting.
After a while, though, you grow increasingly
wary, even disconcerted, by the direction of some of his remarks. In the
end, you fully surrender to shock when he suddenly starts spouting off about
the Jewish Media or UN black helicopters or the Illuminati. Mr. Laughlin
appears to be a very nice and caring guy, a loving family man, and not a
half bad filmmaker. He’s also clearly a kook.
Being in many ways a generic exploitation picture, Born Losers is the least typical chapter of the Billy Jack series. The DVD and video package for the movie (marketed by Laughlin himself, as he now owns the rights to the series) maintains that Laughlin had sought to make a film more in line with the later ones. Stymied by an inability to raise the necessary funds, however, he agreed to provide a more prosaic potboiler. Unlike most Hollywood stories, this one has the ring of truth about it.
Born Losers opens with a bit of narration that rather compactly provides Billy’s backstory: "He had just returned from the war, one of those Green Beret Rangers. A trained killer, people would say later. Before the war, he had hunted down and broken wild horses in these mountains. Some said the reason he was so good at these things, and the reason he lived alone in this forest, was that he had some Indian blood in him. Others said he simply didn’t like people. All I knew was his name: Billy Jack."
Oddly, however, Billy isn’t really the picture’s central character, as indicated by the poster art reproduced above. (Although when AIP released the film following the incredible success of Billy Jack, a new poster was commissioned that featured Billy front and center.) That role is taken by Vicky, a poor-little-rich-girl. She is, inevitably, the product of bad parenting, in this case a negligent father. It's this character who provided the opening narration. Vicky ends up being harassed by a motorcycle gang headed up by erudite biker Daniel, who unsurprisingly has a long-running antagonist relationship with Billy.
Vicky, along with several other local girls, is eventually raped by the gang. In the end, Billy rescues Vicky, shoots Daniel, and seemingly gets the girl. However, almost like a TV pilot that features a different secondary cast than the one that ends up in the subsequent series, Vicky disappears without a trace by the second movie.
Born Losers is kind of interesting. It has signs of where Laughlin would take the Billy Jack character in the future, yet all the while remains a fairly standard biker flick. There’s lots of gratuitous violence and mayhem, including the aforementioned rapes. The authorities inevitably prove unable to help the protagonists deal with the bikers. Even the names of the gang members are cartoonishly generic: Crabs, Cueball, Gangrene, etc.
Billy is forced by his nature to intercede in the gang’s various doings. All he wants is to be left alone, but that, naturally, is not in the cards. His character here is pretty consistent with the rest of the series. He tries to avoid violence, but when it comes time for it, he cuts loose with brutal dispatch.
One rather atypical scene, however, has Billy trying to entertain a despondent Vicky. Heading into his small house trailer, he returns with one of those toy coin banks where a hand reaches out from a hidden panel to snatch up whatever coin you place in its holder. Since Billy seems to own about a dozen things altogether, his possession of this object is more than a little strange. Meanwhile, his attempts to lighten up her mood with it pretty accurately forecast the fact that humor won’t prove one of Laughlin’s cinematic strengths.
The film is comparatively light on political posturing, other than a long scene where honest Billy proves unable to have a delinquent loan extended at the local bank. However, the film does provide a wonderfully pretentious little speech for Vicky, spoken as she and Billy camp in the woods while she decides whether to testify against the bikers who raped her:
"I feel like those stars up there are inside of me, just glowing softly. I’ve always felt that I’ve had a light bulb-like thing inside me, and all my seeds were in it. If I let the wrong person in, the little light bulb would be jabbed and broken, and all of me would pour out and be gone forever."
Vicky is played by an Elizabeth James, and
it’s a pretty big role for someone who can’t really act. This isn’t
inconsistent with the later films, however, as acting isn’t one of the
series’ hallmarks. Laughlin tended to cast family members and friends in his
movies, and many of the people who appeared in them were probably just local
townsfolk. Ms. James’ performance isn’t awful, but it is
quite wooden. With
her pixie haircut, she’s more cute than classically beautiful, although this
actually works in the film’s favor. However, she also looks pretty
spectacular in the white bikini she wears for most of the first half of the
picture. Director Laughlin—presumably at AIP’s behest, given the dearth of
salacious material in his future films—takes due advantage of this by
shooting numerous (non-nude) butt and boob shots.
One of the film’s funnier aspects is how everyone coming across Billy constantly calls him "Redskin" or "Indian" and suchlike. Frankly, Laughlin’s features and coloring do not even remotely suggest someone with American Indian blood in him. You’re willing to buy the fact that he is, in fact, descended from such, but having other characters constantly lob such epithets at him on first sight is pretty hysterical.
As is usual for Laughlin’s films, there’s little healthy sexuality on display here. Billy and Vicky perhaps make love at one point, but that is, at best, an implication. Meanwhile, almost all the sex actually portrayed here is violent in nature. Three townie girls go to party with the bikers, and end up getting themselves raped. One girl is driven into a catatonic state by this indignity; another later suffers a similar fate after being threatened again. In fact, she ends up staring into space while sucking her thumb! Meanwhile, the last girl strikes out at her uncaring mother by announcing of her rape, "I liked it, do you hear? I LIKED IT!!" Yikes!
This brings us to the portrayal of parents in this film, and later in the series. I don’t know where Laughlin got his grudge against parents—hopefully not from his own—but man, there’s barely a single healthy family relationship to be found here. Catatonic Girl's father is an ineffectual nebbish, and he’s the best of the lot. Vicki’s father is never around, and constantly breaks his word to her. Indeed, she’s only in this fix because he failed to show up for a promised visit.
Thumb Sucking Girl’s single mother, meanwhile, is an overage barfly/slut, played in an extended cameo by Jane Russell (!!). "I Liked It!" Girl’s mother is a self-absorbed shrew who treats her daughter like furniture. With a mom like that, the film seems to be saying, no wonder the girl likes to be degraded. The same sort of rationale is advanced for biker leader Daniel himself, as his father turns out to be a drunken, violent lout given to beating his children.
In fact, the film’s entire worldview is grossly nihilistic. Pretty much everyone save Billy and Vicky is a brute or a coward. When Billy intercedes to save one guy from a savage beating, he himself is the one who gets arrested and sentenced to jail.
This occurs in a scene that, rather oddly, feels like something from a Dirty Harry movie. The judge orders Billy to pay a stiff fine—and we know he’s broke—because if citizens "take the law into their own hands," society will become a jungle, blah blah. Of course, it’s already a jungle, which is why Billy had to act in the first place. Meanwhile, despite their vicious assault, the bikers go free. Given the portrayal of the justice system in the rest of the movies, as part and parcel of how The Man keeps The People down, this take is strikingly bizarre.
The most off-putting moment occurs when the authorities and townsfolk refuse to accompany Billy to the biker’s lair for the film’s climatic confrontation. Of course, this is a classic hero moment, and Billy has indeed been much put upon. Still, he stops to sneer, "Whatever they did to your women? You deserve it." That’s an appallingly ugly statement, I don’t care who you are.
For what it’s worth, Laughlin already shows signs here of being at least a competent director, although he’s prone to occasional artiness. The acting, meanwhile, is all over the map. Of the major actors, the guy playing Daniel comes off best. His performance is actually quite good. Laughlin is fine, of course, because it’s hard to look that bad when you underplay everything.
Things I Learned™ from Born Losers:
With Born Losers, Laughlin compromised his artistic vision to some degree, and reaped a pretty good amount of success from doing so. This raises an interesting question. Had the film made somewhat less money, and thus limited Laughlin’s ability to call the shots on his subsequent pictures, would he have continued to reign in the overt hawking of his politics? What would have become of his career then? Would he be better remembered today, or less so? Might he have traded the phenomenal success of a few of his movies for a longer overall career?
Those are interesting questions (or not), but
what actually occurred was that Born Losers made a boatload of money.
This allowed Laughlin to demand much more control over his next film. This
proved to be 1971’s Billy Jack, the picture that really kicks off
what might be called the Billy Jack Trilogy.
As with Born Losers, Billy Jack opens with a female narrator, one destined to become a romantic partner, talking about Our Hero. This is indicative of the series’ monomania, actually, as it implies that once you’ve met Billy, he’s likely to become your main topic of conversation. In this case, the narrator is Jean. She speaks of her history with Billy, and alludes to "tragedy and bloodshed" on the horizon. This reflects Laughlin’s preference for beginning a film by foreshadowing where it will end, an aspect shared by The Master Gunfighter and The Trial of Billy Jack.
Among other traditional Laughlin elements, the film presents:
After meeting Cole and Mike, and learning who and what Posner is (i.e., an evil Town Boss), we cut to the film’s real opening. This features Posner and some of his lackeys, including a moonlighting Deputy Mike, illegally herding wild mustangs. It’s a tremendous, almost hypnotic sequence, probably the best thing Laughlin ever did. It’s pretty expensive looking, too, full as it is of extended helicopter shots. Following the filming of this scene, in fact, Arkoff and Nicholson pulled out of the project, fearing that Laughlin would be unable to stay on budget.
Significantly helping the sequence’s punch is the film’s hit theme song, "One Tin Soldier" by Coven. I must admit, though, that being more than a little hippied-out from watching Laughlin’s films in short succession, I burst into an uncontrollable laughing jag when the lyrics hit their familiar, hectoring punch line. I can’t argue that the song isn’t a perfect match for Laughlin’s films, however. Both retain a certain raw power, despite being hamfisted, self-righteous, pretentious, humorless and sermonizing works which exhibit not a speck of irony or self-awareness.
With the horses eventually corralled, the men prepare to shoot them down. (The carcasses are to be sold to a dog food factory.) Posner tries to force his conflicted, tortured son Bernard to kill a horse, but is disgusted when Bernard proves unable to. Posner gives the general order to begin massacring the horses when mystical ‘Indian’ music is heard and a rifle-toting Billy Jack rides into view. After a typically exaggerated display of his shooting prowess, along with the obligatory pontificating and epigrams ("When policemen break the law, then there isn’t any law, just the fight for survival"), Billy sends them off, their tails between their legs. Posner, of course, vows revenge.
Mike returns home to confront his runaway teenaged daughter, who’s just been brought back from Haight-Asbury. (!!) She goads him with tales of her sexual adventures, the punch line being that she’s pregnant, perhaps by a black lover. Eventually he gives her the response she seems to be seeking, and slaps her hard across the face. Subsequently, Billy Jack finds her badly beaten and lying in a field.
At the hospital, Billy confers with Sheriff Cole and Doc, the film’s sole other Good Authority Figure. (Doc returns in the next film, while Cole doesn’t, although he’s replaced by a similar character.) To protect her, they talk Billy into stashing her at the Freedom School. She pipes up, saying she doesn’t want to go to a school. Because, you know, they’re mind-control factories run at the behest of The Man. Doc explains that this is a really groovy school, however, and she agrees to go.
We go to the school, where we meet Jean as she teaches the kids some rodeo-style riding. "When I took over this school, out here at the reservation," Future Jean narrates over the obligatory montage of school footage, "I knew there would be trouble. First, because I opened it up to any kid with a problem; black, white, Indian, Chicano. Who could come any time they wanted, stay as long as they wanted and leave when they wanted, no questions asked." (To the extent that many of these kids look underage, yeah, that would present some legal issues.)
"They became even more hostile when I announced there were only three rules: No drugs; everyone had to carry his own load; and everyone had to get turned on by creating something. Anything. Whether it be weaving a blanket [cut to a student working a loom], making a film [cut to a film projector], or doing a painting [cut to several paintings with American Indian themes], preferably something that made one proud of one’s own heritage and past." Oddly, none of the paintings we see feature the American flag or the Founding Fathers or anything along those lines. I guess that’s not the sort of ‘heritage and past’ Jean is talking about.
By the way, if you think that ends Jean’s litany, you don’t know much about the Billy Jack series: "Or by getting involved in such strange things as Yoga mediation." [OK, fair enough.] "Or Psycho Drama and Role Playing." [Uh, well…] "Things that the townspeople could never understand." [Wow, nicely bigoted remark. By the way, I think the ‘problem’ with the townspeople is that they understand these things all too well, and know a big, steaming pile of bull*&#% when they smell one.]
At first, Barbara stays aloof, content to merely observe. Then, at Jean’s request, two hippie-esque instructors involve her in a role-playing exercise. At first she resists, but under her fellow student’s nurturing henpecking she soon participates and, like, you know, begins to grok everything and attain self-esteem and abandon her self-destructive behavior. Far out, man. And yes, people do say "Far out" in this movie. And unironically, to boot.
I’ll spare you the details of all this. In fact, there’s no reason to explore this movie at any great length. Eventually racist rednecks, led by Posner, torment some of the students enough that Billy Jack kicks some ass. Then Barbara’s dad tries to get her back, Jean is raped by the hopelessly confused Bernard, after which Billy whacks him in retaliation and ends up in an armed standoff with the police. Billy eventually shoots Mike, too, as well as at least one other cop. The film ends after Jean talks the wounded Billy into surrendering, which directly sets up the sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack.
For those wishing more detail, however,
here’s a breakdown of the film’s main sequences, following Barbara’s arrival
at the Freedom School:
Things I Learned From Billy Jack:
In terms of making his film, Laughlin was no longer willing to play nice with others. AIP’s Arkoff and Nicholson, having funded The Born Losers, initially agreed to do the same for Billy Jack. However, they dropped out when Laughlin proceeded to go way over budget. (Presumably they regretted this decision when the film became a smash hit. On the other hand, its success allowed them to re-release Born Losers as "The Original Billy Jack Movie," so they got something out of it, anyway.) 20th Century Fox took over, then dropped out for reasons similar to AIP’s, whereupon Warner Brothers picked the project up.
The film didn’t do as well financially as Laughlin thought it should. Irate, and believing the studio had screwed up the picture’s release, he sued Warners. (And thus, presumably, burned his bridges with the established film industry, although one doubts he cared much.) In the end, he won the right to re-release Billy Jack himself. Laughlin then cannily pioneered the use of saturation television advertising, a technique that was at that time a novelty, to reach the film’s target teen audience.
At this point the film became a tremendous smash. Between the two releases (Warner’s in 1971, Laughlin’s in ’74)—with, again, the majority of revenues being generated under Laughlin’s stewardship—Billy Jack generated an astounding $32 million. This gave the film the second highest box office tally of any movie made in 1971. The only film to beat it was Fiddler on the Roof, which tallied around $38 million. Coming in third, and a fairly distant third at that, was The French Connection, with $26.3 million*. That’s right, Billy Jack made more than The French Connection.
[*Figures taken from The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits, by Susan Sackett, published 1996.]
Background on all this—which despite Mr. Laughlin’s very real achievements should probably still be taken with several large grains of salt—can be found in his self-published tome The Legend of Billy Jack. The book can be purchased at http://www.billyjack.com. However, those looking to buy the DVDs of his movies should know that the Billy Jack Collection, which costs about $40 on his site, can be bought for around $12 (!) at http://www.dvdsoon.com. There's also a "Billy Jack Ultimate Collection" coming out later this month, although I don't know if that's any different. It's possible that this set finally presents the films in a proper letterboxed format, in which case I am even more honked off. I had purchased the films on video, when that was the only format available (and then only through Laughlin's official Billy Jack site), and paid well over a hundred bucks for the four movies. Then, when they hit DVD, I bought them again. Well, I'm not going to that well again. Really, you'd think a consumer advocate (per The Trial of Billy Jack) like Tom Laughlin would have done this all a little better.
In any case, Billy Jack was a phenomenon. Flush with success, Laughlin quickly manifested a messianic streak. His paperback adaptation of the film, which I used to own a copy of (and wish I still did), contained a foreward in which he noted his profound regret that the Youth of America "have only two heroes: Ralph Nader* and Billy Jack." It should be taken into account here that Laughlin neither at that time nor at any time in the future made much of an effort to separate himself from his creation.
[*Laughlin, who continues to preach to his
increasingly small choir, publicly broke with Nader after the latter ran for
president and helped the current President Bush beat Al Gore. Back when I
started this review, Laughlin was all but panicked that Nader would
similarly aid Bush in beating Kerry in the 2004 election. As we now know,
Bush didn’t really need Nader’s help this time around.
Ironically, the only real mainstream coverage Laughlin has gotten over the last twenty-odd years consisted of color pieces about his perennial "Billy Jack for President" runs every four years throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. In case you don’t follow politics, he’s yet to win.]
Despite his artistic and sociological pretensions, however, Laughlin’s Billy Jack remains most culturally influential as a pioneer of the action flick. Those who followed in his ass-kicking bare footprints, most notably Laughlin’s increasingly zaftig doppelganger, Steven Seagal, have been aping the flick for decades now.
The movie’s pivotal scene, mentioned earlier, sees Bernard and his thug friends degrading a young Indian girl by pouring flour on her, in a purported effort to make her ‘white.’ This brings down upon them Billy’s wrath, and the result is a genuinely classic sequence. The build-up is great, and the payoff comes when Billy can be seen approaching through the store’s front window. It’s a great ‘Uh-oh!’ moment.
Even here, admittedly, Laughlin’s script is entirely too gabby and florid. "When I see this this girl, who has such a beautiful spirit, so degraded, and when I see this boy, sprawled out by this big ape here, and this little girl, who is so special to us that we call her ‘God’s Little Gift of Sunshine,…" And so on and so on. However, the climax, as Billy famously ends his oration by declaring "I just go beeeerserk" and finally opening that industrial sized can of whup-ass he’s been hoarding, is action movie nirvana.
And that’s just the beginning. After beating the hell out of the perpetrators, Billy must contend with a large crowd of townsfolk waiting for him across the street. Of course, he doesn’t even attempt to get away, but calmly walks over to where they are waiting. There Posner, the film’s Boss Hogg-esque main villain, begins to taunt him. Billy responds by matter-of-factly noting, "I’m going to take my right foot, and I’m going to whomp you on that [left] side of your face, and you know something? There’s not a damn thing you’re going to be able to do about it." Needless to say, this proves an accurate prediction.
By now Billy has removed his shoes so as to employ his Hapkido fighting technique more efficiently. This little moment really adds to the impression that Billy is a cool professional when it comes to hand-to-hand fighting. As his tormentors attempt to corral him, he swiftly runs around, employing a hit and run technique to inflict as much damage as he can before they take him down. Eventually, though, their numbers prevail, and Billy takes a pretty severe beating. (This is one element that you’ll never see in a Seagal flick.) Only the intervention of the sheriff, again one of the series’ few sympathetic authority figures, saves him from worse.
This is a vibrant and exciting sequence. Even after all these years, following hundreds of films ripping it off with gigantically larger budgets and incredibly more resources at their disposal, it remains a brilliant bit of filmmaking. (On the other hand, Laughlin’s subsequent The Master Gunfighter indicates that he may have shot much of his artistic wad here. The latter film has a lot more action, but little of it is very involving. Indeed, the more the scale of carnage grows, the more incoherent and uninvolving it becomes.)
All this, in the end, only serves to make what follows a perfect summation of Laughlin’s movies. The above referenced segment grabs the viewer and yanks him into the movie. And then, having garnered our fervid attention, Laughlin follows up directly after with scenes like this:
Things pick up occasionally after that. Still, it’s fair to say that you’re in trouble when your best scene by far occurs and there’s still 75 minutes of movie left. In fact, after sitting through the above-mentioned three follow-up sequences, it’s seems likely that only the hopelessly stoned will have maintained much interest in the rest of the picture. As for the sane, non-chemically enhanced viewer, a reliance on the fast forward button is about one’s only hope.
Sadly, though, this gristly cinematic fare would prove only a cheesy hors d'oeuvre compared to the vast, pungent buffet that is…
-Review by Ken Begg