This review is the official Sponsor’s Pick (Please imagine a regal trumpet sound right there) for the months of Feb/March 2006, & brought to you through the generosity of our good friend Mr. Henry Brennan, Esq. (In other words, blame him.)
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?
First, as indicated by my review of Tom Laughlin’s previous epic, The Trial of Billy Jack, Mr. Laughlin’s films at full length aren’t better, they’re just longer. I can say with complete honesty that I’m pretty sure that the only difference between a 155 minute Billy Jack Goes to Washington and a 115 minute one is that the longer one would be proportionately more painful to sit through.
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.
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 furtherâ€¦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.
This has, naturally, severely limited our national energy generating options. Faced with continuing energy shortages, and aware of the environmental damage caused by other power generating technologies, we are finally starting to see a few lonely environment activists calling for the issue to be reexamined, albeit at the risk of being excommunicated from The Cause.
(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]â€¦”
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 weâ€¦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 (Gautier).
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, soâ€¦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.[*Except for Billy (for obvious reasons), most of the characters here retain the names of their counterparts in the original Frank Capra movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (Hereafter Mr. Smith.) This includes Saunders, Sen. Payne and Gov. Hopper. The one immediately noticeable changed name is that of Bailey, whose analogue in the first movie was named Jim Taylor, and who was played by the fine character actor Edward Arnold.
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!” Andâ€¦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 askedâ€¦.
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 beâ€¦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 earâ€¦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 abouâ€¦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 seenâ€¦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 naÃ¯f who idolizes his state’s legendary senior senator, and who is subsequently shocked to learn that the latter is a crook.
But Billy Jack? NaÃ¯ve 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:
Payne: “Man of the Bear, and champion of Lost Causes.”
Billy: “He always said the only causes worth fighting for were the Lost Causes.”
Payne: “â€¦.we were a team, the two of us: struggling Indian out of journalism school, struggling lawyer. They used to call us the Twin Champions of Lost Causes, and we took on plentyâ€¦We didn’t have much to eat, but we sure had plenty of Lost Causesâ€¦”
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 clichÃ©s—well, OK, it is just a maudlin assembly of clichÃ©s—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, wellâ€¦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 meanâ€¦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 wantsâ€¦.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.
As Billy reaches the climatic moment, the camera pulls back so that we can observe a chucking Payne when Billy proposes to build the camp at Willet Creek. Needless to say, he instantly snaps to attention. So does McGhan, and as Saunders predicted to the reporters, he jumps right up and prepares to hustle out of the gallery. First he pauses, though, so that he and Payne can exchange an obvious Significant Glance. This is the way political pros act in public? They’d be drawing attention to themselves even without Saunders’ help. Still, we wouldn’t want us rubes in the audience not to ‘get’ it.
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 influenceâ€¦
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 thenâ€¦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 naivetÃ©. “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 naÃ¯ve 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, butâ€¦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 whoâ€¦”—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 NaÃ¯ve 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!
The next morning, Bailey is in his hilariously huge and palatial home, which with its array of fine old oil paintings and wall tapestries, seriously looks like something out of a King Arthur movie. He is eating his breakfast while surrounded by his Affluent Middle-Aged White Guy henchmen (including Payne), all of who are in a panic about how the crusading Billy Jack is on their case. “Now he wants to talk to every one of the congressmen,” one gulps, “including Bill from the Willet Creek district!” So Billy wants to have discussions with all 535 Representative and Senators? And also, where are we in Billy’s “two months” in the Senate? Seems like the clock should be ticking here.
“He’s got all their names, their voting recordsâ€¦” One Worried Henchman continues. Wow, that’s amazing! How the hell did Billy dig up that sort of highly classified info? I’ll bet he even knows all their party affiliations!! “In one month [which would seem to indicate that Billy’s term is nearly at an end] he’s got more groups out to destroy him than any man in the history of the Senate,” McGhan notes.
Payne counters that their fears are exaggerated, whereupon McGhan snaps, “If it’s so ridiculous, why does the White House have a whole unit investigating it?” Hmm, that does raise some questions. Like, a “whole unit” of what? And, er, what exactly is the ‘it’ are the unit is investigating? (And weren’t we informed just a minute ago that the White House was in on ‘it’? Soâ€¦oh, never mind.)
The Sauron-like Bailey himself sits calmly through all this, still falsely secure in his eeee-vil power. “I don’t see the problem,” he says. “Let the White House take care of it.” Butâ€¦butâ€¦the White House is the one having a ‘whole unit’ investigating ‘it,’ soâ€¦ Oops, my head just exploded. Sorry. Give me a minute, would you?
OK, that’s better. Anyway, Payne is shocked when the intercom announces that “Senator Jack” is here to meet with Bailey. Payne notes that if they invite Billy in, they can count him out. There’s some admittedly great writing here, by the way:
Payne: “You asked Billy Jack to come over here? Jim, if you bring him in here, you can count me out!”
Bailey, to henchman: “Go ahead [and let Billy in.]”
Payne: “Count me out!”
The point being, I think, that Bailey can count Payne out.
McGhan lets Billy in, and Bailey introduces him to all the henchmen, who prove to be a variety of congressmen and, members of “the Interior,” “the utilities commission” and “the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” etc. Meanwhile, Payne has exited via a side door to avoid being seen. Bailey follows after him. Payne warns that Billy is unlike anyone Bailey has ever known. “This boy is different, honest,” Payne attests, “He’s a decent man.”
Being in the presence of a non-corrupt individual, Payne’s Social Conscious is slowly being roused from its long slumber. Bailey replies that it’s too late to stop things now. When Payne responds that he’ll have nothing to do with “crucifying that boy,” [nice, subtle reference there, Mr. Modest Laughlin], Bailey smirks. He mentions the possibility that Payne might find his way out of office too, while conversely proffering (I think) the carrot of their party’s Presidential nomination. Under this enticement, Payne’s brief rebellion flounders.
Having put that particular fire out, Bailey sends Payne along and returns to the office. He offers Billy some coffee, but Our Hero declines, because, you know, it must be evil coffee. Bailey, being a Rich White Guy, naturally patronizes Billy—throughout the movie, he continues in calling Our Hero a “half breed,” just so we don’t forget that guys are like are racist amongst all their other sins—and tries to “explain” things to him.
Billy asks what interest Bailey personally has in the proposed Willet Creek reactor, and Bailey references his role as the state’s “chairman of the political party.” That’s kind of an awkward phrasing, but to be fair, Laughlin is presumably attempting to damn both houses and not pin the eee-vilness exclusively on the Republicans. (Unsurprisingly, though, this philosophical loftiness generally failed to manifest itself in real life, as when Laughlin threw his weight, such as it was, behind John Kerry in the last election. This is akin, I suppose, to the recent riots in France by self-proclaimed student “anarchists,” who agitated in support of continued restrictive government job regulations.)
Bailey goes on to attempt his normal role of Mephistopheles, having failed to heed Payne’s warnings about Billy’s pristine morality. He notes that with a little help, Billy could retain his senatorial seat, etc, pointing to his collection of toadies as an example of his power. “Are you trying to tell me,” a shocked Billy inquires, “that you tell all these gentlemen here, and that you tell Joe Payne, what to do?”
Bailey confirms this. “Joe Payne has been taking my ‘advice’ since he started running for office over thirty years ago.” Billy can’t believe this of his hero. “You’re a liar,” he bristles.
Bailey orders him to keep his mouth shut when the bill is read the next day, and an infuriated Billy responds by karate chopping the glass table in front of him. Which—and again, this is a Billy Jack movie—is the first burst of ‘action’ in the film’s first 50 minutes. “Now that,” Billy replies, pointing to the shattered table, “is exactly what I think of your threat, Mr. Bailey.” Uhmâ€¦it’s like a broken sheet of glass? Is that it? Because I’m not really sure what you’re going for here.
Late that night, Carol is in a small deli buying some stuff so that she has a reason to be out in the dark and can be attacked so that we understand how eeee-vil Billy’s opponents are. (Oops, sorry.) On the other hand, this is the young lady who recently was shot nearly to death by rampaging National Guard troops as she threw herself over a murdered young boy with hooks for hands who had been shot down whilst cradling his bunny rabbit and trying to protect his cute little pet burro. So, you know, she’s probably already kind of cynical about that sort of thing.
So anyhoo, she leaves the shop, and walks down the darkened, deserted sidewalk, when to our complete and utter shock she is jumped byâ€¦. What? Well, no, that hasn’t actually happened yet, butâ€¦ Ah, there we go. A big black dude (gee, nice touch) in a pink wife-beater T-shirt (?) gets out of a parked car and begins to stalk her. Jaws-type music plays as the man and the car, presumably driven by a compatriot, follow along behind her.
Soon she is boxed in by another pair of cars. (This all seems kind of elaborate, but what do I know?) She throws down her groceries and runs into an alley. This is all part of the plan, though, and Carol finds herself trapped due to the sort of preplanning, manpower and logistical support that went into the D-Day invasion. A kindly old black security guard appears (presumably to offset the party of black men hired to attack Our Heroine), but he quickly falls to the tuffs.
Luckily, Jean has arrived on the scene (she came searching when she learned that Carol went out alone), and exhibits some new martial arts chops, courtesy of an obvious stunt woman. Even so, the pair quickly are cornered in a warehouse by what seems to be at least ten black hoodlums. Jean asks who they are, and they reply by—what else?—opening their apparently standard issue switchblade knives. A weeping Carol asks what they want, and one cat, wearing a huge Rudy-from-the-Fat-Albert-Gang denim cap, replies that “We need your clothesâ€¦off.” Maybe they’re a platoon of Affirmative Action Terminators.
Meanwhile, back at the mouth of the alley, Billy Jack slowly moves into a TOTALLY KICKASS AND COOL silhouetted position in front of some lit headlights. Since he wrote the script, I guess, he knows he can afford to take his sweet time in stopping to pose and then slowly ambling down the alley so as to make this all the more dramatic and such. At the same time, the toughs somehow sense his presence. (I guess; I mean, they’re inside a building now, so they wouldn’t be able to see him.) Perhaps it’s like how you can sense a storm just before a cloudburst occurs.
Billy enters, and the hoods part before him, and all is exaggeratedly silent, because that’s all cool and stuff. Billy does his shtick where he remains all unconcerned and gets all talkative and such, which he always does when he’s about to lay the whoop-ass on some group of dudes. Meanwhile, the toughs take a hell of a lot of time to circle around him and prepare to launch what I think we can safely assume will be a spectacularly failed assault, much of which will portrayed in slow-motion.
During all this, Billy asks who hired them, and proffers various theories. He also asks if hiring black guys was meant to make the attack on Carol look like “a racial incident.” This, of course, is so we ‘get’ that the unpleasant racial notes struck here are courtesy of the Bad Guys who hired these dudes, and not the filmmakers themselves.
“You guys ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” Billy lectures. Not, presumably, because they are violent criminals so much as that they are violent black criminals who have put themselves at the service of Their Oppressor, The Man. Yep, apparently that is what Billy means, since his next line is, “I mean, Kunta Kinte would roll over in his grave if he saw you hire out to The Man like this.” (!!!) And so the futility of attempting to exaggerate Laughlin’s political blind spots is once more exposed.
Meanwhile, in a hilarious bit that would seem downright satirical had the Laughlins even one once of irony between them, the tightly denim-clad Jean now pauses to remove her own cowboy boots as Billy does the same. And so Pacifist Jean, Billy’s partner in all things (as her portrayer is Laughlin’s), now casts aside all her previously established bedrock philosophical beliefs, so that she may get in on the ass-kicking too. The family that kicks together sticks together.
All this goes on at ridiculous length, so that Billy can keep up his endless monologue about policemen breaking the law and blah blah blah. “But rape!” Billy tuts. I don’t want to be pedantic, but, uh, well, you know, I don’t think these guys are policemen. But anyway. (He calls them policemen again later on, soâ€¦are they supposed to be? How would we know that?) Eventually, though, even Billy gets tired of hearing himself speakâ€¦. Well, OK, perhaps not. Yet he probably recognizes that the audience is getting impatient for some awesome, Establishment-defying hippy-happy violence.
Luckily, the warehouse is full of large, free-standing sheets of candy glass, along with balsa wood shelving units, for obvious reasons. Sure enough, Jean is allowed to kick some ass, although with less authority than Hapkido black belt Billy. Moreover, there’s a somewhat suspicious tendency to shoot her from behind when she’s executing high kicks and such. Meanwhile, in a truly shocking twist, one of the bad guys has actually brought a gun. However, just one of them, and he’s dispatched with a handy vase wielded by Carol. And so the whole Laughlin family (and a stunt woman) got to enjoy beating up a dozen black guys together. Awwww!
The vase sends the guy for a loop, but leaves him conscious. “I’ll tell you, my friend, you’re one hard man to purify,” Billy notes. Whatever that means. Then, using some obvious wire-fu, the compact Billy literally throws the much larger man through the air and into a standing wall-sized mirror; the first of a series of them, which then fall and shatter in sequence like dominoes. If Buster Keaton had been a talentless hack, this is the sort of gag you might have seen in one of his movies. On the other hand, it must be admitted that Laughlin successfully emulates the Great Stone Face in other ways.
An irate Billy is next seen bursting into Payne’s senatorial office, where he confronts his mentor with Bailey’s accusation. “I called him a liar,” Billy reports. Payne attempts to explain the world to his disbelieving protÃ©gÃ©, before suggesting that Billy go home and leave the cesspool that is Washington behind. “The idealist,” Payne muses, “sees everything as black and white, angel and devil.” Actually, it’s not necessarily idealists who do that, it’s a rather a wide assortment of nuts. But anyway. Billy is just too pure for this world, Payne argues. “I know it’s tough to run head-on into the world of facts,” Payne admits. And I must concur, dealing with facts is not Billy’s, or his portrayer’s, strong suit.
Needless to say, however, this sort of thinking is anathema to Billy. Also needless to say, Payne presents his case for politicking and political compromise in about the most ham-fisted, grubby fashion possible, approvingly putting forth as an example how Jefferson made a compromise on slavery. This guy has been in elected office for thirty years, and this is a demonstration of rhetorical prowess?
Then, lest we fail to pick up on such a subtle idea, Payne tells Billy that thirty years ago, “I was you!” In other words, he was then the idealist that Billy is today. See, he’s what Billy could become should he embark down the Eee-Vil Road of Compromise. (Actually, unlike Jefferson Smith, Laughlin has too much pride in his doppelganger to even allow for this possibility, which is why Payne exhorts Billy to leave town, rather than imploring him to join him in Washington permanently.)
Humorously, despite writing Payne’s speech so that he presents the case for business-as-usual in the rawest of terms, Marshall is so much an actor that he is still nearly persuasive. If someone who was actually a supporter of compromise governance, American style, had been allowed to write his lines, instead of Laughlin, he’s undoubtedly make Billy look like a stiff-necked nutcase. Imagine the Alan Alda of The West Wing lecturing an unbending pro-life ‘idealist’ (assuming the show’s writers could ever conceive of attaching that term to such a person) on the realities of compromise and you’ll have a sense of what I mean.
In any case, Payne admits to feeling a paternal fondness and respect for Billy, and warns him to leave before his ruthless opponents do him in. Bewildered and saddened at the confirmation of his mentor’s foibles; well, not foibles, rather that his mentor is an outright Agent of Evil, Billy turns and leaves.
The next day, the Evil Bill is brought up in the Senate. To Payne’s dismay, Billy is in attendance, wearing his one, ill-fitting brown suit and tie. As soon as the Bill is raised, Billy jumps up and asks for permission to address Section 40, the part where the whole thing about the nuclear plant is hidden. With his phony-baloney job on the line, Payne rears up and asks to make a statement. Billy could, of course, refuse to yield the floor now that he’s been recognized by the Chair. However, he’s all, you know, straight shooter-ish and stuff, and so he politely agrees to let Payne speak.
Thus Billy finds himself sandbagged, as Payne declares that evidence has been brought to his attention, such that he claims to find “Senator Jack unworthy to address this body.” Given the history of the Senate, that’s a bold claim. Maybe he has documents proving that Billy is Stalin. No, that wouldn’t do itâ€¦. In any case, this accusation provokes a huge burble of shocked watermelon, watermelon noises from the assembled attendees.
Promising “a charge as grave as has ever been made from this floor against a fellow member,” Payne asserts that he has evidence that Billy owns the land he suggested be used for his National Youth Camp. “Using,” Payne accuses, “his privileged position for his own personal profit.” Really? That’s the “gravest charge” ever laid by one Senator against another? Seems like pretty run of the mill financial shenanigans to me. Especially given the more freewheeling and rambunctious early days of the Union, I would have assumed that charges of actual treason and the like have been tossed around the Senate floor with some regularity.
In any case, Payne proposes an investigation to see if Billy should be stripped of his seat. Since Billy (as far as I can figure) only has a few days left in his term, presumably this investigation would accomplish its job no matter how it turns out. Flummoxed at being betrayed by his hero, Billy silently sits down.
The investigation is commissioned, and soon Governor Hopper is testifying. (Billy, back in his traditional denim threads, is seated alone at a table directly to the side of the committee table. This doesn’t make much sense, but it does allow us to see him and the line of committee members in the same shot.) There follows the traditional montage of witnesses testifying falsely against Billy.
(By the way, and it’s a little late to think of it now, but whatever happened to those ten or twelve black guys Billy and Jean and Carol captured? I mean, he did call the cops and have them arrested, right? Were they in fact policemen? Wouldn’t one of them have likely cracked and turned state’s evidence? I don’t know, that seems like a pretty big loose end to just leave dangling.)
Next one hand-writing expert testifies to his belief that Billy’s authentic signature is on the lease in question. However, another testifies that this signature is a forgery. And the second guy is black, and thus obviously the honest one. However, then another white guy comes in and backs up the first white guy, as we white guys are prone to do.
I have to admit, I was kind of reeling at this point. Though an hour shorter than his previous opus—although it wasn’t originally meant to be—this movie is still two unwieldy hours long, and narratively lean it ain’t. Good grief, sitting through these movies is like participating in of those 150 round bare-knuckle boxing matches they used to hold.
(Still, and proving that my karma is good, as I unpaused the DVD to continue watching the movie after writing those exact sentences above, it was to find Payne seated at the witness table and testifyingâ€¦despite the fact that a few seconds ago he was sitting at the committee table, but never mind. He starts his statement by averring, “This is an excruciatingly painful duty before me.” Brother, tell me about it!)
For what it’s worth, though, this is probably the best scene in the movie, even if that’s a classic example of damning something with faint praise. Still, Marshall’s restrained acting and one of the script’s better passages really sells the idea of how thoroughly corrupt Payne has become; more corrupt, presumably, then even he understood. As lame as the movie is, hearing Payne publicly trading on the memory of Billy’s uncle, in order to frame Billy while at the same time betraying everything Billy’s uncle died for, is legitimately appalling.
(On the other hand, we do get kind of a plot problem here. To help bury Billy, Payne testifies that when Billy first mentioned to him the idea for the National Youth Camp bill, Payne informed him of the plan to build a nuclear plant at the same site. The idea, of course, is to establish that Billy knew about the plant all along. The problem there is, wouldn’t Billy have made as much money selling the land to the power plant people as he would if they had built a youth camp there? You’d think.)
Anyway, the scene goes on too long, as you’d expect it would. Still, even as someone who has always been an E.G. Marshall fan, I have to say that he’s simply terrific here. Claude Rains played Payne (‘Paine’, actually) in the original movie, and there are few actors I like more than Rains, but Marshall really holds his own. Which, considering how much less he had to work with—he’s working with and under Tom Laughlin, not Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra—is really something.
Conversely, the cutaways to the supposedly pole axed Billy, ‘realized’ by Laughlin via the technique of scrunching up his forehead and hanging his mouth open a bit, probably didn’t cast much of a shadow on the memory of Stewart’s performance.
The committee next calls Billy to the witness table. (Here we see that Payne has returned to the investigating committee table. Is that possible? Could he really stand as a member of the committee while also appearing as a witness before it? That doesn’t seem likely.)
Billy leaves the defendant’s table and walks across the room, accompanied by a burst of peas & carrots peas & carrots mumbling from the extras. He pauses to glare in righteous fury at Payne, and then turns and, instead of sitting at the witness table, strides out of the committee room. In response, Jean hangs her head, and various bit actors are given lines to make sure we in the audience ‘get’ that this retreat makes Billy look guilty. A last shot shows Payne sitting alone, presumably appalled at his role in all this.
We cut to a big party at Bailey’s house, attended by Rich Old White Guys and a bunch of what are evidently—especially if you are familiar with Laughlin’s canon—a gaggle of high priced hookers. Payne is still sitting in stony silence, as we hear Bailey give the order to give Payne “a big build up” over the scandal, presumably in furtherance of securing Payne his promised presidential nomination.
We go to Billy, who is sitting alone on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. (!!) In a truly pointless bit of extravagance, we then cut to Jean approaching him, as filmed from a very high crane (or perhaps even a low-flying helicopter). This shot is not grand, or whatever it’s meant to be, but rather so bizarre and awkward-looking that it merely serves to call attention to itself. On the other hand, that pretty much sums up one of Laughlin’s primary faults as a filmmaker.
Ah, now I get it. They couldn’t get permission to shoot the scene at the actual memorial, so the high shots are used to disguise the fact that the person we see isn’t Jean. However, the truth is sort of revealed via some patently obvious projection shots, with Jean and Billy standing before what is obviously footage of the Memorial rather than the Memorial itself. In case you’re unfamiliar with the original film, this is the analogue to a scene at that also takes place at the Jefferson Memorial, although Capra and his cast were actually allowed to film on the location.
In the original, Jean Arthur (who basically played the Saunders role, and eventually becomes Stewart’s love interest) follows the similarly betrayed and dispirited Jimmy Stewart, and gives a speech that convinces him to resume the fight. Here, of course, the Arthur role has been split in two, since Billy already has a romantic partner. Thus it’s Jean who joins him in the remake.
She sits on the steps beside Billy and reveals that she’s seen Saunders, who just in time has found the MacGuffin File in her and McArthur’s safety deposit box. This just gets back to one of my points earlier. The Bad Guys kill McArthur after he tells them he didn’t keep a copy of the file, taking his word for this when he was blackmailing them in the first place. In return for keeping quiet, all he wanted was a patronage job, which again seems an easier thing to do than committing murder. However, if they had done that, then we wouldn’t have such a neat, convenient, tied-with-a-bow solution to everything.
Jean reports that Saunders is willing to help if Billy should decide to fight back. However, a depressed Billy admits that he doesn’t even know who he’s supposed to be fighting. (Really? It seems pretty obvious to me.) “Who better than you,” Jean asks, “knows that you can’t reform Congress from within?” Whichâ€¦exactly! It’s hard to get past the idea that Billy would never have accepted the seat in the first place.
Then, after asserting the hopelessness of reforming Congress from within, she inquires, “So why don’t you use the filibuster as a way to teach people how they can get a national referendum? You will have taught people how to get around a corrupt Congress.” I’m not sure how that would work, exactly. Also, isn’t the use of the filibuster in service of such a goal sort of, I don’t know, ‘reforming Congress from within’?
In any case, Jimmy Stewart’s filibuster in the original movie provided one of the most famous set pieces in film history, so you knew they’d get to this sooner or later. By the way, I know I’ve already said my piece on the ‘national referendum’ idea, but let me say it again: Bad idea. And at the risk of sounding willfully obtuse, doesn’t the citizenry already have a mechanism “to get around a corrupt Congress”, should they so desire? It’s called an election.
Anyway, we take another quick swirling aerial tour of the nation’s landmarks, accompanied by some lovely music courtesy of Elmer Bernstein. This is followed by another laughably bad rear projection shot of Billy standing before the Jefferson Memorial statue, and reading aloud the inscription hewn into the marble wall. Then Billy looks up in awe at Jefferson’s visage. Properly inspired, with purposeful music blaring, Billy is nextâ€¦sitting himself in the little open air tourist tram. I don’t know, the image just doesn’t seem to match the moment.
And so we take in the sights (again) with Billy, from the eternal flame at Arlington Cemetery to the Washington Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial and so on. During this, we ponder both the very real majesty of our nation’s capitol (despite the fact that Billy’s tour plays exactly like a bad Disney patriotic short from the ’50s, including the obligatory rendition of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” [!!] as Billy gazes upon the statue of Lincoln), while also musing as to what exactly made up the 40 plus minutes Laughlin cut from the original, longer version of this film. Anyone who’s seen The Trial of Billy Jack and lived can testify to its otherworldly bloatedness, but damnation, sir, if this stuff all made it in, what didn’t?
By the way, I’m the last person to scoff at scenes of someone getting choked up while contemplating the likes of Jefferson and Lincoln, not to mention our war dead. I realize also that one can legitimately separate the country from the government. Still, it’s hard for me to reconcile Billy’s apparent worship of Lincoln and (especially) Jefferson, given the contempt displayed towards pretty much all of Western Civilization and the Dead White Guys behind it in the series’ previous entries. Bringing the America of today more into line with the vision of the Founders just doesn’t seem consistent with the attitudes displayed in the earlier films.
Back to the Senate chamber, where once again the reporters in the peanut gallery are used as a not very in tune Greek Chorus. One wag refers to the full house by noting “everyone comes to see an execution,” leading another to ask, “Where are the drums and the guillotine?” Oh, my sides. Oscar Wilde had nothing on you guys, that’s for sure. They remark as well upon Billy’s seeming absence.
However, when the roll is called, and “Jack” is sounded, Billy throws the door open, shouts “Here!” and enters. Needless to say, this occasions much pronounced buzzing from the extras, as well as a shocked look from Payne. At the same time, Jean and Saunders enter the gallery and take two seats saved for them. Lest the sight of Saunders entering the gallery confuse us, they have a reporter blurt, “What’s Saunders doing here?” I’m not sure why this is considered so remarkable, since she’s a former senatorial aide, but there you go.
Billy’s appearance triggers a motion from the floor to have him expelled, pursuant to the findings of the ethics committee, or whatever the hell that was. Said resolution is read as Billy stands looking on stoically. At least I think he’s looking on stoically. It’s hard to tell, since that’s really his only expression. Before the resolution can be voted on, however, Billy asks for the floor. Other Senators object, although the Chair notes that “Senator Jack is still a member of this body,” albeit without yet recognizing him.
To move things along, Jean shouts “Let him speak!” In response, the assembled onlookers burst into raucous applause. Yeah, I’m sure the Senate likes that sort of thing from the visitor’s gallery. Indeed, if I wanted to make sure Billy wasn’t given a chance to speak, I’d do exactly what Jean just did. Being a movie, of course, the Chair doesn’t even order Jean removed from the chamber.
He does pause to lecture the gallery against such outbursts, however, and notes that such will not influence his actions. Then he says, “The Chair recognizesâ€¦” and dramatically pauses—well, ‘dramatically’ pauses, anyway—as the camera cuts around to various faces that have assumed suspenseful expressions, “â€¦.Senator Jack!” You stupid old fart! Now we’ve got another 36 minutes of movie to sit through! Thanks a lot, jerk.
The onlookers respond with another round of applause, and really, it seems quite unlikely at this point that the Chair wouldn’t clear the gallery. Billy begins giving a speech, whereupon Payne stands up and asks if Billy will yield the floor. We cut to Saunders and Jean frantically—and I mean mime frantically—signaling ‘no.’ Again, this is highly insulting, since the intent is clearly to make sure that we simpletons in the audience get that giving up the floor would be a bad idea. Well, gee, we previously saw Billy turn the floor over to Payne and get bit in the ass less than twenty frickin’ minutes ago. So I think we might have figured this out on our own, thank you very much.
Proving himself a political mastermind entirely too savvy to make the same boneheaded mistake twice, Billy refuses. “I yielded once before,” Billy notes (why, yes, now that you mention it, we do recall that, because again, we saw that scene less than twenty frickin’ minutes ago), “and if you’ll recall, I ended up being splattered across the headline of every newspaper in this country and was practically never heard of again!” Everyone in the gallery chuckles at this droll observation, although I must admit, I can’t make head or tail of it.
Billy explains the results of his “coaching,” (presumably from Saunders), as to the ways he can temporarily yield the floor without surrendering it entirely. This is actually extremely arcane stuff, so I’ll forgive the obvious exposition here. For instance, he may yield for questions or points of order and still retain the floor. Payne again asks him to yield, and Billy agrees only after Payne stipulates that he wishes to ask a question. Man, the Robert’s Rules of Order buffs must be on the edge of their seats right now.
In response to Payne’s query, Billy admits that he intends to discuss Section 40 of the Evil Bill. Payne objects that this topic was entirely covered by the ethics committee investigation. This leads to a shouting match wherein Billy replies that he wasn’t “guilty as charged,” but rather, “guilty as framed.” I didn’t think that was a particularly clever line (and he uses it twice), but it’s actually cribbed from Mr. Smith. Maybe it sounded wittier when Jimmy Stewart said it.
More shouting ensues, of the sort that makes you think Al Pacino saw it before filming the climatic scene of And Justice for Allâ€¦ (and believe me, that’s no compliment), and there are gasps of shock from the gallery, and so on. However, I’m too tired to examine all this in detail, especially as we’ve still half an hour of movie left. In the end, Payne, knowing he can’t seize the floor, leaves the chamber and implores his fellow senators to do the same. A large number of them do so. Other senators pause first and do some speechifying, because this is a Billy Jack movie, and that means we’ve got nothing but time.
In the end, Billy is left alone on the floor, whereupon he vows to present his evidence to the viewers and reporters up in the gallery. “Filibuster!” an excited reporter shouts, and triumphant horns bray on the soundtrack. Sure enough, we get a Reporters-Running-To-Phone-In-The-Story scene right out of Airplane! And actually, it’s just as funny.
Meanwhile, Saunders enters the Press Room to exhort the reporters to take Billy’s side in their coverage. Giving my jaundiced view of the press in this country, that’s exactly what I’d expect them to do. Still, seeing a professional political hack beseeching the Washington press corps to shill for one side on a political issue is not what I’d call ‘inspirational,’ no matter what the music tries to imply.
Sure enough, after but a few seconds of this, one reporter calling in his article merrily throws off his initial stab at impartiality (which Saunders herself calls “the straight story”) and recasts the lead of his article in a purely partisan manner: “Scratch all that and take this: The most titanic battle of modern times has broken out in Washington. A new young David, without a slingshot, has risen to do battle on the Senate floorâ€¦” Well, you can take it from there.
Back on the Floor, Billy is now reading aloud the Declaration of Independence. Wow, with hard evidence like that, Bailey is doomed. Saunders returns and she and Jean mime directions for what Billy should do next, which isn’t exactly burnishing his Action Hero credentials any. Their instructions are that Billy shouldn’t present his evidence until the reporters return (which, in fact, he wasn’t).
Saunders signals him to read a certain passage from the Senate rules, and he does so. The referenced section allows for, in the absence of a quorum, the majority of available members to basically send out the Sergeant at Arms to haul the errant Senators back into the chamber. As he constitutes a majority of one, Billy requests that this be done, and the Chair so orders.* Now, of course the other Senators should know of this rule, and could stymie this effort just by having left the building. However, that would ruin the movie—well, you know what I mean—so naturally they haven’t.[*This scene is also taken from Mr. Smith.]
At the same time, Bailey is ordering Payne to get back in there and stop Billy, no matter what it takes. “I don’t have the stomach for it anymore,” Payne protests. Bailey wants none of that. “If he starts to convince those Senators,” Bailey warns, “you might just as well blow your brains out.” Oh, yeah. We’ve seen that. One whiff of scandal in Washington and major players all over town start falling on their swords by the bushel basket. In any case, a zombie-like Payne shuffles from the room.
We cut to a bunch of Senators, including Payne, assembled in a side room, presumably while the Sergeant at Arms gathers up enough of them to get the necessary quorum. They are understandably annoyed at the whole situation. One fellow suggests not only tossing out Billy, but Section 40 of the Evil Bill too, if that will help to make the whole thing go away. Payne manages to nix this idea, long enough anyway to whip up support amongst his fellow to simply wait Billy out. He can only hold the floor as long as he can stand, we’re told, and they figure they can wait him out in shifts until he gives up or just literally collapses.
And so the filibuster proceeds, with Billy yakking on. Meanwhile, while Bailey works the phone, pulling strings so as to do everything he can to take Our Hero down. He also orders a flunky to arrange for the tons of fake telegrams that we all remember from the original Mr. Smith.
We cut to that night, as Billy rambles on. He’s now talking about the MacGuffin File. This is actually a bad idea. By reminding us of the file, we now remember that the entire filibuster is pointless. Billy’s got a whole file detailing at length the dirt on Bailey, the Willet Creek project, government officials taking kickbacks.
As well, we’re told, the file details “the astonishing fact that over a ten year period, at fifty eight different nuclear plants, there were at least 141 technical mishaps that came dangerously close to a complete meltdown.” And that doesn’t even cover that time a bunch of killer bees invaded a nuclear reactor and it exploded, killing tens of thousands of civilians and Richard Chamberlain.
(By the way, the folder we saw looked pretty slim to contain this vast array of information. It must have all been on microfilm or something.)
Anyway, Billy, since you’ve got this file and all, instead of spending days filibustering on the Senate floor, why not just copy it and send the information to the press you moron?! I mean, wouldn’t that pretty much get the same result, easier and quicker, and save everyone a whole lot of time? (Especially me.) This is why there wasn’t a MacGuffin File in the original movie, because, you know, the people who made it weren’t idiots.
OK, let’s raise another point. As is the series’ wont, now that Laughlin has introduced some totally made up information, he runs with it as the basis of a scathing indictment of the Establishment. Here he heaps scorn on the testimony of the nuclear industry following the Three Mile Island incident, for their assertion that the event was a freak one. OH, YEAH?! THEN HOW DO YOU BASTARDS SQUARE YOUR ‘FREAK INCIDENT’ RHETORIC WITH THIS MOVIE’S IMAGINARY STATISTIC OF 141 NEAR QUITE ALMOST COMPLETE MELTDOWNS?! HUH?? HUH??!!
This is, however, probably the most intuitively believable scene in the movie, in that it finds Billy hoarsely blabbing endless hours of nonsense while his sparse audience, occupying a mere fraction of the available seats, slumbers on soundly all around him.
Dawn breaks the next morning, whereupon we find Jean and Saunders sleeping in the pressroom. Again, I think it says something about the Laughlins’ political blind spots that they assumed the audience would cheerfully admire the idea of reporters so blatantly taking sides in this.
One of the friendly reporters enters the room with a dire update. “You better wake up!” he calls to Our Heroines. “You guys are in trouble!” (Hmm, perhaps he’s not a reporter, but a film critic.) “You better call your boy off, Jean,” he continues morosely. “Almost nothing he’s saying is being printed or heard back in your home state.”
The idea is that Bailey, who is also the state’s primary media baron, has choked off any coverage of what is happening in the carefully unnamed “home state.” Two problems. First, that’s ridiculous. No one man could own all the newspapers, radio and TV stations in an entire state, even one with a low population and scattered communities. I’ll admit the idea was somewhat less suspect back then than it would be now, what with the Internet and cable and all, but it’s still a lot to swallow.
But let’s say he has put pressure on all the other media outlet owners and succeeded at this. The larger problem is that the natural answer to this devastating setback is, “So what?” Billy’s filibuster is clearly a huge national story (especially following the previous accusations of corruption against him), and we’ve seen—yay!—that the national press corps is totally in his pocket and willfully slanting coverage his way to a grotesque extent.
Aside from those juicy angles, however, the fact is that Billy has in his possession a file detailing governmental corruption and a history of myriad hidden “near melt downs” over the last decade. Good grief, this is just a few years after Watergate. The national coverage on this would be explosively huge, as a legion of starry-eyed reporters dreamed of becoming the next Woodward and Bernstein.
In Mr. Smith, the battle between a National Youth Camp and the construction of a dam—not a nuclear plant, obviously—was in fact mostly a local concern. (And, of course, there was a lot fewer media outlets back in the ’30s, so the control by one man of the state’s newspapers and radio stations was a lot more believable.)
In contrast, the issues and stakes here, per the tradition of the Billy Jack series, have been dramatically scaled up and are clearly national in nature. Hell, there’s even a murder involved in all this. Even if we stipulate that Bailey could engineer a complete media blackout in Billy’s home state (regarding a gigantic national story revolving around one of their own Senators, who himself is a hugely popular local folk hero), it wouldn’t really matter. Such evidence of nationwide corruption and nuclear malfeasance would be evoking pressure on the Senate, as well as all the other political institutions, from every corner of the country.[*Meanwhile, fans of the previous Billy Jack might be wondering, “Well, what about the TV station at the Freedom School?” In The Trial of Billy Jack, this facility was established as having huge national impact via their fearless political exposÃ©s. So much impact, in fact, that ultimately the Man had the station blown up, and then sent in the National Guard to massacre the students, lest he be destroyed by this Shining Instrument of Justice. Anyhoo, they cover this by briefly noting, “They busted up your TV station, and cut your transmitting cable.”]
Jean is infuriated by this manifestation of the Man’s stranglehold on, well, pretty much everything. She sneers, “So that’s your ‘freedom of the press?'” and then runs around kicking and overturning furniture in her righteous wrath. I had to laugh, however, when her rampage ends with her petulantly moaning, “It’s just not fair!” This is a woman who understands what the theme song of Malcolm in the Middle is telling us.
Now we get to the section of the movie where Billy nobly staggers around on his last fumes of energy, declaiming raggedly through a ravaged throat. It’s at this juncture, moreover, that we find him pushing the National Referendum idea. (Hilariously, he refers to this massive rewiring of our entire governmental system as “one little tool.” That’s like calling World War II ‘one little spat.’)
I found his pushing the Referendum at this exact moment kind of funny, because at this point most of the people in the chamber wouldn’t even be able to make out what he was saying. This situation is in fact emphasized by their attempts to compensate for Loughlin’s stagy whisper, which they do by cranking up the volume on his voice. As always when dubbed dialogue sounds overly loud, this merely calls attention to itself.
In sum, Billy pushes the Referendum as a mechanism for guaranteeing that the Will of the People isn’t impeded by our constitutionally ordained branches of government. I’ve already spent a lot of time on why I think the referendum / initiative idea is bad, not to mention illegal on the face of it. However, I’ll again note my belief that Billy and his pals would not in the real world necessarily find themselves cheering the results of “turning this government back into a government of the people.” I swear, when are these people going to learn the lesson of unintended consequences?
This is supposed to be Our Heroes lowest ebb, by the way, with Billy barely retaining consciousness and Jean just now learning about the sabotage of the Freedom School TV station. With this mighty weapon taken from them, even Saunders tells Jean that they’ve lost, and that she should call Billy off.
Cut back to Billy, who is in full Jimmy Stewart modeâ€¦. Well, you know what I mean. Obviously he’s nowhere near ‘full Jimmy Stewart mode.’ I meant more his incredibly inadequate stab at such. Still, this raises the rather obvious question of why the hell he’d try to fill such shoes in the first place. Not just Stewart’s—although that’s more patently embarrassing, since the contrast is easier to make—but Frank Capra’s to boot.
Anyway, he’s painfully orating with his last ounces of energy and will power on human greed and such. This is where Payne signals to bring in the trumped up flood of telegrams and letters—laughably, as the pages bring in mailbag after mailbag, the scene calls as mind as much the climax of Miracle on 34th Street as that of Mr. Smith—supposedly from a common citizenry vilifying Billy.
Here I sort of hunched into a pre-wincing stance. This proved wise, as they actually do have the balls to let Billy paraphrase Stewart’s famous lines about “you all think I’m licked,” and his determination to continue standing, even if “all the Baileys come marching in here with all their armies and all the National Guards*, and you fill this chamber with lies!” as he tosses around fistfuls of the phony missives.[*The reference to “National Guards” is, needless to say, not found in Mr. Smith. Since Laughlin spent much time portraying the National Guard as a murderous instrument of evil in the previous film, this remark indicates that he has some sort of weird fixation on it. And speaking of weird personal bugaboos, one other alteration to Stewart’s monologue is to again interject a reference to the National Referendum idea. The guy just can’t help himself.]
And so he talks on, and on, and on. And, of course, he draws out a lot that Stewart said concisely, perhaps attempting to paper over their respective and monumental gap in acting ability by juicing up his lines. Finally, though, the script calls for him to collapse dramatically to the floor, and to my eternal thanks, he eventually does.
Everyone looks on in shock and horror at Billy’s still, silent form. (Well, except for me, I suspect. I expect my expression was quite gleeful, in fact). A stretcher is brought in and Billy removed. With that accomplished, the Senators immediately get back to the motion to strip Billy of his Senate seat.
This triggers, needless to say, a thunderous rounds of ‘boos’ and shouting from the Common Folk in the gallery, which again the Chair doesn’t bother to clear. The noise continues unabated, and being unable to continue, the Senators begin to leave the floor. In the end, only Payne, obviously troubled, is left in his seat. (By this time I had lost count of how many scenes feature a troubled-looking Payne sitting alone. It’s more than a couple, anyway.)
We cut to an ambulance (just like in the beginning of the film—Wow!) speeding Billy to the hospital. He rouses and he and Jean have a final tender little scene. This is weird, in that, at least in this ‘short’ version of the film, the plot stuff all gets resolved without us seeing either Billy or Jean again. Said resolution occurs after this scene, and you’d think they’d have left in one shot of Billy and Jean’s reacting to it, but they don’t.
Moreover, this makes Jean’s final lines (ever, after three movies), of “You did it! And you didn’t even once have to take off your boots!” (!!!), sort of weird. Since the events that wrap up the story haven’t occurred yet, these lines are premature. As of this point, in fact, Billy hasn’t “done it.” I can only assume when they re-edited the movie, they slipped back this scene in the wrong order. Or something. In any case, it’s a bit strange that we never see the series’ main characters again following the film’s halfhearted climax.
Anyway, we cut back to the Senate, and again they introduce the ‘expel Billy’ motion, and because this is the climax, the gallery stays quiet this time. Why? It’s the old It’s In the Script trick. Anyhoo, as our hearts beat in suspense over whether Good or Evil shall triumph, and just when all looks darkest, the day is saved.
Payne, inspired by Billy’s brave example, jumps up and provides the plot’s deus ex machina by confirming everything Billy said about Bailey and the Willet Creek plant. (This should be Marshall’s best scene, but it’sâ€¦too big. He’s better in the smaller moments, when the script and Laughlin’s direction don’t force him into histrionics.)
Again, I can only assume some material got cut here. As things stand, the immediate reaction to Payne’s tearful and wrenching confession of corruption is to show those in the gallery jumping up, shouting and applauding in frenzied celebration. (!!) Presumably in the original version this festivity actually followed Billy’s public vindication, or the voting down of the nuclear power plant, or something. In any case, the re-editing here is quite misjudged, as Payne’s confession doesn’t seem like something that should be triggering shouts of joy from onlookers.
Andâ€¦wrap.[By the way, if I remember correctly, Paine (the senator in the first movie) actually did shoot himself after confessing his sins*, since being ruined was a much bigger deal in those days. In the remake, though, Payne doesn’t kill himself. Did he do so originally, and this was amongst the material cut out? Did they never plan to have him do himself in? In any case, it makes Bailey’s remark to Paine that if Billy wins, “you might was well blow your brains out,” sort of weird.]
(*As it turns out, I didn’t remember correctly. Thanks to proofreader William Leary for explaining, “[Paine] tried to [shoot himself], but someone stopped him. It was after being stopped that he ran onto the floor and announced that Smith’s accusations were entirely accurate.)
Let’s get back to Payne’s climatic confession for a moment. That provided the deus ex machina of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, too, with Paine conveniently having a crisis of conscious and handily confirming all of Jefferson Smith’s charges. The difference is that the remake moronically introduces another deus ex machina in the MacGuffin File. Hilariously, after going to all the trouble of establishing the thing and continuing to work it into the script, they then pretty much have to ignore the implications of the thing.
If Billy has the file, then he has more than enough concrete evidence to blow the lid off the whole scandal without having to go the whole filibuster route. However, the filibuster remains easily the most remembered part of Mr. Smith, and you just could not remake the film sans it. Thus, the MacGuffin File is not only a pointless and time-wasting plot device*, but they actually have to work around the damn thing.[*Although if the Billy Jack series proves anything, it’s that whether stuff is pointless and time-wasting was not one of Laughlin’s major concerns.]
All that’s left is the closing credits, and sure enough, even those prove entertaining. (No one can say that Laughlin isn’t a total filmmaker.) For instance, as the character names scroll past, we see that although they are generally the same names used in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, several of them are spelled differently. (?!) Thus ‘Paine’ becomes ‘Payne,’ and ‘McGann’ becomes ‘McGhan.”
The second funny thing is that, presumably in hopes of reminding people that despite this most un-Billy Jack-esque movie, this is still a Billy Jack movie (which, given the dearth of action scenes, was perhaps wise), the credits are accompanied by a new version of “One Tin Soldier,” the famous theme song from Billy Jack. Frankly, the redo is not very good. Imagine a typically awful production number on The Brady Bunch Variety Hour featuring a silk-swathed ‘Jan’ or ‘Marsha’ inadequately warbling “One Tin Soldier,” and you’re pretty much on the mark.
After a few bar of this, I formed a cynical suspicion that was confirmed by a later credit: “One Tin Soldier Performed by Teresa Laughlin.” Teresa, of course, played Carol in the series, and had been afforded the opportunity to assault the audiences’ eardrums on more than one occasion. Not since Arch Hall Sr. has a man done more to showcase a child who couldn’t sing nor act.
Jabootu fans will also be pleased to learn that MegaForce director Hal Needham is credited as the film’s stunt coordinator. Assuming a huge number of martial arts scenes weren’t amongst the material cut, then Mr. Needham must not have labored overmuch on this one.
Following the success of 1977’s Oh, God!, popular country singer/composer John Denver seemed on the brink of a fruitful movie career. One of his dream projects was to remake Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The rights, however, were held by film producer Frank Capra Jr., the son of Mr. Smith director Frank Capra. Interest in the project was high—it was thought a feel-good romantic comedy about cleaning up corruption in Washington would play well in post-Watergate America—and Mr. Denver was outbid by Tom Laughlin. One can only imagine that Denver’s version would have been a more orthodox retelling (certainly he was more of a Jimmy Stewart type), and almost by default a better movie, even if it weren’t that good.
Laughlin, however, was still riding high on the monumental financial success of both Billy Jack and the elephantine artistic disaster that was The Trial of Billy Jack. Astoundingly, the latter was 1974’s fifth most successful film, drawing a then monstrous $31 million plus at the box office. The only films to do better than year were Earthquake ($36 million), Young Frankenstein ($38 million), Blazing Saddles ($48 million) and The Towering Inferno ($49 million).
Viewing himself as a perfectionist and a bit of a cinematic genius, Laughlin was well known for run-ins with the Hollywood establishment, as well as the critics. (Following the critical lambasting of Trial of Billy Jack, Laughlin sponsored a well-funded national essay contest on why critics were out of touch with the Common Man, i.e., those who made Trial a gigantic success.) Laughlin always spent money freely, which didn’t endear him to the studios.
Perhaps seeing that his moment in the political landscape was passing (or perhaps just wanting to be all things at the same time, and screw consistency), Billy Jack Goes to Washington appears an obvious bid to reach past the youth audience that had flocked to his previous films, at least until the failure of his then recent The Master Gunfighter.
Thus he chose to remake a venerable Hollywood classic, instead of making an original film, and hired for the first time a cast of familiar faces. Admittedly, these actors were primarily known for their television work (including neophyte screen actress Arnaz, who’s was then most recognizable from appearances on her mom’s TV series The Lucy Show), save only for the elderly screen star Pat O’Brien. Still and all, it was the sort of veteran professional cast you might expect to see in a real movie.
To be fair, if it is fair, Billy Jack Goes to Washington does take quite a lot directly from the original film. Much of the dialogue heard during the Senate scenes reflects that heard in Mr. Smith, and many scenes, like the one at the Jefferson Memorial, are similarly mirrored.
On the other hand, Mr. Laughlin’s political paranoia is about as far from Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart as you can imagine. A bigger problem is that trying to brundlefly Jefferson Smith and Billy Jack into the same character is so inherently illogical that a Star Trek robot’s head would explode after watching but a few moments of the movie. Also, Jimmy Stewart didn’t kick as many people.
The above probably as much as anything else encapsulates why the film bombed. The Trial of Billy Jack might well be the worst hit movie in cinema history, but it played cannily to the yens of its (presumably stoned) target audience. Billy Jack Goes to Washington takes that audience for granted—and with the end of the draft and the Viet Nam war, the ‘youth movement’ itself was already dissipating—while trying to sell the character to an entirely alien demographic.
To wit, older and Middle American viewers (such few as there were, anyway) were most likely turned off by assertions that the government went around assassinating people on a weekly basis. Once assumes the obligatory bad mouthing of the average American didn’t go over that well either.
At the same time, Billy’s core audience of left-leaning teens and college students—no longer quite as stoned, perhaps—no doubt wondered why he was spending so much time staring dewy eyed at statues of fascistic Dead White Men like Jefferson and Lincoln, and so little time applying his foot to some redneck’s face.
Presumably everyone, meanwhile, was turned off by the fact that Billy Jack Goes to Washington is an awful movie.
In any case, after spending a then sizable $7 million on the film, including $750,000 to meticulously recreate the Senate Chamber after being denied permission to film there (for obvious reasons), the movie was judged such a fiasco it was barely released. It hit a few screens, did as badly as had been predicted, and closed up shop. Laughlin was ruined as a filmmaker.
Bad Movie pioneers the Medved Brothers* nominated Billy Jack Goes to Washington as The Worst Film You Never Saw in their seminal tome The Golden Turkey Awards. The category referred to films that were so evidently bad that they never got released, or, as in the case of Billy Jack Goes to Washington, got the merest token release. (The book was written in 1980, it should be noted, before there was a home video market. If you didn’t see a movie in the theater or on the few TV channels back then, it had basically disappeared off the face of the earth.)[*The Medveds largely agree with some of my analysis of why the film failed: “Billy Jack does manage to deliver several long, preachy speeches on the Senate floor,” they write, “but disappoints his fans by gesturing only with his hands and not with his bare feet.”]
The competition was impressive, including the legendary Jerry Lewis Holocaust epic The Day the Clown Cried and a truly dreadful sounding Alan Alda war comedy called The Extraordinary Seaman. (Really making my mouth water is that the latter was helmed by one of Jabootu’s favorite directors, John Frankenheimer.) Billy Jack Goes to Washington won, but the Medveds noted that this was partly because of Laughlin’s shenanigans after it was pulled from release.
What they are referring to was Laughlin’s oft-stated and continuing contention that the film was torpedoed not by the movie going public, but by the government. (It should be noted that the ’70s saw slews of paranoid political dramas, including several near-classics like Three Days of the Condor and Winter Kills. I guess only Laughlin’s films were considered so dangerous as to force into action the Shadowy Forces that blocked Billy Jack Goes to Washington’s release, though.)
Laughlin ‘documents’ this in his book The Legend of Billy Jack:
“The personal theater in the Laughlins’ Brentwood home was filled with celebrities and powerful politicians. Indiana Senator Vance Hartke was there with his wife, Diana. So was Lucy Arnaz, and her legendary mother, Lucille Ball, and all the contacts the powerful usually bring along. They had gathered in the Laughlins’ Rockingham home that night for a special screening of Billy Jack Goes to Washington.
The screening seemed to go well. Generous comments were exchanged, and the small, but influential, crowd appeared to be gripped by the action on the screen. But when the final credits rolled through the projector and the lights came back up, Laughlin was greeted by an unexpected scene.
The Senator from Indiana got up and started screaming at him — “You communist son of a bitch! I absolutely guarantee you, you will never get this picture released. Everything you have, this house, everything, in one year — gone! You’re dead.”
Then, kicking over chairs he charged at Laughlin, but those around him were able to restrain the enraged Senator who was now storming out of the house and violently pushing the gate open with such furious force that he broke the electric motor. Hartke’s wife was in tears, embarrassed, and Delores and Lucy were trying to comfort her, as she apologized for an outburst that had surprised and hurt her more than anyone in that room. It was an awkward moment, and it lingered until the celebrities and politicians said their goodnights and filed out of the house.
As it would turn out, the small group gathered at Rockingham that night had attended one of the only screenings Billy Jack Goes to Washington would ever have. The picture would never be released, just as Hartke* promised.”[*For the record, Hartke was a lifetime liberal Democrat well known for his opposition to the Viet Nam war.]
Personally, I find a spontaneous reaction of death threats a more believable reaction to being forced to watch this movie—and remember, the version seen in this anecdote would the one running a full 155 minutes—than Laughlin’s assertion that the rest of the viewers were “gripped by the action on the screen,” or that “generous compliments” were issued on the film’s behalf. On the other hand, any compliment about the movie would, by default, be ‘generous.’
Laughlin continued to peddle this unlikely tale for years, such as during a 2005 CNN interview for the show Showbiz Tonight. During this, Laughlin asserted, “three years later, [Hartke] gets indicted for the exact crime that we showed in the movie.” That’s mendacious. In fact, a retired Hartke (he left the Senate in 1976) was indicted in 1994—nearly 20 years later, not ‘three’—by an Indiana grand jury on charges of polling violations. He served a six-month suspended sentence. Hardly a badge of honor, but neither was he indicted “for the exact crime” shown in the film—whatever it is that Laughlin is even referring to.
Veteran schlock producer Sam Arkoff produced the first Billy Jack movie, The Born Losers. He had been sued by the contentious Laughlin (as were many others), but remained an admirer. In biography, Flying Through Hollywood By The Seat of My Pants, Arkoff writes that Laughlin invited him to take a look at the just finished Billy Jack Goes to Washington, presumably in its three hour form. Tactfully, Arkoff notes that the film “just didn’t recapture the charming and disarming character Tom had played in Billy Jack.” That might be the kindest thing anyone has ever said about it.
A Good Cast is Worth Repeating:
As with the rest of the family, Teresa Laughlin basically retired from films following the disastrous failure of Billy Jack Goes to Washington, her sole later credit being a small role in 1984’s Breakin’. (!!) Delores Taylor, the portrayer of Jean and Tom Laughlin’s wife, apparently never took on another show biz job of any sort.
Producer Frank Capra Jr. amazingly didn’t go the route of Senator Paine after realizing what he had done to the memory of one of his father’s greatest films. Instead, he continued shepherding such fine cinematic fare as Firestarter, Morgan Fairchild’s The Seduction, Fred Dryer’s Death Before Dishonor and Chuck Norris’ An Eye for An Eye. Truly the apple does not fall far from the tree.
Lucie Arnaz went on to appear in 1980’s similarly appalling and hilarious The Jazz Singer, opposite Neil Diamond and Laurence Olivier. Free of the direction of Mr. Laughlin, she remained the only major cast member in that film not to horribly embarrass herself. 1985 saw The Lucie Arnaz Show, but Ms. Arnaz failed to achieve the success of her mother and the series was short lived. She continues to act, mostly via an occasional TV guest appearance.
Dick Gautier continued to work steadily, mostly in TV guest roles, through the late ’90s. He again played his signature role of Hymie the Robot in the 1989 TV reunion movie Get Smart, Again!
Actor Peter Donat has a role as one of the sympathetic reporters in Billy Jack Goes to Washington. He is, coincidentally, the nephew of Robert Donat, who beat out Jimmy Stewart for the Best Actor Oscar when Stewart was nominated for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A busy TV actor, Peter Donat remains best known for having played Fox Muldar’s father on The X-Files.
’30s film star Pat O’Brien, who played the President of the Senate / Senate Chair in the movie, only took on a few more acting gigs before passing away in 1983. He did appear in 1981’s Ragtime, which marked the return of his one-time frequent costar Jimmy Cagney after a screen absence of twenty years.
Sam Wanamaker continued to have a successful character acting career, mostly assaying heavies. Notably for the Jabootu buff, he played the oily Rupert Murdoch-analogue in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. In real life, Mr. Wanamaker was the founder of the International Shakespeare Globe Centre, and spent decades tirelessly raising funds to rebuild the Globe, the venue where Shakespeare premiered his works. Mr. Wanamaker was also the father of actress Zoe Wanamaker. He died in 1993.
E. G. Marshall remained one of the most familiar and respected American character actors, working steadily up until his death in 1998. Younger audiences probably remember him best as Beverly D’Angelo’s dad in Christmas Vacation. Horror buffs, meanwhile, might recall his turn as a germophobic millionaire besieged by cockroaches in Creepshow. His signature parts, however, were as one of Henry Fonda’s 12 Angry Men, and his starring role in the ’60s TV series The Defenders, a legal series in which he played opposite The Brady Bunch’s Robert Reed. The program is still considered one of television’s finest dramas. Those are just a few roles among the hundreds Mr. Marshall assayed, however.
Among those cut from the film was a young Suzanne Sommers as “Party Girl.” As far as I could tell, all her scene ended up on the editing floor when the film was edited down to two hours. Still, she’ll always have Ants!
As for Tom Laughlin, the actor, screenwriter and director behind the Billy Jack series, he had but three small acting gigs in his future. He played ‘Lou’ the following year in Michael Winner’s Farewell, My Lovely, a part so small that you have to click the (more) button on the film’s IMDB cast listing to see his name. He also appeared in a similarly minute role as one of the Cavendish gang in the legendary 1981 bomb The Legend of the Lone Ranger. Then, ten years later, he assayed Socrates (!) in a British TV special called The War that Never Ends. Andrew Kier and Ben Kingsley also appeared in the project.
His movie career behind him, Laughlin basically retired from the limelight, reappearing mostly in periodic news stories covering his quixotic quadrennial runs for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. He has not, as of yet, achieved that goal.
In recent years he’s started a website, www.billyjack.com, through which he provides his fans further access to his political musings. Unsurprisingly, President Bush is a regular target, and anyone who misses the Billy Jack series will find sustenance in such essays as “3 Fanatic Groups,” which details how The Corporate Oligarchy, the Neo-Cons and The False Evangelicals threaten the very existence of mankind:
“All 3 groups passionately support the most extremist, un-American document in American history: The Bush Doctrine of World Domination and Control through Preemptive Strikes.* This Bush Doctrine is the core principle of Bush Jr.’s Presidency, and was first exercised with our illegal invasion of Iraq for oil. Almost all the men involved in creating it and implementing it are now the core of Bush’s Administration.”[*I’ll bet you didn’t even know that was an actual document, did you?]
Via the site, Mr. Laughlin also hawks his movies, autographed pictures, various books he has self-published (including The Legend of Billy Jack, a copy of which I must hunt down one of these days), a CD called “The Music of Billy Jack”, and T-shirts.
Moreover, especially whenever there’s a Republican in the White House, Laughlin announces that “Billy Jack is needed now more than ever,” and attempts to raise funding for another movie. This includes the present, as Laughlin is predictably a critic of the Iraq war and wishes to comment on it. Believe me, nobody hopes more than I that Mr. Laughlin will get a chance to make that movie. However, since he is well into his seventies by now, I sincerely doubt our mutual dream project will ever come about.
Still, back in a 2005 CNN interview promoting the DVD release of the Billy Jack series, Laughlin dropped these tantalizing remarks:
“We are going to make one. We`re making a brand new 2006 one, and I want to announce here for the first time not only are we going to make this picture, which will be the most controversial, politically explosive picture feature film ever made, and I know that`s hyperbole and that`s exaggerative, but you will see it will be.
And we`re going to launch it with a campaign never been done in politics or social activism or films. A five — nine-month, five major separate events to what it all is about is to end the war in Iraq, the only way possible, by impeaching Bush and Cheney.
And it`s going to be names. Imagine if you can see Forrest Gump now. Imagine Hanks talking to Kennedy. Wait until you see Billy Jack debate with George Bush. We`re going to do computer graphics and everything. It`s going to be really explosive.
Ours is going to be — we`re going to have four feature love stories, magnificent love stories. We`re going to teach young kids the difference between Eros and sex. I`m sure you know that 30 percent of the 13-year-olds today are giving oral sex once a week. And at 20 percent of teenager girls are cutters. They`ve cut their wrists and thighs.
And just like Billy Jack did and like we show on the new [DVD] set, we`re going to take that issue head on, along with the massive political careers.”
Never in my life have I so wished I was rich! Somebody, fund this guy!!
Many thanks to correspondent Kellie Sharp for this missive:
I recently read your newest review and, as always, found it hilarious and enjoyable. For once, I didn’t even take much issue with your political stance, because I agree that nuclear power and nuclear weapons are completely separate issues. However, I did notice that you made some rather dubious claims about the Chernobyl incident (that it claimed less than 100 lives). You make it sound like it wasn’t a “big deal.”
As far as short-term effects, Chernobyl claimed 28 lives within the first three months of the incident. 106 emergency workers on the scene were also diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome. Given the Soviet tendency to downplay the effects of their disasters, we can probably safely assume that these numbers should be slightly higher.
However, it is the long term effects that are the most disturbing and should not be ignored. Over 500,000 thousand workers sent to clean up the area and seal it off have been exposed. Literally thousands of people in the Chernobyl area have suffered from radiation in the form of leukemia, other cancers, and birth defects. It has been estimated (conservatively, I should add) that 40-60,000 people will experience some sort of health problem related to radiation from Chernobyl.[This information came from several sources, including the Associated Press and Dr. Michael Stefany, who has an MA in History, specifically Russian and Central Asian Studies, at my university, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.]
My point in all of this is that we shouldn’t limit our scope to people who died immediately. The example of Chernobyl should be used to show what happens when nuclear power is used irresponsibly. I actually support nuclear power and wish the US would follow Europe’s example, but let’s not forget what happened to these people. They were ignored by the Soviet government once; we should not do the same.
So, thanks for listening to me! I love your site and continue to look forward to your reviews.
All the best!
First of all, it was certainly never my intention to make light of the catastrophic events that occurred at Chernobyl. If my remarks in any way suggested this to be the case, then I am more than a little embarrassed. I clearly should have taken more time in composing this section of the review.
I wrote, “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-generation radiation have ever occurred here [in the U.S.]. 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.”
I should have been far clearer. What I meant to say, and obviously said poorly, was that Chernobyl was an all out disaster, of a sort that frankly I can’t even imagine happening here, and that even using that event as a yardstick, director Tom Laughlin’s rhetoric on civilian nuclear power plants (including the fact that he conflates this issue with nuclear weapons) seems exaggerated.
I meant to point to Chernobyl as an accident of the sort that I don’t believe could happen here, or in any non-totalitarian country for that matter. Chernobyl occurred because the Soviets, as ever, relied on appallingly primitive technology and design (there was no containment building, for instance), which was moreover appallingly maintained and appallingly staffed and supervised. Furthermore, when the incident occurred, the first instinct of the Soviet government was to cover up the incident. Only when radioactive particles in Sweden were discovered did the Soviets admit what had happened.
Another point I inadequately tried to make was that the nuclear power industry, and I’ll extend this to all the nuclear systems in the free world, has a far better safety record than any other industries involved in energy generation,including electrical plants, coal mining and the manufacture of hydro-electric dams. To date, I’ve found mention of only two industry-related deaths. Bothoccurred following a 1999 accident in a Tokaimura nuclear plant in Japan. Two deaths obviously remains a horrible thing, but certainly the number pales in comparison to work-related deaths in other industries.
Even in terms of Chernobyl, the actual death rate, including most probably all those who will eventually die earlier than their time from cancer, is probably less than, say, those caused by the release of deadly chemicals during the Bhopal disaster. In saying this, though, it should be stipulated that Ms. Sharp is entirely correct in noting that the number of immediate deaths does not begin to cover the horrific effects of the disaster.
Meanwhile, others have questioned the figure of ‘under 100’ deaths I alluded to from the Chernobyl incident. Admittedly, estimates of fatalities vary wildly, as this Wikipedia quotation indicates:
“Greenpeace quoted a 1998 WHO study, which counted 212 dead from only 72,000 “liquidators” those who cleaned-up the accident). This contradicts the number of 47 dead liquidators on a total amount of 600 000 people. Greenpeace Russia considers that 67,000 people died in Russia because of Chernobyl’s consequences.
According to the Union Chernobyl, the main organization of “liquidators”, 10% of the 600,000 liquidators are dead, and 165,000 disabled. According to a April 2006 report by the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear Warfare (IPPNW), entitled “Chernobyl’s consequences on health”, more than 10,000 people are affected by a thyroid cancer and 50.000 cases are expected. In Europe, 10,000 deformations have been observed on newly-borns because of Chernobyl’s radioactive cloud, and 5,000 deaths among recently-born babies. Several hundreds of thousands of the people who worked on the site after the accident are nowadays sick because of radiations, and tens of thousands are dead, according to the IPPNW, 1985 winner of the Nobel peace prize.”
Obviously these numbers are all over the map. Note how the numbers jump around from 47 to 212 to 67,000. In the end, I decided the most authoritative and non-partisan report on the matter is probably the one issued in 2005 by The Chernobyl Forum, a group set up by a number of agencies including the IAEA and the World Health Organization, a number of UN bodies, and the governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and the Ukraine. The Chernobyl Forum findings are addressed in this BBC news report.
Key paragraph from the BBC story:
“The predicted 4,000 death toll includes 50 emergency workers who died of acute radiation syndrome in 1986, and from other causes in later years; nine children who died from thyroid cancer and an estimated 3,940 people who could die from cancer as a result of radiation exposure.”
The report also says there is “no convincing evidence” that there has been a rise in other cancers because of Chernobyl. This claim is more controversial, and I don’t possess the time, inclination, or, frankly, the smarts to sort through the evidence and compare all the evidence.
In any case, the 2005 Chernobyl Forum report references a number of actual fatalities referenced of about 60. The estimates of an additional near 4,000 people eventually having shortened lives due to the accident are ultimately unprovable, but I’m willing to accept it.
Many thanks, as always, to Jabootu’s volunteer proofreaders Carl Fink & William Leary who selflessly removed their grammatical boots and went righteously beeee-serk.