Editorial Note: This review was begun last year (2004, for Visitors from the Future), to be posted with a tandem review of the film by Andrew Borntreger over at Badmovies.org. However, Andrew is a member of the U.S. Marines, and learned that he was being sent to Iraq. The good news is that Andrew recently returned safe and sound from his overseas stint. The bad news is that this meant I actually had to finish this article.
Back while I was writing the initial portion of this piece, President Ronald Reagan passed away. It was impossible not to be struck by the profound difference in how Reagan and Billy Jack portrayer Tom Laughlin viewed America. To Reagan, America was the oft-cited shining city on the hill, a glowing lantern of liberty offering hope and inspiration in a dark world. To Laughlin, America was an evil, racist country, one so hopelessly corrupt that, in the end, its overthrow was the only hope for world peace and progressive human enlightenment.
Motivated by his beliefs, Tom Laughlin made a handful of films, and many millions of dollars. To his credit, he reinvested his money in his pictures, hoping to convince others of the validity of his beliefs. The result was that he lost much of his fortune when his moment passed. His vision of America lost favor with even the majority of those who once shared it, and his final film was barely released at all.
Motivated by his beliefs, Ronald Reagan was twice elected President of the United States. His successes were many. The one that overshadows all others, however, was his aggressive prosecution of the Cold War against an enemy that he rightly named an Evil Empire. In the end, his policies were instrumental in triggering the collapse of the Soviet Union. One result was perhaps the single most inspiring event of the 20th century. A few years after Reagan left office, the peoples of a divided Germany rose up and, as Reagan had once demanded, tore down a wall that had stood as one of history’s starkest symbols of tyranny.
Lech Walesa, another key player in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, noted upon President Reagan’s passing, “When talking about Ronald Reagan, I have to be personal. We in Poland took him so personally. Why? Because we owe him our liberty. This can’t be said often enough by people who lived under oppression for half a century, until communism fell in 1989. Poles fought for their freedom for so many years that they hold in special esteem those who backed them in their struggle. Support was the test of friendship. President Reagan was such a friend.”
Former Soviet dissidents also lauded Reagan. Natan Sharansky recalled that while languishing in a Soviet prison in 1983, he had read of Reagan’s speech in which he named the Communist state an Evil Empire. “I remember what a burst of enthusiasm this gave us political prisoners. Finally, here was a Western leader willing to call things as they are and expose the true essence of the Soviet Union. We dissidents always knew and felt that the most important thing was not to give in to illusions, not to be deceived by the Soviet Union. And that one day when the West finally saw the Soviet Union for what it was, there would be hope for victory.”
At the time of Tom Laughlin’s greatest influence, he considered America to be in its twilight, a mindless, malign and brutish monster, and hoped to hasten its fall. At the time of Ronald Reagan’s greatest influence, he considered America to be in the morning of its greatness. Laughlin sought the destruction of a tyrannical nation that never existed outside his own mind. Ronald Reagan sought the destruction of tyranny itself. His work remains unfinished, but his legacy can be found in the broken shackles of millions upon millions of his fellow human beings. God bless you, Ronnie.
The Pre-Trial of Billy Jack
The character of Billy Jack is an authentic cultural artifact of the ’70s. An ass-kicking Viet Nam vet and half-caste American Indian would-be pacifist, Billy-his last name was actually Jack-was the creation of hyphenate filmmaker Tom Laughlin. Billy Jack’s rise was meteoric. His box office success, for a brief period, was literally incredible, and his downfall was mercilessly swift. Billy Jack, and Mr. Laughlin himself as a filmmaker, were so of their time that they couldn’t exist for a moment outside of it.
Mr. Laughlin, who wrote, directed and starred in the films, often under a variety of assumed names, was definitely an auteur in the classic sense of the term. Watching his films is akin to striking up a conversation with an intelligent and personable stranger. You might not find yourself agreeing with his views, but they are well articulated and interesting.
After a while, though, you grow increasingly wary, even disconcerted, by the direction of some of his remarks. In the end, you fully surrender to shock when he suddenly starts spouting off about the Jewish Media or UN black helicopters or the Illuminati. Mr. Laughlin appears to be a very nice and caring guy, a loving family man, and not a half bad filmmaker. He’s also clearly a kook.
The character of Billy Jack initially appeared in Born Losers, a 1967 biker flick Laughlin made for exploitation mavens Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson. Biker films were very popular at the time, and Arkoff and Nicholson’s company, AIP, went on to produce quite a few of them. (Ironically, however, their best remembered biker character is probably comedian Harvey Lembeck’s Eric Von Zipper, a parody of Marlon Brando’s Wild One, who appeared in a number of the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello Beach movies.)
Being in many ways a generic exploitation picture, Born Losers is the least typical chapter of the Billy Jack series. The DVD and video package for the movie (marketed by Laughlin himself, as he now owns the rights to the series) maintains that Laughlin had sought to make a film more in line with the later ones. Stymied by an inability to raise the necessary funds, however, he agreed to provide a more prosaic potboiler. Unlike most Hollywood stories, this one has the ring of truth about it.
Born Losers opens with a bit of narration that rather compactly provides Billy’s backstory: “He had just returned from the war, one of those Green Beret Rangers. A trained killer, people would say later. Before the war, he had hunted down and broken wild horses in these mountains. Some said the reason he was so good at these things, and the reason he lived alone in this forest, was that he had some Indian blood in him. Others said he simply didn’t like people. All I knew was his name: Billy Jack.”
Oddly, however, Billy isn’t really the picture’s central character, as indicated by the poster art reproduced above. (Although when AIP released the film following the incredible success of Billy Jack, a new poster was commissioned that featured Billy front and center.) That role is taken by Vicky, a poor-little-rich-girl. She is, inevitably, the product of bad parenting, in this case a negligent father. It’s this character who provided the opening narration. Vicky ends up being harassed by a motorcycle gang headed up by erudite biker Daniel, who unsurprisingly has a long-running antagonist relationship with Billy.
Vicky, along with several other local girls, is eventually raped by the gang. In the end, Billy rescues Vicky, shoots Daniel, and seemingly gets the girl. However, almost like a TV pilot that features a different secondary cast than the one that ends up in the subsequent series, Vicky disappears without a trace by the second movie.
Born Losers is kind of interesting. It has signs of where Laughlin would take the Billy Jack character in the future, yet all the while remains a fairly standard biker flick. There’s lots of gratuitous violence and mayhem, including the aforementioned rapes. The authorities inevitably prove unable to help the protagonists deal with the bikers. Even the names of the gang members are cartoonishly generic: Crabs, Cueball, Gangrene, etc.
Billy is forced by his nature to intercede in the gang’s various doings. All he wants is to be left alone, but that, naturally, is not in the cards. His character here is pretty consistent with the rest of the series. He tries to avoid violence, but when it comes time for it, he cuts loose with brutal dispatch.
One rather atypical scene, however, has Billy trying to entertain a despondent Vicky. Heading into his small house trailer, he returns with one of those toy coin banks where a hand reaches out from a hidden panel to snatch up whatever coin you place in its holder. Since Billy seems to own about a dozen things altogether, his possession of this object is more than a little strange. Meanwhile, his attempts to lighten up her mood with it pretty accurately forecast the fact that humor won’t prove one of Laughlin’s cinematic strengths.
The film is comparatively light on political posturing, other than a long scene where honest Billy proves unable to have a delinquent loan extended at the local bank. However, the film does provide a wonderfully pretentious little speech for Vicky, spoken as she and Billy camp in the woods while she decides whether to testify against the bikers who raped her:
“I feel like those stars up there are inside of me, just glowing softly. I’ve always felt that I’ve had a light bulb-like thing inside me, and all my seeds were in it. If I let the wrong person in, the little light bulb would be jabbed and broken, and all of me would pour out and be gone forever.”
Vicky is played by an Elizabeth James, and it’s a pretty big role for someone who can’t really act. This isn’t inconsistent with the later films, however, as acting isn’t one of the series’ hallmarks. Laughlin tended to cast family members and friends in his movies, and many of the people who appeared in them were probably just local townsfolk.
Ms. James’ performance isn’t awful, but it is quite wooden. With her pixie haircut, she’s more cute than classically beautiful, although this actually works in the film’s favor. However, she also looks pretty spectacular in the white bikini she wears for most of the first half of the picture. Director Laughlin-presumably at AIP’s behest, given the dearth of salacious material in his future films-takes due advantage of this by shooting numerous (non-nude) butt and boob shots.
Notably, Ms. James has few other film credits, at least as listed on the IMDB. Seven years later she appeared in the small role of ‘Dispatcher’ in 1974’s Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, her sole other acting credit. As well, under the pseudonym E. James Lloyd, she is credited as the scriptwriter for Born Losers. This is possible, although it’s difficult to believe that Laughlin didn’t have a whole lot of input. Certainly he must have made all the decisions regarding the Billy Jack character. In any case, Ms. James has gone on to become a professional writer, among other things producing non-fiction children’s books and doing reviews for Excite.com.
One of the film’s funnier aspects is how everyone coming across Billy constantly calls him “Redskin” or “Indian” and suchlike. Frankly, Laughlin’s features and coloring do not even remotely suggest someone with American Indian blood in him. You’re willing to buy the fact that he is, in fact, descended from such, but having other characters constantly lob such epithets at him on first sight is pretty hysterical.
As is usual for Laughlin’s films, there’s little healthy sexuality on display here. Billy and Vicky perhaps make love at one point, but that is, at best, an implication. Meanwhile, almost all the sex actually portrayed here is violent in nature. Three townie girls go to party with the bikers, and end up getting themselves raped. One girl is driven into a catatonic state by this indignity; another later suffers a similar fate after being threatened again. In fact, she ends up staring into space while sucking her thumb! Meanwhile, the last girl strikes out at her uncaring mother by announcing of her rape, “I liked it, do you hear? I LIKED IT!!” Yikes!
This brings us to the portrayal of parents in this film, and later in the series. I don’t know where Laughlin got his grudge against parents-hopefully not from his own-but man, there’s barely a single healthy family relationship to be found here. Catatonic Girl’s father is an ineffectual nebbish, and he’s the best of the lot. Vicki’s father is never around, and constantly breaks his word to her. Indeed, she’s only in this fix because he failed to show up for a promised visit.
Thumb Sucking Girl’s single mother, meanwhile, is an overage barfly/slut, played in an extended cameo by Jane Russell (!!). “I Liked It!” Girl’s mother is a self-absorbed shrew who treats her daughter like furniture. With a mom like that, the film seems to be saying, no wonder the girl likes to be degraded. The same sort of rationale is advanced for biker leader Daniel himself, as his father turns out to be a drunken, violent lout given to beating his children.
In fact, the film’s entire worldview is grossly nihilistic. Pretty much everyone save Billy and Vicky is a brute or a coward. When Billy intercedes to save one guy from a savage beating, he himself is the one who gets arrested and sentenced to jail.
This occurs in a scene that, rather oddly, feels like something from a Dirty Harry movie. The judge orders Billy to pay a stiff fine-and we know he’s broke-because if citizens “take the law into their own hands,” society will become a jungle, blah blah. Of course, it’s already a jungle, which is why Billy had to act in the first place. Meanwhile, despite their vicious assault, the bikers go free. Given the portrayal of the justice system in the rest of the movies, as part and parcel of how The Man keeps The People down, this take is strikingly bizarre.
The most off-putting moment occurs when the authorities and townsfolk refuse to accompany Billy to the biker’s lair for the film’s climatic confrontation. Of course, this is a classic hero moment, and Billy has indeed been much put upon. Still, he stops to sneer, “Whatever they did to your women? You deserve it.” That’s an appallingly ugly statement, I don’t care who you are.
For what it’s worth, Laughlin already shows signs here of being at least a competent director, although he’s prone to occasional artiness. The acting, meanwhile, is all over the map. Of the major actors, the guy playing Daniel comes off best. His performance is actually quite good. Laughlin is fine, of course, because it’s hard to look that bad when you underplay everything.
Things I Learnedâ„¢ from Born Losers:
- It doesn’t pay to keep goading biker gang members.
- Rape drives the majority of victims into catatonic states.
- 98% of parents are emotionally and/or physically abusive, and hated by their children. The rest are just largely ineffective, and hated by their children.
- Biker gangs are big on male bisexuality.
- Except for Billy Jack, pretty much everyone in the world sucks.
- [Things I Learnedâ„¢ used by permission of Andrew Borntreger, Badmovies.com.]
With Born Losers, Laughlin compromised his artistic vision to some degree, and reaped a pretty good amount of success from doing so. This raises an interesting question. Had the film made somewhat less money, and thus limited Laughlin’s ability to call the shots on his subsequent pictures, would he have continued to reign in the overt hawking of his politics? What would have become of his career then? Would he be better remembered today, or less so? Might he have traded the phenomenal success of a few of his movies for a longer overall career?
Those are interesting questions (or not), but what actually occurred was that Born Losers made a boatload of money. This allowed Laughlin to demand much more control over his next film. This proved to be 1971’s Billy Jack, the picture that really kicks off what might be called the Billy Jack Trilogy.
Much like A Shot in the Dark, the second of Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau movies, it was Billy Jack which established the background details and supporting cast we associate with the character: The Freedom School; the groovy, injustice-hating teenage acolytes; the emergence of Indian issues up front and center; Billy Jack’s love interest, Jean (played by Laughlin’s wife, Dolores Taylor); and, of course, the hat. Seeing Billy sans that hat in the first film is like watching the Fonz’s first episode of Happy Days, the one where he wears a blue cloth wind breaker rather than his trademark leather jacket.
As with Born Losers, Billy Jack opens with a female narrator, one destined to become a romantic partner, talking about Our Hero. This is indicative of the series’ monomania, actually, as it implies that once you’ve met Billy, he’s likely to become your main topic of conversation. In this case, the narrator is Jean. She speaks of her history with Billy, and alludes to “tragedy and bloodshed” on the horizon. This reflects Laughlin’s preference for beginning a film by foreshadowing where it will end, an aspect shared by The Master Gunfighter and The Trial of Billy Jack.
Among other traditional Laughlin elements, the film presents:
- A sympathetic but ultimately ineffectual authority figure, here in the person of Sheriff Cole.
- Corrupt and racist townsfolk.
- A series of horribly abusive parents (Mike, a deputy played by Kenneth Tobey [!]; Posner, the film’s central villain; etc.).
- Lots and lots of lectures.
- An Indian ceremonial rite.
- A, shall we say, generally jaundiced view of sex.
- Much blathering about how The Man will never let Billy live out the day, even though The Man is actually shown to work very hard not to kill Billy when he’s all but begging for such a fate.
After meeting Cole and Mike, and learning who and what Posner is (i.e., an evil Town Boss), we cut to the film’s real opening. This features Posner and some of his lackeys, including a moonlighting Deputy Mike, illegally herding wild mustangs. It’s a tremendous, almost hypnotic sequence, probably the best thing Laughlin ever did. It’s pretty expensive looking, too, full as it is of extended helicopter shots. Following the filming of this scene, in fact, Arkoff and Nicholson pulled out of the project, fearing that Laughlin would be unable to stay on budget.
Significantly helping the sequence’s punch is the film’s hit theme song, “One Tin Soldier” by Coven. I must admit, though, that being more than a little hippied-out from watching Laughlin’s films in short succession, I burst into an uncontrollable laughing jag when the lyrics hit their familiar, hectoring punch line. I can’t argue that the song isn’t a perfect match for Laughlin’s films, however. Both retain a certain raw power, despite being hamfisted, self-righteous, pretentious, humorless and sermonizing works which exhibit not a speck of irony or self-awareness.
With the horses eventually corralled, the men prepare to shoot them down. (The carcasses are to be sold to a dog food factory.) Posner tries to force his conflicted, tortured son Bernard to kill a horse, but is disgusted when Bernard proves unable to. Posner gives the general order to begin massacring the horses when mystical ‘Indian’ music is heard and a rifle-toting Billy Jack rides into view. After a typically exaggerated display of his shooting prowess, along with the obligatory pontificating and epigrams (“When policemen break the law, then there isn’t any law, just the fight for survival”), Billy sends them off, their tails between their legs. Posner, of course, vows revenge.
Mike returns home to confront his runaway teenaged daughter, who’s just been brought back from Haight-Asbury. (!!) She goads him with tales of her sexual adventures, the punch line being that she’s pregnant, perhaps by a black lover. Eventually he gives her the response she seems to be seeking, and slaps her hard across the face. Subsequently, Billy Jack finds her badly beaten and lying in a field.
At the hospital, Billy confers with Sheriff Cole and Doc, the film’s sole other Good Authority Figure. (Doc returns in the next film, while Cole doesn’t, although he’s replaced by a similar character.) To protect her, they talk Billy into stashing her at the Freedom School. She pipes up, saying she doesn’t want to go to a school. Because, you know, they’re mind-control factories run at the behest of The Man. Doc explains that this is a really groovy school, however, and she agrees to go.
We go to the school, where we meet Jean as she teaches the kids some rodeo-style riding. “When I took over this school, out here at the reservation,” Future Jean narrates over the obligatory montage of school footage, “I knew there would be trouble. First, because I opened it up to any kid with a problem; black, white, Indian, Chicano. Who could come any time they wanted, stay as long as they wanted and leave when they wanted, no questions asked.” (To the extent that many of these kids look underage, yeah, that would present some legal issues.)
“They became even more hostile when I announced there were only three rules: No drugs; everyone had to carry his own load; and everyone had to get turned on by creating something. Anything. Whether it be weaving a blanket [cut to a student working a loom], making a film [cut to a film projector], or doing a painting [cut to several paintings with American Indian themes], preferably something that made one proud of one’s own heritage and past.” Oddly, none of the paintings we see feature the American flag or the Founding Fathers or anything along those lines. I guess that’s not the sort of ‘heritage and past’ Jean is talking about.
By the way, if you think that ends Jean’s litany, you don’t know much about the Billy Jack series: “Or by getting involved in such strange things as Yoga mediation.” [OK, fair enough.] “Or Psycho Drama and Role Playing.” [Uh, wellâ€¦] “Things that the townspeople could never understand.” [Wow, nicely bigoted remark. By the way, I think the ‘problem’ with the townspeople is that they understand these things all too well, and know a big, steaming pile of bull*&#% when they smell one.]
At first, Barbara stays aloof, content to merely observe. Then, at Jean’s request, two hippie-esque instructors involve her in a role-playing exercise. At first she resists, but under her fellow student’s nurturing henpecking she soon participates and, like, you know, begins to grok everything and attain self-esteem and abandon her self-destructive behavior. Far out, man. And yes, people do say “Far out” in this movie. And unironically, to boot.
I’ll spare you the details of all this. In fact, there’s no reason to explore this movie at any great length. Eventually racist rednecks, led by Posner, torment some of the students enough that Billy Jack kicks some ass. Then Barbara’s dad tries to get her back, Jean is raped by the hopelessly confused Bernard, after which Billy whacks him in retaliation and ends up in an armed standoff with the police. Billy eventually shoots Mike, too, as well as at least one other cop. The film ends after Jean talks the wounded Billy into surrendering, which directly sets up the sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack.
For those wishing more detail, however, here’s a breakdown of the film’s main sequences, following Barbara’s arrival at the Freedom School:
- Role playing class.
- Bad folk singing by a young student Carol, who also prominently appears in the next movie. Her featured number is a song she wrote about her brothers, apparently recently killed in, you know, The War. This begins “Just going off to war tomorrow / just going off to fight tomorrow / just going off to lose his life tomorrowâ€¦” I think you can take it from there. Everyone cries at the power of her precocious protest song. Here Carol seems to be borderline retarded, yet she’s fully functional in Trial. I guess she’s one of the School’s many, many miracle cures.
- A young Indian man discusses ceremonial rites with Billy Jack. He seeks to become Billy’s apprentice for an upcoming one, in which Billy will subject himself to snake bites. “In order to be an apprentice, you have to be able to strip yourself of your greed and your ego trips in order to let the Spirit enter into you.” Blah blah and so on.
- Further bad folk singing.
- Billy and Jean talk privately. Some students are going into *gasp* Town tomorrow, and she’s worried about them. Billy ‘reassures’ her with a rather unhelpful “What’s gonna happen, is gonna happen” sort of deal. Meanwhile, a pair of students see the two, and in case we’re so completely stupid that we can’t tell that Jean and Billy secretly love each other, the students helpfully spell this out for us. This to the accompaniment of a third student strumming her guitar and singing a ditty entitled, “When Will Billy Find Me?” That’s three bad folk songs in around eight minutes.
- Students indeed head into town in a bus, singing loudly out the windows. Again with the damn singing. No wonder the townspeople hate them. I do too, and I’ve only known them for about ten minutes.
- Of course, the townsfolk react to these free spirits with suspicion and hatred. (Hey, who wouldn’t?) Meanwhile, Bernard tries to show off to his buddies by trying to pick up a hippie chick. He fails woefully.
- There follows the film’s big scene, indeed, one of the all-time classic action movie sequences. Some students enter an ice cream shop, despite the fact that “Indians aren’t allowed.” Bernard, still pissed at being humiliated by the hippie chick, enters with his crew and begins to screw around with them. After insults and punches have been dealt, Billy shows up and puts feet to meat. Then he fights a group of adults in the park opposite. Vastly outnumbered, he ends up taking a beating, but is saved by Sheriff Cole.
- Martin, an Indian youth, impetuously rides a horse and is hurt.
- Jean confers with Doc. Barbara seems to be falling for Martin. (Uh oh.)
- Posner and Mike come looking for Barbara at the school, although they fail to find her. Then they try a bribe. The kids react with scornful folk singing. This goes on for several minutes.
- Jeez, there’s still an hour and fifteen minutes of movie left. Never mind.
Things I Learned From Billy Jack:
- Hippies are quite content to work hard and voluntarily forgo drugs if asked politely.
- Some people actually care to differentiate between role-playing exercises, improv and street theater.
- Hippies say things like “Far out” and “What’s her trip?”
- Cops enjoy unannounced street theater performed in the town’s main drag which include participants threatening one another with guns.
Bernard tries to be smooth with the ladies: “What’s your name?”
Hippie Chick: “Up.”
Bernard, confused: “Up? Ha. That’s an odd name. What’s your last name?”
Hippie. “Yours. [Pause, removes sunglasses] Upâ€¦Yours!”
Bernard’s friends hoot and holler at his folly.
In terms of making his film, Laughlin was no longer willing to play nice with others. AIP’s Arkoff and Nicholson, having funded The Born Losers, initially agreed to do the same for Billy Jack. However, they dropped out when Laughlin proceeded to go way over budget. (Presumably they regretted this decision when the film became a smash hit. On the other hand, its success allowed them to re-release Born Losers as “The Original Billy Jack Movie,” so they got something out of it, anyway.) 20th Century Fox took over, then dropped out for reasons similar to AIP’s, whereupon Warner Brothers picked the project up.
The film didn’t do as well financially as Laughlin thought it should. Irate, and believing the studio had screwed up the picture’s release, he sued Warners. (And thus, presumably, burned his bridges with the established film industry, although one doubts he cared much.) In the end, he won the right to re-release Billy Jack himself. Laughlin then cannily pioneered the use of saturation television advertising, a technique that was at that time a novelty, to reach the film’s target teen audience.
At this point the film became a tremendous smash. Between the two releases (Warner’s in 1971, Laughlin’s in ’74)-with, again, the majority of revenues being generated under Laughlin’s stewardship-Billy Jack generated an astounding $32 million. This gave the film the second highest box office tally of any movie made in 1971. The only film to beat it was Fiddler on the Roof, which tallied around $38 million. Coming in third, and a fairly distant third at that, was The French Connection, with $26.3 million*. That’s right, Billy Jack made more than The French Connection.
[*Figures taken from The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits, by Susan Sackett, published 1996.]
Background on all this-which despite Mr. Laughlin’s very real achievements should probably still be taken with several large grains of salt-can be found in his self-published tome The Legend of Billy Jack. The book can be purchased at http://www.billyjack.com. However, those looking to buy the DVDs of his movies should know that the Billy Jack Collection, which costs about $40 on his site, can be bought for around $12 (!) at http://www.dvdsoon.com. There’s also a “Billy Jack Ultimate Collection” coming out later this month, although I don’t know if that’s any different. It’s possible that this set finally presents the films in a proper letterboxed format, in which case I am even more honked off. I had purchased the films on video, when that was the only format available (and then only through Laughlin’s official Billy Jack site), and paid well over a hundred bucks for the four movies. Then, when they hit DVD, I bought them again. Well, I’m not going to that well again. Really, you’d think a consumer advocate (per The Trial of Billy Jack) like Tom Laughlin would have done this all a little better.
In any case, Billy Jack was a phenomenon. Flush with success, Laughlin quickly manifested a messianic streak. His paperback adaptation of the film, which I used to own a copy of (and wish I still did), contained a foreward in which he noted his profound regret that the Youth of America “have only two heroes: Ralph Nader* and Billy Jack.” It should be taken into account here that Laughlin neither at that time nor at any time in the future made much of an effort to separate himself from his creation.
[*Laughlin, who continues to preach to his increasingly small choir, publicly broke with Nader after the latter ran for president and helped the current President Bush beat Al Gore. Back when I started this review, Laughlin was all but panicked that Nader would similarly aid Bush in beating Kerry in the 2004 election. As we now know, Bush didn’t really need Nader’s help this time around.
Ironically, the only real mainstream coverage Laughlin has gotten over the last twenty-odd years consisted of color pieces about his perennial “Billy Jack for President” runs every four years throughout the ’80s and ’90s. In case you don’t follow politics, he’s yet to win.]
Despite his artistic and sociological pretensions, however, Laughlin’s Billy Jack remains most culturally influential as a pioneer of the action flick. Those who followed in his ass-kicking bare footprints, most notably Laughlin’s increasingly zaftig doppelganger, Steven Seagal, have been aping the flick for decades now.
The movie’s pivotal scene, mentioned earlier, sees Bernard and his thug friends degrading a young Indian girl by pouring flour on her, in a purported effort to make her ‘white.’ This brings down upon them Billy’s wrath, and the result is a genuinely classic sequence. The build-up is great, and the payoff comes when Billy can be seen approaching through the store’s front window. It’s a great ‘Uh-oh!’ moment.
Even here, admittedly, Laughlin’s script is entirely too gabby and florid. “When I see this this girl, who has such a beautiful spirit, so degraded, and when I see this boy, sprawled out by this big ape here, and this little girl, who is so special to us that we call her ‘God’s Little Gift of Sunshine,â€¦” And so on and so on. However, the climax, as Billy famously ends his oration by declaring “I just go beeeerserk” and finally opening that industrial sized can of whup-ass he’s been hoarding, is action movie nirvana.
And that’s just the beginning. After beating the hell out of the perpetrators, Billy must contend with a large crowd of townsfolk waiting for him across the street. Of course, he doesn’t even attempt to get away, but calmly walks over to where they are waiting. There Posner, the film’s Boss Hogg-esque main villain, begins to taunt him. Billy responds by matter-of-factly noting, “I’m going to take my right foot, and I’m going to whomp you on that [left] side of your face, and you know something? There’s not a damn thing you’re going to be able to do about it.” Needless to say, this proves an accurate prediction.
By now Billy has removed his shoes so as to employ his Hapkido fighting technique more efficiently. This little moment really adds to the impression that Billy is a cool professional when it comes to hand-to-hand fighting. As his tormentors attempt to corral him, he swiftly runs around, employing a hit and run technique to inflict as much damage as he can before they take him down. Eventually, though, their numbers prevail, and Billy takes a pretty severe beating. (This is one element that you’ll never see in a Seagal flick.) Only the intervention of the sheriff, again one of the series’ few sympathetic authority figures, saves him from worse.
This is a vibrant and exciting sequence. Even after all these years, following hundreds of films ripping it off with gigantically larger budgets and incredibly more resources at their disposal, it remains a brilliant bit of filmmaking. (On the other hand, Laughlin’s subsequent The Master Gunfighter indicates that he may have shot much of his artistic wad here. The latter film has a lot more action, but little of it is very involving. Indeed, the more the scale of carnage grows, the more incoherent and uninvolving it becomes.)
All this, in the end, only serves to make what follows a perfect summation of Laughlin’s movies. The above referenced segment grabs the viewer and yanks him into the movie. And then, having garnered our fervid attention, Laughlin follows up directly after with scenes like this:
Seven straight minutes of the hippies from the Freedom School acting rambunctiously at a town hall meeting and Speaking Truth to Power and such. During this, young Carol reads at length a quote about the need for law and order, and then-this is the punch line-reveals it was made by Hitler. That’s right, Hitler!! Take that, fascists! Huzzah, it’s about the cheapest rhetorical cheap shot one can think of. Of course, the hippies all groove on it.
- This is immediately followed by another four minutes featuring, inevitably, some horrible ‘improvisational comedy’ skits (starring Howard Hesseman), ala The Harrad Experiment. For some reason, members of the town council agree to view this, pretend to enjoy it immensely (talk about improv!), and then join in on the fun.
- Later, after further beatings and harassment from the townsfolk, the kids unleash their most terrifying weapon: Street theater! This impressively manages to be significantly less funny than the prior improv sketch-which, take my word for it, is saying something-and on top of that eats up another five full minutes of screen time.
Things pick up occasionally after that. Still, it’s fair to say that you’re in trouble when your best scene by far occurs and there’s still 75 minutes of movie left. In fact, after sitting through the above-mentioned three follow-up sequences, it’s seems likely that only the hopelessly stoned will have maintained much interest in the rest of the picture. As for the sane, non-chemically enhanced viewer, a reliance on the fast forward button is about one’s only hope.
Sadly, though, this gristly cinematic fare would prove only a cheesy hors d’oeuvre compared to the vast, pungent buffet that isâ€¦
Our film opens with a long string of panoramic mountain shots, as the camera tracks the flight of an owl. Eerie music plays. A title card appears, “South Carolina State February 1968”. An addendum continues, “3 Dead 27 Wounded”. Next, “Kent State May 1970 4 Dead 9 Wounded”. This is followed by “Jackson State May 1970 2 Dead 12 Wounded.” Finally, “Southern University November 1972 2 Dead 2 Wounded.”
These cards refer to a series of tragic events. In each, the cited number of student protestors were killed or wounded by either police officers (South Carolina State, Jackson State, Southern University) or National Guardsman (Kent State). Sans context, however-in at least three of the cases referenced, for instance, the shootings occurred after acts of student violence-the raising of their specter here, specifically to justify the fantastical and highly paranoid events Mr. Laughlin will portray later in the picture, remains highly mendacious, and more than a little morally suspect. We’ll get further into this later.
The owl lands before a Wise Old Indian Man-is there any other kind?-chanting atop a butte. Below him, a very long funeral procession, made up of American Indians, marches across the arid landscape. Another card appears: “Freedom School 3 Dead 39 Wounded”. I have to admit, seeing this fictional statistic conjoined to the earlier, authentic ones, roiled my stomach.
We cut to Jean (Delores Taylor, a.k.a. Mrs. Tom Laughlin), Billy Jack’s love and the administrator of the Freedom School. She lies in a hospital bed and is being interviewed by the press. “Ms. Roberts, did it ever happen before that so many thousands of rounds were fired into the dormitories in such a short period of time?” one reporter asks. Which, I don’t know, seems like an oddly specific, not to mention idiosyncratic, query. “It’s happened many times before,” Jean responds, referring to the real life shootings cited above.
There’s a word for this, and it’s lying. ‘Thousands’ of shots were not fired at any of the cited events, nor did any of them see rounds fired into ‘dormitories.’ On the other hand, it’s a clever kind of lie. Many will object that harping on the validity of such details is morally grotesque, given the larger fact that students were killed during each event. (Unless, of course, the statement made was instead, “Thousands of shots were fired by federal agents into the Weavers’ home at Ruby Ridge.” Then, I suspect, such minutia would be endlessly scrutinized.)
I speak from experience. I was once discussing on an Internet chat board why Stalin has been so unrecognized as a symbol of evil in this country, as opposed to Hitler. One young fellow hotly replied that it was because of the 12 million people murdered in Nazi death camps*. (When I later mentioned that Stalin had liquidated many more millions of his own citizens than Hitler had, he was shocked to be told this.) I pointed out that the generally accepted figure was actually six million, whereupon my motives in correcting the number became the focus of the conversation. No one came out and said so directly, but there were some less than subtle insinuations that I was a Nazi apologist, and that my fixation on Stalin was an attempt to fudge the horrors of the Third Reich.
[*Editor Ken: Jabootu Proofreading Minister Carl Fink notes that the 12 million figure is indeed widely recognized as accurate. Looking around the Internet, I’ve found estimates of “more than six million” (MSN Encarta) to, indeed, “over 12 million” (the Holocaust Project). The Simon Wiesenthal Center puts the total around 11 million, and I’m more than willing to accept their research. Grotesquely, even this larger figure pales compared to the tens of millions of citizens murdered by Stalin and Mao, although given the enormity of the crimes, such distinctions are indeed difficult for any sane person to grasp.]
In any case, apparently feeling that the deaths of eleven students weren’t tragic enough (and correctly so, in terms of justifying the events that will be portrayed during the next three hours), the Laughlins, who cowrote the movie, will continue to systematically exaggerate the circumstances under which they occurred. I’m somewhat skeptical that Tom Laughlin fully deserves the title his DVDs grant him, i.e., “The pioneer of independent film.” However, he certainly helped pave the way for such later cinema paranoiacs as Oliver Stone, not to mention serial liar Michael Moore.
Any personal fears that I was making a mountain from a molehill on this issue disappeared once I restarted the movie after writing the above comments. Following the above quoted statements, Jean deftly moves from preposterous exaggeration to overt fantasy. She rambles on about the four actual events, then continues “or any one of a dozen [!] others,” where “students are slaughtered by trigger-happy police-types.” Really? A ‘dozen’ other incidents were ‘students’-emphasis on the plural-were ‘slaughtered’ by the authorities? Wow. In that case, I guess it would be petty to ask her opinion of student violence, riots, ROTC bombings and the like.
Even this early in the proceedings, the Laughlins have abandoned the rhetorical scalpel-well, OK, they never used a scalpel; let’s say a big honking butcher knife-in favor of a chainsaw. A chainsaw, moreover, equipped with a rusty, gnarled chain. Thus we cut to one of the victims of the Freedom School Massacre, who proves to be a pretty little blond girl lying in an oxygen tent. Oh, the Humanity.
We return to Jean’s hospital bed. “Has Washington replied to your request for an investigation?” a reporter asks. “Are you kidding?” Our Heroine snorts. “Remember after Kent State, when Attorney General John Mitchell said there was no need to explore the causes of the killing, because he knew in advance the causes couldn’t possibly be the National Guard or the police?” (Considering no police were involved in that particular shooting, actually, I’ll give him the latter.) The reporter follows up. “But didn’t an FBI report prove there were no shots fired by the students, and there was grave culpability on the part of the National Guard?”
This is pretty clumsy agitprop, by the way, writing the script so that the reporters’ questions in themselves reinforce what the film is asserting. (Not that this is especially unbelievable, admittedly, given what the actual press is like.) On the other hand, I really adore the fact that roughly one second after they suggest that only complacent morons would believe that the Gov’ment would actually investigate such a shooting, they attempt to substantiate the point by quoting an FBI report on just such an incident. One that, they themselves admit, found the National Guard “culpable.” Nor do they mention that a report of the real life President’s Council on Campus Unrest-whose existence seems to have slipped Jean’s mind-found the shooting “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
I was planning to get into all this later. However, since they’re serving us this crap now, we may as well address it. First, I should stipulate that I’m one of those people who has a difficult time buying into conspiracy theories. The idea that any group can keep any sort of secret for more than a short time is historically suspect. For example, I believe Lee Harvey Oswald, more or less acting alone, shot and murdered JFK. This film, on the other hand, is a veritable bible for ’70s conspiracy nuts. We’ll get to that later, too.
Let’s stick with Kent State at the moment, however. Again, we’re being fed half-truths here. It’s accurate, for instance, to state that no shots came from the students. However, nobody ever really asserted that this was the case. Now, you can believe, as the Laughlins apparently did-and perhaps still do-that the shooting was more or less an intentional act of the government’s.
However, here’s what I think happened: A bunch of green, nervous teenagers with rifles-i.e., the Ohio State National Guard-are sent to help quell student unrest on the Kent State campus. One fact that the Laughlins apparently considered too picayune to mention is that the act which precipitated the Guard being called out was the incineration of the campus ROTC building with Molotov cocktails. The students responsible then attempted, unsuccessfully, to burn down the campus library. These acts, meanwhile, followed student riots that saw acts of arson and vandalism (smashed store windows, etc.) in the township of Kent itself. During these, the police were assaulted physically with rocks, bottles and other missiles, as well as verbally.
Pursuant to this, the governor calls out the Guard. The students respond with further unrest and the usual ridiculous list of demands from the authorities. This general state of affairs continues on for about two and a half days. During this period, the unruly students continue to harass the Guardsmen, both verbally and by assaulting them with rocks, etc., as they earlier had done with the police. The authorities react by breaking up some of the gatherings with tear gas, after which the Guard withdraws from the campus.
Finally, on the fourth day of all this, the Guard returns to the school grounds with orders to disperse another large student gathering. The students refuse to leave, and again subject the troops to attack by rocks and other missiles. The students were again gassed, although this failed to entirely break up the demonstration. Finally, and tragically, a number of Guardsmen* fire into the remaining crowd. Four students are killed.
[*Different accounts indicate different numbers of shooters. Proofreader Bill Leary provided this Wikipedia link about the shooting. Drawing from various sources, they state that 28 of the 70 Guardsman opened fire, ultimately expending 61-67 shots. For myself, I don’t find the number of bullets fired unlikely, given the number of casualties, but I do think it a bit dubious that 28 men would each fire an average of well under three shots.]
The above facts are all pretty well established. That leaves the matter of what motivated the shooting. Was it a conspiracy? Did the Guardsmen who fired into the students have orders to do so? Had they decided themselves in advance to shoot into the crowd at some juncture? Or did one of them, either due to shattered nerves or, indeed, a literally murderous reaction to the unrest, fire into the crowd, triggering an automatic response from his comrades in arms?
I believe the latter scenario to be much more believable. I believe the same to be true in terms of the larger question. Was there an orchestrated conspiracy of violence against (often violent) student protestors? Or were each of the four fatal shootings referenced above ‘merely’ unconnected incidents, amongst hundreds of similar confrontations between agents of the government and irate young people, where violence occurred due to accident or even conceivably on purpose, but without being in any way tied to the other shootings?
I’ll put my money on the latter. Does that excuse the killings? No. Did the war in Viet Nam or racial injustice or whatever rationale excuse acts of radical violence, arson, murder or robbery? No. There is one difference, though. The blowing up of ROTC centers and murderous bank robberies were without doubt vicious, premeditated criminal acts. The shootings by cops and Guardsmen, in contrast, are quite possibly-and almost certainly in some of the cases-unpremeditated.
That’s why this film is so repugnant. Sure, I’m willing to buy that there were reasons to be to be wary of, or even to outright fear, the government. Much less defensible incidents since, like those at Ruby Ridge and Waco, are stark reminders of that. Still, such events remain aberrations, and are in no way emblematic of the way we as a nation do things. Therefore, to encourage downright paranoia about our government, in service of promoting, ultimately, armed insurrection against it, is horrifying.
Most defenders of the Billy Jack films-and the comments of some of them can be found on the IMDB-argue that people like me have no standing to criticize the Laughlins’ philosophies because we weren’t around back then. Well, that’s crap. I wasn’t around when people in this country owned slaves, either. Does that mean I can’t be abhorred by Birth of a Nation? Should I hold my tongue on Das Juden because I didn’t grow up in the Germany of the ’20s and ’30s?
I actually have heard this argument in person from a relative. He’s a good guy, but he was your typical anti-establishment type back in the ’60s. To this day, you really don’t want to get him going about Nixon. When this occurs, I generally just sit back and listen to him rant, generally with wry amusement. These guys may have hated Nixon, but boy, he’ll never be forgotten as long as these aging hippies are around.
However, one day the same relative started rhapsodizing about Fidel Castro. At that point I couldn’t take it anymore, and we got into it pretty good. Let me sum up my position: If you feel motivated to continue to rave decades later about what a malign, horrible tyrant Nixon was, go to it. Sure, I’ll think you’re a bit silly, but hell, I probably loathed Clinton nearly as much. (Not enough to start yelling about him at the drop of a hat twenty years from now, though, I think.)
However, if at the same time you bleat about the Evil Nixon you continue to view benignly murderous dictators and thugs like Castro or Che Guevera, well, guess what? You’re just an asshole. You can pretend that you and your dope-smoking ilk saved America, or Amerikkka, from the clutches of an evil, Sauron-like madman. However, you’d better not then champion people whose deprivations were a hell a lot worse than ineptly trying to burgle the headquarters of a political opponent, in hopes of procuring an edge in an actual, you know, election. Speaking of, how many of those has Castro held over the years? You know, when he’s not tossing people in jail for decades because they loaned books to their fellow citizens? After all, that’s happening right now, in the 21st century, not thirty years ago.
Hmm, this doesn’t bode well. I’m on the fourth page of this review, and we’re only seven minutes into this 170-minute movie. Best move on. There will, after all, be plenty of opportunities for my own ranting later on. Believe me, we haven’t seen anything yet.
Anyway, Jean, sobbing at the Injustice of It All, fears that she may have to close the Freedom School. Oh, no! Where will youngsters learn street theater and other empty political gestures? (Not to fear, as the recent protests against the War in Iraq indicate.) Meanwhile, one particularly sympathetic reporter-the same one who’s been feeding Our Heroine all the softball questions throughout the above scene-stays behind. She offers to write a book about the events leading up to the ‘massacre,’ which of course is a mechanism for the film to lay before us the Whole Story. Under the woman’s sympathetic prodding, Jean thinks back to when it all began.â€¦
Fittingly enough, the tale begins with the titular trial, the one stemming from Billy’s murderous (if admittedly somewhat justified) rampage in the previous film. “That was four, four and a half years ago,” Jean muses. And believe me, by the time this picture finally ends, it’ll feel like we’ve lived through every minute of it. “What they were really trying was each man’s right to find his own center,” she continues. “To follow his own conscience and do his own thing, without hurting or interfering with anyone else.” Hmm, that’s funny. I thought Billy was tried on account of those killings he committed. However, I guess that’s not really the sort of thing ‘They’ try people for.
Cue a flashback to one of the funniest movie trials in film history. Despite the movie’s title, the actual trial of Billy Jack doesn’t take up much of our time. What’s there, though, is cherce.
We start with Billy on the stand. The prosecutor, who seems to have an improbable amount of leeway in what issues he can raise before the court, is apparently responding to some earlier statement from Our Hero. Throughout this, the camera pans across the courtroom. Eventually it alights upon Billy, at which point it begins to move in on him just as he formulates his answer, a response which blows the mind of the all the squares here in the court.
Incredulous Prosecutor: “”What you’re saying then is that it doesn’t make any difference to you whether this jury finds you innocent or guilty. That it doesn’t make any difference to you, whether you live or die. And you expect us to believe that you have absolutely no fear of the death penalty?”
Super-Stoic Billy: “I have a lot of fear. But I have a lot more respect. Long ago I learned that he’s my constant companion. He eats with me, he walks with me, he even sleeps with me.”
Prosecutor: “Well, I’m sorry. I must have missed something there. Who is this faithful companion of yours?”
Billy, Super-Stoically: “Death.”
At the prosecutor’s behest, Billy continues to ramble on about Death and his place in everyone’s life for several more minutes. At this point I begin to wonder whether the judge was being paid by the hour. Because, I don’t know, this all seems kind of extraneous to the matter at hand. I’d expect the students at the Freedom School, stoned out of their gourds on ganja-like, admittedly, much of the audience during the film’s theatrical release-to find this stuff, like, you know, all awesome and stuff. Oh, wait. That’s right. Nobody at the Freedom School does drugs. It provided the sanctuary from dope and other mind-altering substances that the radical youth of the ’60s and ’70s so craved. Never mind.
We cut away here to meet the piece’s villain. For whatever reason, they couldn’t get a lot of the cast members from the previous film to return. Thus Billy Jack‘s good-guy sheriff has resigned, we’re told. Meanwhile, the Boss Hogg-like Posner has left town and sold all his holdings to his banker brother. (!!) Needless to say, the latter Posner will prove an even more nefarious character than his sibling.
The prosecution tries to muddy the waters by denying that Jean was raped by the original Posner’s son, who Billy went on to kill. We cut to Jean on the stand. “So [another missing character from the previous movie] lies [about the rape] and you swear to it,” the Prosecutor asks. Billy’s defense attorney rather lazily objects, and the Elderly White Judge replies with an epically bored “Sustained.” Admittedly, he’s sat here longer than we have listening to Billy and Jean blather on about their goofy philosophical beliefs. In any case, the Prosecutor’s badgering provokes a burst of outraged yelling from the Freedom School students in the gallery, as well as (surprise!) a bout of oh-so-superior sanctimoniousness from Jean.
Our Heroine, as Super-Stoic as Billy: “I feel terribly sorry for your children, Mr. Williams.”
Prosecutor, strangely not objecting to this remark: “You feel sorry for my children?”
Jean: “Yes, and you, too. You know me. And you know I don’t lie. It must be terribly degrading for you to pretend in front of all of these people that I do, just to earn your [voice drips with contempt] money.”
Cue huge burst of yelling and applause from the gallery. Oddly, the Judge does not clear the court. Strangely, I don’t stop watching the movie.
In the next scene, Billy’s back on the stand. I’m not sure how this alternating witness thing works, but anyway. His defense attorney leads him through his military service. It turns out, and I hope that you’re sitting down as you read this, that Billy served in Viet Nam, but was booted out after he tried to blow the whistle on a My Lai-type massacre.
However, unlike in real life, this atrocity was not the unauthorized result of men driven mad by war. Instead, Billy’s platoon enters a village and herds all the villagers down into a large, deep trench. (Where this came from is left unexplained. The excavation is huge, but seems to have been found there when the soldiers arrived.) The villagers are naturally entirely innocent of aiding the enemy in any way and solely consist, as Billy notes, of “women, children and old men,” who were “frightened and very eager to please.” They are kept standing in the hole for hours “in the boiling sun”-humorously, the sequence was, in fact, shot on a conspicuously overcast day, but never mind-while the squad awaits orders.
Said orders, “clear as hell, direct from Saigon,” eventually come through. As you’ve no doubt intuited, the squad is explicitly, and illegally, I might add, commanded to murder the entire helpless village. Naturally, the squad leader immediately knows that he’ll have problem with Billy over this, and turns to him. “If you fellows refuse, all hell can break loose, you know that.” Billy turns away, with a minutely different facial expression from his normal one, which presumably is meant to convey his disgust or despair at Man’s Cruelty or something of the like.
The only other soldier who bats an eye at all this is, of course, black, and thus himself someone who has presumably experienced America’s ingrained Injustice and Oppression. Oddly, unlike in Viet Nam, but in accordance with Laughlin’s worldview, pretty much all the casually murderous soldiers are white. The squad’s commanding officer, however, does pause to ask, “God all mighty, what is happening to us?” I don’t know, maybe the problem is that guys like you-according to this scenario, at least-didn’t do your clear duty by disobeying such patently illegal orders.
The massacre commences, as the assembled troops open fire down into the open trench. A loud music cue helps us to understand how this whole thing is, you know, bad and sinister and stuff. Just in case we might still fail to ‘get’ this, however, the film helpfully provides us with such vignettes as an officer offhandedly executing a crying infant with his sidearm, while another soldier shoots a fleeing little boy in the back.
As with his pimping of the school shootings, Laughlin’s critique of My Lai loses the credibility it should have had, due to his using the tragedy as a scaffold on which to construct another of his paranoid conspiracy theories. As with the Abu Gharib prison scandal in Iraq, the massacre at My Lai was a shameful blot on an already controversial American war effort. While it was perhaps an inadequate framework upon which to mount a truly pertinent critique of our fighting in Viet Nam, it surely had great symbolic value and put pressure on those who supported the war. The fact that the ranking officer at My Lai, Lt. Mike Kelly, was never prosecuted remains a sorry stain on the nation’s generally proud military history.
However, even with all this material at hand, the Laughlins can’t leave enough alone. Instead of a grotesque atrocity, one that could arguably (if, I believe, unsuccessfully) be used to question our conduct of the overall war, Laughlin advances the theory that such events were routine, and, in fact, actual policy fostered by not only our entire military chain of command, but, ultimately, the White House itself.
Even Oliver Stone, perhaps because he actually served in Viet Nam, never suggested anything of the like when he too fictionalized My Lai in Platoon. Unlike Laughlin, he found the horror of the situation enough of an indictment of the war. And it’s not like Stone himself has been particularly chary of rewriting history.
The Laughlins’ technique, as already demonstrated by their employment of the school shootings, has a certain, seductive surface appeal. Like all conspiracy nuts, they attempt to bamboozle the ignorant with a glut of precise but ultimately irrelevant data. Thus a supposedly objective but actually sympathetic interviewer-Jean’s friendly reporter, Billy’s defense attorney-asks Our Heroes questions that take as a given the truth of the assertions we are presented with.
Upon being served up one of these fat softballs, which, of course, are in the script they themselves have written (“The American government intentionally murders innocent people all the time with genetically modified great white sharks, isn’t that true?”), they respond with a calmly recited blizzard of dates and references to specific-if not always concretely identified-reports and news stories. However, the trick is that despite the skein of concrete details they offer, the theories these facts supposedly support, in fact, constitute mighty leaps into fantasyland.
Thus, Billy provides this anecdote of a fictional incident that he, a fictional character, actually witnessed. I guess if you’re whacked out on pot, this might be enough ‘evidence’ to convince you of the validity of what we’re being told. However, after relaying the fact that the orders came “directly from Saigon,” i.e., Army headquarters, we get this:
Defense Attorney: “So, it was the senseless slaughter of and sadistic brutality, coming as official orders from Washington, that turned you against America?”
Huh? How the hell did we suddenly come to understand that the order to kill these innocent civilians came “from Washington”? Hell, why not just say, “So, given that we’ve established that Richard Nixon personally took time from his regularly scheduled sacrificing of a baby to Satan, to call overseas on his phone carved from the skull of a black man he lynched in Alabama, so as to order your superior to murder any eager to please women, children and old men you might have come acrossâ€¦”
Another example of this con game occurs when Billy expresses his disgust of Nixon. This stems from the fact that the President, Billy feels, broke his well-reported “sacred promise” to fully investigate Mei Lei and see the perpetrators of any misdeeds brought to justice. However, the basis of this assertion isn’t predicated on the fact that the actual participants of the killings were or weren’t convicted of crimes. Instead, based solely on his patently fictional account of a similar atrocity, the idea is that Nixon broke his word because he didn’t attempt to prosecute pretty much the entire chain of command, up to and including, as Billy asserts, “colonels and generals and White House aides who ordered the whole affair but were mysteriously let off scott free.”
By the way, can I again ask why all this is being explored, and at such length, at Billy’s trial for killing at least two men here in the states, years after he left the Army? Or was 1975 prior to the period in which ‘relevancy’ was considered an issue in criminal proceedings?
In any case, Billy is *gasp* found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. We are naturally meant to deem this a gigantic miscarriage of justice, and so the Freedom School students in the gallery explode in righteous indignation. The problem being that Billy is, in fact, quite guilty. In the previous film, he clearly out and out murdered a man. His subsequent killing of a deputy might be called self-defense, given the circumstances, but later Billy shot another cop during a standoff with the police. Even if that fellow survived, such an act would represent, at the very least, assault with a deadly weapon. The fact that Billy is sentenced to five years in jail, I thought, was more a grotesque example of judicial leniency than of being unjustly railroaded by an Eee-vil Guv’ment.
Lest others also come to this conclusion, we then cut to the judge’s chambers. There we find the town elders, and learn that *gasp* the fix was in. Moreover, Billy’s trial was really but part of an attempt to close the Freedom School, presumably because Middle America shies from freedom like a vampire from sunlight. However, some of the assembled predict that Jean will manage to make the school prosper, even without Billy’s help. “It’s going to take off like a wildfire,” one of them gloomily cautions.
So Billy goes to prison, like Earnest after him. Jean explains, via narration, that Billy is then adopted by the students as a role model. Since one of the few things the Freedom School actually concretely stands for is pacifism (well, until later on in the movie, anyway), I was wondering how exactly this would work. Since the film glosses over this seemingly key issue, however, such speculations were doomed to remain unsatisfied.
Sure enough, the Freedom School indeed blossoms under Jean’s stewardship. “The entire school was built by and owned by the kids,” Jean notes, although again the actual mechanics of this statement, which seem to me rather vague, are left unexplained. The motivating idea of the school, meanwhile, is predicated on “the simple philosophy that where there is Power there can never be Love, and where there is Love, there is no need for Power.” (I think I’d put the emphasis on the word ‘simple’ in that sentence.)
On the other hand, having a deadly martial artist around to kick the asses of any rednecks who bother you apparently remains pretty handy. Which, actually, raises another point. Why is the school only threatened by violence when Billy is around to deal with it? The school flourishes wildly while he’s in prison, and is only targeted by the forces of Amerikkka, coincidentally enough, after he’s been released. Well, that’s convenient.
Anyhoo, this all leads into a waaay too long passage detailing the School’s growth during the years of Billy’s confinement. Remember again, as I document what we are shown here, that all the money for this institution is supplied to Jean and the students by the government and private citizens.
First we see some of the kids hooked up to scientific apparatus. Oops, wait, the devices are “Bio Feedback” monitors, so I guess I should take back the ‘scientific’ part. These are employed, as Jean notes, because the kids believe “you can’t really understand other people until you understand yourself.” (Wow. That’s deep.) And, of course, one can’t really understand oneself unless you put sensors on your forehead that cause the indicator arrow in a gauge to wiggle back and forth.
However, the School isn’t just on the cutting edge of Western Technology. They also hold outdoor classes in yoga. Sadly, though, the students are not naked during these, nor do they turn and say ‘Zoom’ to one another, so I don’t really get the point. Even so, the kids learn “meditation and body exercises, all kinds of dance, even belly dancing.” Belly dancing?! No wonder the outside world feels threatened.
And, as Sonny Bono once noted, the beat goes on. “Music, band, drill team, arts, crafts, advanced physics, mathematics, psychology, classics, even into athletics.” Here we get several shots of the school’s soccer field and tennis courts. It was while gazing upon the latter, by the way, that I completely lost hope that Laughlin would elect to edit out even a single piece of footage he shot. Anyone wondering why the film’s three hours, well, there you go. It’s because they couldn’t bring themselves to lose anything this golden.
Meanwhile, you might be saying, ‘Waitâ€¦athletics? Hmm, that sounds suspiciously bourgeois for the Freedom School.’ Have no fears on that score, however. “Even into athletics,” Jean informs us, before clarifying, “which they called ‘yoga athletics.’ From Yoga Tennis to Yoga Football and every sport in between.” Yoga athletics, to the layman’s eye, appears quite similar to regular athletics. The difference being, presumably, that they are a lot more groovy and, like, you know, Relevant and stuff.
But wait! Why take my word for it? This is, after all, The Trial of Billy Jack, and thus we have plenty of time for Jean to expand upon this or any other subject in which we, the viewer, are certain to be so fascinated about. “The idea,” she continues, “always being that the thrill of participating and the self-discipline one develops while training, preparing and learning, made one a winner for the rest of his life, no matter how well he played, or how the temporary contest came out. And so winning and losing or worrying about someone grading your effort was just not all that important anymore. Growing and having the fun of doing, that was the important thing.”
Wow! Actually, this explains a lot. The Laughlins, quite apparently, made The Trial of Billy Jack as an example of Yoga Filmmaking. Yes, now it all makes sense. I mean, does it really make any difference who ‘directed’ well, or who wrote a ‘good’ script, or if the people playing various the roles could ‘act’? Hell, no! Not was long as everyone was growing and having the fun of doing!
But, wait, there’s more! Forâ€¦ Hey! Get back here, you bastard! If I have to sit through this dreck, you do, too.
Anyway, the school used some of their grant money (cripes, how many millions of taxpayer dollars were being squandered here at Hippie U?) to build-aside from the soccer field, football stadium, tennis courts and Olympic-sized outdoor pool-a radio station and recording studio. Here we cut to a pretty blond teenager, who warbles a rather awful ’70s-style pop ballad. Her verbal proficiency at this task suggests one who’s spent a lot of time listening to Maureen McGovern albums, yet failed to learn much from them. In any case, these records, we learned, are taken into town by the kids and sold door to door. The revenues from which, I guess, go to help the school, uhm, build more Yoga Tennis Courts or something.
But wait! Why take my word for it? This is, after all, The Trial of Billy Jack, and thus we have plenty of time for Jean toâ€¦wait, I think we’ve gone over this already. Anyway. “With some of the royalties,” Jean explains, “they started an institute for child abuse and children’s rights. In working with these abused and orphaned children, they were stunned to find out what was secretly going on in children’s orphanages and juvenile courts, state institutions for disturbed and retarded children, children’s hospitals, and education in general.” Actually, I had a bit a trouble swallowing the idea that the students were amazed to learn all this. In the Billy Jack films, pretty much every parent we see (at least in society at large, i.e., White America-and we see a lot of them) subjects his or her children to horrific emotional and/or physical abuse.
Fearing that Jean won’t continue on, given her natural reticence and all, the reporter prompts her with another rather leading question. “Is that when they started a native-type [??] newspaper and magazine and then began those scorching exposÃˆs on government corruption and consumer rip-offs?” (Scorching exposÃˆs? But those are the most dangerous kind!!) Jean confirms that this is so. “And it was in doing those exposÃˆs that our troubles really began!” For these, you see, so threatened the Powers That Be, the horrible, murderous, racist government that was providing all the funds for the Freedom Schoolâ€¦er, anyway.
Cut to a bunch of kids discussing what Injustice they should scorchingly expose next. “We’ve been digging,” one young lady notes. (Digging?! No wonder the Government is petrified!) “Remember, in December of ’73 the Interior Department called in, what was it, 250 oil executives to work on fuel allocation, right? So we started digging behind that, and we found out that the Oil Barons and the White House manipulated the energy crisis, including the Israeli War! Just, just unbelievable profits! [Oh, my gosh! If there were profits involved, then you know something evil was going on!] It makes the Alaskan Pipeline look like kid stuff!”
Actually, I think this scheme went even higher than the kids think. For instance, I believe that the Oil Barons were in fact just following the orders of the Petroleum Dukes, and so on, with the trail ultimately leading all the way up to the throne of the Fossil Fuel King. And, man, I didn’t even know the Six Day War was part of the energy crisis! I thought it was just a bunch of Arabs trying to utterly destroy a country full of Jews. But now that I think about it, I realize that the whole ‘staged energy crisis’ thing passes the Occum’s Razor test a lot more convincingly.
The kids realize that this is political dynamite, which “will blow the lid off the Capitol!” Thus they must gird their righteous loins. “We’ll have the FBI, the CIA (huh?), the plumbers [Note to Confused Young Readers: That’s an Obligatory Watergate Reference], the plumbers’ plumbers, the sequel to the plumbers [all right, enough with the plumbers already]â€¦ It’ll be a tremendous blow.” Yeah, well, somebody’s been doing some ‘tremendous blow’ around here, that’s for sure.
Another budding Woodward agrees. “If we don’t tell them our sources,” she warns, “they can arrest us, just like that.” To punctuate this remark, she doesn’t snap her fingers, but instead makes that finger-across-the-throat gesture. Uh, OK. “That’s true,” another concurs. “In ’72, the LA Times spent $200,000 in legal fees defending their reporters from subpoenas!” (Seriously, can you imagine spending an hour in a room with these people? Oh, and did I mention that we’re only twenty-three minutes into the film at this point, with two and a half hours yet to go?) “They’re either going to blow us up altogether,” yet another Truth Seeker declares, “or they’re just going to close the school down.”
You know, maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there’s a lot of ground between ‘blowing up’ the school and ‘closing it down.’ Therefore, this seems as good a place as any to point out one of the various internal contradictions of the Billy Jack series, one which the Laughlins don’t give any indication of being aware of.
To wit, the Outside World (or at least the section of it in Middle America) is incessantly portrayed in these pictures as being hopelessly corrupt, racist, close-minded and violently malign. Yet, we’ve also seen that it’s from various state grants and the charity of the local community that has allowed Jean and her students to renovate an “abandoned military academy” into this monstrously huge institution. Needless to say, this quite glaring dichotomy is never addressed.
A similar issue involves the incessant fretting that Billy will be assassinated by the Powers That Be before he is released from prison. That’s just the way the country is, I guess. Yet in the movie previous to this, after an armed Billy has holed up after murdering the son of a local bigwig and then a deputy sheriff, a state government official arrives at the scene with instructions that Billy must not be harmed under any circumstances.
In fact, they even allow themselves to be extorted by Jean for grant money for the Freedom School if she’ll talk him into surrendering. I don’t know, if the Power Structure wanted Billy dead, I’d say killing him while he’s engaging in a prolonged, violent shootout with the police-during which he shoots down at least one additional officer-might be a good time for it. Instead, they negotiate in utter good faith with Jean and sure enough, see that Billy receives medical care and a fair trial-fair, hell, they let him blab on about whatever the heck he feels like-after he surrenders.
Moreover, in the My Lai scene, Billy’s squad leader warns him that if he refuses to follow their orders, he’ll be tried and hanged. I’m assuming this did not in fact occur, since we’ve no indication that Billy is supposed to be a zombie (other, perhaps, than Laughlin’s acting) or some other variety of revenant. Meanwhile, when Billy subsequently brought charges against pretty much his entire chain of command, the Army counter-threatened to try him for cowardice in the field. Billy, of course, steadfastly refused to yield. In spite of all these threats, however, Billy never gets any jail time we know of until after he’s killed at least two people, and even then his sentence is rather light. And, as noted above, for a government supposedly set on bringing around his demise, they don’t seem to be in much of a hurry about it.
Billy not only fails to be assassinated, in fact, but he quite peacefully serves out his ludicrously lax five-year sentence, and even that has a year shaved off for good behavior. Perhaps I’m bit of a hard ass, but being incarcerated for two years for each person one has killed hardly strikes me as indicative of an implacably brutal dictatorial regime. Even so, neither Billy nor Jean ever pause to reevaluate their paranoia in light of any of these facts.
Anyway-and believe me, I’m sorry to have to say this-but we need to get back to the Freedom School’s scorching exposÃˆs. “The fantastic response made the kids determined to bring their exposÃˆs to a wider public. So they decided to build their own TV station.” We see an event being held at, I guess, the Freedom School’s gigantic football stadium.
“They put on a Fourth of July-type* fundraising drive,” Jean continues-and continues-and continues-and continues-“which they called, ‘1984 Is Closer Than You Think.'” (Actually, it was a lot closer to them at the time than to us, now.) You know, if I were Satan, and I really hated George Orwell, I’ve had made him watch this movie just so I could see the look on his face when this line is heard**. I’d have taped his reaction and I’d just sit around and watch it over and over again on a big TV monitor.
[*Good thing it was only a Fourth of July type event. Otherwise, it might have been tainted with patriotism and national pride and all those other horrible things.]
[**Per a query by Carl Fink, this is not meant to indicate that I assume Orwell to be in Hell. However, if he’s in Heaven, I don’t think he’d be subjected to The Trial of Billy Jack, and the gag wouldn’t work. To the extent it does, anyway.]
“It culminated in the largest band and drill team marathon ever held in this country,” Jean explains. And explains. And explains. And explains. “Kids came from all over the US and Canada, at their own expense, and every night the donated coliseum (donated coliseum?!) was filled.” By the way, was this before their scorching exposÃˆs got the school blown up/closed down, or after?
Here we cut to the blond singer I mentioned before, whose singing skills have actually deteriorated since the last time we heard her. I’m sure it’s completely a coincidence, but it was right here that I remembered that the Laughlins would have had a daughter about the singer’s age just around the time this movie was made. Not that I’m suggesting anything, I’m just saying.
It was about this time that Billy Jack was murdered. Er, released from prison. It’s sort of like the school being blown up or shut down, I guess, especially since neither of those things has happened. Anyway, Jean remembers the time well, since “Ford had just shocked the nation by pardoning Nixon and agreeing to let him destroy the tapes.” Huh? I remember the first part, but, uh, aren’t the tapes-I’m assuming she means the ones from the Oval Office-in a national archive somewhere, being released as they’re transcribed? Also, it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say the entire nation was ‘shocked’ by the pardon. The fact is, many just wanted Nixon to go away, and considered his being forced to resign punishment enough.
“We were all so angry,” Jean continues, “at the way politicians at every level of government constantly used television to lie, con and manipulate people.” Why, yes, I’m sure it was one of the six hundred things she and her students were most angry about that week. In any case, “The kids decided to use television to fight television before it was too late.” Yes, it’s always nearly too late with these people. And so the Continuing Crisis continues. By the way, don’t you require an FCC license to run a TV station? It seems again like the government could be doing a lot more to interfere with the school than they have apparently chosen to.
“They took their investigations, being done in the magazines, right into the streets,” Jeans explains, “where the public could see for themselves the secret deals and the rip-offs right where they were happening.” (“Tonight! Millions of your tax dollars are being spent to allow a bunch of self-righteous hippies to play ‘Yoga Sports.’ Learn the facts at eleven!”)
The report we see is on a woman who missed three payments on her furniture, whereupon the store repossessed it. To my surprise, the focus of the story wasn’t, “Local Store and Woman Freely Enter Into Contract, Woman Violates Terms of Same, Loses Furniture” but rather the opposite. The ‘rip-off’ occurring here, as I don’t see how it can be described as a ‘secret deal,’ even by these folks, is that the store didn’t just say, “Look, if you can pay us, that would be nice. Don’t worry about it, though.” On the other hand, the woman in question is black and old, and was in the hospital at some point, so you can see how mean that was.
As you’d expect from hippies, the student reporters don’t exactly have the entire ‘capitalism’ thing down. (Although I notice no one besides the store had been providing the lady with furniture.) “After you missed your payments,” one budding Bernstein asks, “you found that they had destroyed your furniture [destroyed her furniture?] and repossessed it [what, after they destroyed it], and now they refuse to refund the money to you on which you had paid on it for two years before they had repossessed it?”
First, glad the Freedom School’s ‘Yoga English Language’ classes are doing so well. Second, yes, when you go into default on a contract, they repossess the merchandise and keep the money you’ve already paid. Wow, way to blow the lid off this previously unknown aspect of contract law.
Inside the store, the small sales staff is watching the report (it’s live?), thus probably tripling the amount of people seeing it. The manager moans that he didn’t want to repossess the furniture, but, you know, the not-paying-for-it thing. However, lest this makes him look too sympathetic, he also moans that he was “just following orders”-WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT THE NAZIS SAID!!!!!-and also tosses off an ugly racial slur. After all, we wouldn’t want the lady’s Economic Oppressors to come off too well.
Finally, though, the “home office” calls and demands he replace the woman’s furniture with new stuff, free of charge. “Those crazy, lousy kids,” he complains. Yes, if it hadn’t been for them and their dog (a zany pop culture reference; look at me, I’m Quentin Tarantinoâ€¦ hey, that’s another zany pop culture reference!) you would have gotten away with it. ‘It’ being following through on the terms of the contract you and the woman legally entered into. Thanks for preventing that outrage, Mystery Gang!
That’s how powerful the Freedom School TV reports have become, I guess. (And where is the “home office,” and how can they possibly be seeing the report? I mean, college radio and TV signals generally travel about half a block, and that’s on a good day. This was well before cable, remember.) Meanwhile, I’m assuming the store started a new advertising campaign: “Buy your living room set at Phil’s Furniture, and if you miss three payments, we’ll replace your purchase with newer furniture for free!” In any case, it’s now obvious that the kid’s TV Station is on the verge of bringing Corporate Amerikkka to its knees.
“It was shortly after that that they started bugging our phones,” Jean elucidates, “and the FBI started making mysterious and routine calls to the school.” Wow, mysterious and routine? Is nothing beyond their malign powers?! Anyway, what did they expect would happen once they started messing with the local furniture store?
We then see one of these Gestapo-like FBI raids. This involves a pair of agents appearing in the school cafeteria, presenting their IDs and asking some of the students to talk to them. In response, the students stand up and walk away from them. Man, who wouldn’t crack under that sort of pressure?
“I guess it was at that point that I really should have realized and made the kids stop,” Jean admits. The reason they have to allow the agents on their grounds, by the way, is because they are still, if you’ll remember, receiving government monies to run their school. Hey, if you don’t like the ‘pigs’ messing with you, stop eating from their trough.
The reporter asks Jean if she had any proof that their phones were being bugged. (“Contact the President! Those crazy, lousy kids are exposing the doughnut store tomorrow!“) “Yeah,” Jean replies. “One of the kids, I think he was a graduate of CalTech, not only developed a device that would tell us when our phones were being tapped, but he and another couple of electronic geniuses developed a lie detector that was even more accurate than the polygraph machine.” Using this device, they can tell if someone is lying from listening to them on television. (!!!!)
Actually, I suspect Jean might be exaggerating this story in the telling. (For instance, I love that “I think” after asserting he was from CalTech. “There was a guy, I think he was a doctor or something who had worked on secret bioweapons experiments for the military, and he saidâ€¦”) In reality, I believe the described lie detector was more in the nature of a bong. See, after you got stoned from it, you would gain the magical ability to listen to politicians on TV and tell that they were prevaricating. “Dude! That’s guy’s, like, totally lying! Hey, where are the Doritos?”
Anyway, they are able to test this device on a TV interview just then being conducted with the Governor. “And so it is your contention then, Governor,” the reporter asks, “that the threat of exposure by the Freedom School television station [I kid you not, this is really what the interview is about] will in no way find any wrongdoing or kickback of this federal money ever touching the state capital.*” (Man, those Yoga English classes are really catching on!) “As God is my witness,” the Governor begins, and we tune out, because it’s well known that only hypocrites and liars mention God. Hey, where are those Doritos?
[*It should be noted that the reporter in this case is actually supposed to be a professional broadcast journalist, yet he still says things like, “â€¦that the threat of exposure by the Freedom school television station will in no way find any wrongdoingâ€¦” Huh?]
Somehow this proves the lie detector works, and the kids debate how to use their awesome new power. “Think of what this machine would do to Advertising Industry,” one young lady gushes. “It would just blow it apart.” This is true. Imagine the exposÃˆs: “Hey! Her hands are not in fact soaking in it right now! Quick, call the others! We’re marching on the corporate offices of Ogilvy & Mather!!“
Seconds later, of course, another student suggests that they “get the tapes of the Watergate hearings and run them through this thing, and we find out the Truth.” Needless to say, all of the other kids are blown away by this totally far out idea.
Of course, with the Freedom School now threatening the entire stranglehold of power of, er, The Man, or whatever, the government twists the screws some more. No, they don’t cancel the school’s grants, because, uhm, anyway. Instead, now FBI agents start harassing family members of kids attending the school. Hmm. Maybe the kids should do television stories on that, rather than exposing stores that repossess your furniture if you stop paying for it.
During this period, of course, Billy was still in jail. No one ever visited him, as he couldn’t stand to have them see him “caged up like an animal.” Meanwhile, Jean held her breath for the entire four years, “hoping he hadn’t given them an excuse to extend his sentence or even kill him.” The reporter muses over this. “So you really didn’t think they’d let Billy out alive?” she queries. “No,” Jean replies. “Not even if they had to shoot him when he was going through the gates on parole.” As noted earlier, they not only don’t kill Billy, they shave 20% off of his ludicrously lax minimum jail term for good behavior. Those fascists!!
Unfortunately, Jean couldn’t be there to pick him up when he was released. You see, this happened on the very day that the Freedom School was hosting “our first international seminar on child abuse.” I’m sure Billy understood, though, because The Cause in all its myriad facets comes first. “The kids had [three guesses] done an exposÃˆ on child abuse, child battery, and how widespread it is here in this country,” Jeans explains (and explains, and explainsâ€¦).
“Pretty soon,” she continues, “we were recognized as one of the few places that could successfully help parents who battered their children.” Cut to Jean, in a weird, Annie Hall-esque man’s suit, showing a couple of child abuse experts around their facilities. During this tour we meet Danny, a young lad of maybe ten, who is in many ways the film’s poster child. Danny is missing a hand, and they nicely present the (real life) stump of his arm in a nice, juicy close-up.
His own father cut off Danny’s hand “in a fit of rage.” Due to this and other abuses, the lad generally doesn’t interact well with others. This is dramatized when Carol (the ‘singer’ from earlier in the movie) offers him a cup of soda, which he violently knocks away. This either indicates the deep emotional scars resulting from his abusive childhood, or else suggests that he’s a 7Up man.
Carol, we learn, is the only one that hasn’t given up on Danny, even after their “professional staff” has. “You don’t really think she’ll succeed?” one of their visitors snorts. “You obviously don’t know Carol,” Jean responds. And hell, if nothing else works, they can call in Elvis for that hugging therapy.
Cut to Billy getting out of jail. “Come on, Tough Monkey,” a guard sneers as he opens Billy’s cell. (“Tough Monkey?”) Of course, the guard gratuitously strikes Billy with his baton. He knows Our Hero won’t fight back, lest he have his sentence extended. “Now, Indian Buck,” the guard continues, so that we get that he’s racist as well as brutal, “move out.”
Cut back to the Child Abuse Seminar, where Jean is conducting an extended-and I mean, extended-Q&A session. Cripes, this movie is so discursive it makes Moby Dick look like it was written by Hemingway. By the way, at this point in the movie we’re a little over half an hour in, with nearly two and a half more hours to go. Like nearly every other scene in this picture, I could spend a couple of pages on it and still not really give it a full accounting. However, we’ll never get through this review that way. So I’ll skip over most of the stuff.
Because being against child abuse just isn’t indicative of that old Laughlin looniness, they start discussing more abstract forms of it. This includes, inevitably, parents who shout during Little League games. Yes, thatâ€¦ cutting off handsâ€¦ it’s all bad. However, the general concept behind the School’s technique for reforming abusive parents is summed up in this question: “Your complete claim, then, is that by loving these battering parents, instead of punishing or confining them, that that actually works in stopping further beating of their children?” Barbarians who actually, you know, jail parents who beat their kids have a reform rate of-according to Statmaster Jean, anyway-under 25%. “Ours, on the other hand, is over 90%.” Uh, yeah. And that number, I should note, is complete sciencematifical.
The blather continues. One fellow, for instance, strenuously declares that “the whole fate of the human race,” depends upon, er, the work that people like they themselves do, I guess. Thus he asks if Jean believes her insights have any greater applicability outside of the narrow issue of child abuse. Amazingly, Jean does believe this, noting that the Freedom School is built upon the same principles. This leads, naturally, to a discussion regarding the nature and defination of pacifism. (Somebody, shoot me. Even the film’s discursions have discursions.) In sum:
Jean: “The thing that we’ve got here is a living, dynamic, positive force that has the ability to change the most warped lives, turn on the most confused and lost people, and I think we all literally feel here that it could possibly rebuild the world!”
Attendee: “Is this what you call ‘non-violence?'”
Jean: “No, I’m sorry, we call it by something else much cornier than that.”
Carol: “We call it, Love.”
Attendees spontaneously break into massive applause.
We cut to the prison, where Billy is receiving his personal possessions prior to being freed. The Warden (no, not the one at Prisonflicks) shows up with a typically Oily Flunky and tries to hustle Billy into attending a joint press conference. Of course, Billy reacts to this blustery entreaty with icy disdain and walks out. Cue a burst of inspirational music.
Here one nearby trustee turns to another and opines that Billy will soon be back behind bars. “No way,” his comrade confides. “They’ve already got him marked.” The first trustee is shocked. “You mean they’ll kill him?” he asks. Man, prison inmates just aren’t are hardboiled as they used to be. On the other hand, the info network seems to be working fine, given how some of the cons know that ‘They’ have Billy marked for the big sleep.
Cut to Jean, standing with her back to the camera. She’s atop a butte, with gorgeous vistas laid out before her. She soon sees a car approaching. Eventually it arrives and Billy climbs out. She turns, and we see that she’s brought Billy’s trademark wide brim hat. (!) She and Billy had only declared their love for one another at the end of the previous film, just before he was taken into custody, and so this is their first real time together.
There follows a poorly chosen directorial flourish in which each is treated to a camera zoom from a distance, which makes the scene play like something out of a soap opera parody. The goofy music doesn’t help either. Even so, the climax of the scene has them simply holding each other for a long period, perhaps hours. The restraint of this, rather than the more formulaic passionate lip lock, is quite refreshing.
Cut to the next morning. The consummation of their relationship is only implied, and it struck me that the Laughlins were surprisingly prudish on sexual matters, especially given the times. Jean looks over at Billy. He’s back in his trademark hat and denims. Standing before a waterfall, he blows smoke from a pipe in various directions, in such a manner as to imply that he’s conducting a ceremony of some sort.
There follows a bit to which the uninitiated can only responds with startled guffaws and vigorous eye-rolling. Jeans hears a sharp call and looks up in the sky, where an eagle has suddenly appeared above them. This majestic creature circles around a while. ‘Mystical’ music is heard, and eventually the noble bird comes to land upon Billy’s outstretched arm. (!!) I mean, really, what can you say to something like that? The symbolic connotations are so overripe that it’s nearly impossible to take the image seriously, although there’s little doubt that Laughlin intended us to.
This sequence, therefore, is pretty representative of Laughlin as a filmmaker. Everything is just entirely excessive. First, there’s the pretentious use of expensive helicopter shots to portray what is admittedly some beautiful scenery. (To be fair, I believe that Laughlin funded this film out of his own pocket, so I guess he was entitled to helicopter shots if he wanted them.) The music, meanwhile, is just a little too lush. Finally, there’s the self-parodying image of an eagle majestically alighting upon the noble Billy’s arm. Laughlin is one of those people for whom too much is never enough.
As I noted earlier, Laughlin also exhibited an increasing messianic streak as the series progressed. The gag with the eagle certainly points in that direction. This impression is duly reinforced, meanwhile, when Billy arrives at the Freedom School and finds himself lovingly engulfed by hordes of cheering people, seemingly hundreds and hundreds of them. Frankly, what this most called to mind were the larger scaled but strikingly similar crowd scenes in Richard Attenborough’s hagiographical Gandhi.
Inside the school, and with waaay too much running time left to go, we are, er, treated to a song Carol has written about Billy. This adds to the sense that the Laughlin brood were a tad too self absorbed, as Carol is indeed played by the daughter of the man playing the character she’s singing a typically earnest anthem to. Moreover, the younger Ms. Laughlin talents as a lyricist prove a rough equivalent to those pre-teen female artists whose works oft feature unicorns leaping across rainbows in outer space:
“Shed a tear, Running Deer.
Don’t turn back, Billy Jack.
I am cryin’.
Are you dyin’,
Just for meeeeeee?
“When they took you from the church,
I couldn’t bear to watch the town stare.
You aren’t an animal, you’re a man,
It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fair-air-air.
“And they tried you for murder,
They said you were guilty, it just wasn’t fair*.
I wanted to tell them they were unjust,
I didn’t dare, I could only stare.
“What will happen to you now?
You’ve got to live, but I don’t know how.
I am cryin’
Are you dyiiiin,
just for me?
“Shed a tear, Running Dearâ€¦”
And so on and so on.
Soon the entire pack of kids are singing the chorus as Billy manfully struggles to contain his tears. Carol as well becomes increasingly verklempt as the song progresses, perhaps because she was now wishing she’d worked on it a little longer. In any way, there soon isn’t a dry eye in the place, and everyone can feel the love in the room, and we in the audience begin wondering when those promised government killers are going to show up.
Billy is next led outside. There he is astonished to find pacifist Jean taking martial arts lessons from Master Han of Korea, this worthy being Laughlin’s real-life Hapkido instructor. (Watch for when Jean supposedly performs a leaping kick, and they apparently use an edit to disguise the fact that she doesn’t pull it off.)
The end result of this, especially when Jean rather implausibly dumps Billy on his ass after he chortles at her, is apparently meant to represent ‘comedy.’ However, much like the Germans, the Laughlins prove the sort of markedly intense folks who don’t really get the whole ‘humor’ thing. Meanwhile, in a weird editing choice even for this movie, Jean’s Wacky, In-Your-Face-Aide (think a hippy-lesbian Sandra Bernhardtâ€¦er, a younger one) blows a line, then tries it again with more success, and both takes are kept in the film.
Soon Billy is-surprise-talked into displaying his skills. He and Han do a couple of kicks, after which the latter produces an ordinary black cane. “I haven’t seen one of those in a long time,” Billy avers. Huh? I mean, we’re not exactly talking the Flying Guillotine here. Anyway, Han uses the cane to help flip over his assistant.
This accomplished, he hands the cane to Billy, who duplicates the feat. “You and I, in America, are the only ones I know who can do that,” Han preens afterward. Actually, their demonstration isn’t all that impressive, although I’ll give Laughlin the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn’t want to pimp up his moves. Anyway, even pulled punches and kicks represent a vast improvement over more warbling folk singing.
In any case, we haven’t really wandered completely off track in the roughly ten minutes since the child abuse conference. Therefore Carol comes out to report that Running Deer-wait, the Running Deer?! Fabled-in-song Running Deer??-and his sons are apparently lost up on a mountain top, where they illegally went to hunt deer. Moreover, the State Police and the Ranger station have refused to help find them. “They don’t give a damn when Indians are involved,” one fellow acidly notes. Whatever.
This leads to a long sequence, which again must have eaten a pretty good hole in Laughlin’s wallet. This features helicopter search teams-although given that the State and Federal agencies have declined to help, I’m not exactly sure where these came from-joining skiers from the Freedom School and heading up into the raging blizzard to help find the missing party. The two sons are quickly located, although one of them is dead. Meanwhile, none other than Jean and Billy come across the comatose Running Deer, and radio in for a chopper.
Running Deer is taken to the local hospital. There the attending physician refuses to treat the man’s severe frostbite because, you know, he’s an Indian and this is the White Man’s Hospital. (C’mon, now. In 1975?) Billy, of course, is about to force the guy to treat Running Deer when Doc Sampson, the token Good White Guy from Billy Jack-but not the green-haired, superpowered psychologist from The Incredible Hulk-makes an appearance. He’s enough of an authority figure that he manages to get Running Deer treated, although he gets a lot of dirty looks in the process. “I’ll take the responsibility,” he fearlessly declares, despite the no doubt dire consequences that await him, like probably being drawn and quartered.
We next cut to Running Deer in court. Amazingly, the sitting judge and prosecutor prove to be the ones from Billy’s trial. Moreover, despite it being four years later, they both look exactly the same, and even sport the exact same haircuts as they did earlier. Anyhoo, Running Deer’s attorney is a firebrand Indian woman who argues that as a Native American, her client is not subject to the White Man’s laws. Uh, yeah. Sure. I guess it’s like diplomatic immunity. Like, if he killed a bunch of guys, they’d have to let him go and stuff.
However, the justice of this nuanced legal argument is ignored. Running Deer convicted of trespassing and illegally hunting deer, probably because, I don’t know, he was in fact guilty of those charges. Oh, and because of the Racist System.
However, in light of the death of Running Deer’s son, the prosecutor pleads for the court to reduce the supposedly mandatory one-year prison sentence for poaching. “Hey,” one Socially Concerned young spectator ejaculates at this apparently inadequate display of mercy, “don’t rip your pants, Buster!” This wry witticism garners a big laugh from her comrades in the gallery. I don’t know, should they all be stoned while actually sitting in court?
The Judge indeed cuts the sentence down to ten days in jail, with the rest of the year on probation. (I guess ‘mandatory’ doesn’t mean what I think it does.) Needless to say, the kids from the Freedom School, who amazingly are still allowed to sit in the gallery during court proceedings following presumed years of such shenanigans, erupt in anger at the horrible injustice of this.
Now, purely because I’m a monstrous, unfeeling right-wing crank, I’d like to point out that Running Deer shouldn’t necessarily be cut any slack because his son perished on the mountain. In fact, he easily could have been brought up on a charge of felony homicide, since his kid died during the commission of a crime. So I’d say ten days in jail is pretty frickin’ lenient. But then, I guess I’m some kind of super-fascist or something, since I think that even Indians should go to jail if they break the law.
Perhaps they managed to deduce that the audience’s Outrage-o-Meterâ„¢ wasn’t likely going to register off the charts due to a ten-day jail sentence. Therefore, when we cut outside, we see some troglodyte cops harassing the kids. Supposedly they’ve gotten a report that the students are carrying drugs. Of course, we know this isn’t true, because one of the three rules of the Freedom School is that no one use is allowed to use controlled substances. (Yeah, yeah, I know. Just go with it.)
Anyway, they’ve got the kids up against their school bus and are conducting intrusive searches. In fact, one of Jean’s assistants, a woman with a pixie haircut who I eventually learned two hours in* is named Russell, has her breasts crudely groped by one of the leering pigs. Again, I find it weird that the only sexual acts portrayed in the Billy Jack series are violently misogynistic ones. There are multiple rapes in Born Losers, rape both actual and statutory in Billy Jack, and now this. Meanwhile, the kids at the Freedom School-and despite my calling them ‘kids’, the majority of them are seemingly of college age-are apparently as sexless as they are drug free. I don’t know, isn’t this kind of weird, especially for a film that otherwise is so strenuously of the ethos of the ’70s?
[*Despite being three hours long, The Trial of Billy Jack is one of those inexplicable movies where many of the recurring characters are seldom if ever referred to by name. In fact, many of these characters might not have had names even in the script. The film’s extended closing credits list, again, only the character names of Billy Jack, Jean Roberts and Doc, with all of the other actors just listed sans role. Meanwhile, the credits listed on the IMDB assign many of the characters the name of the actor playing them. Thus actress Lynn Baker plays ‘Lynn’ and Michelle Wilson plays ‘Michelle’ and so on. The androgynously named ‘Russell,’ meanwhile, is played by actress Russell Lane, who appeared in two Billy Jack movies.]
One kid shouts that they can’t conduct these searches without a warrant, which under the circumstances might or might not be true. In any case, the menacing cops threaten to arrest him. For what, I’m not exactly sure. Of course, when did the Gestapo need a ‘reason’ to arrest someone? A bit later, the kid decides to chuck an orange at the cops, thus making himself eligible for a Darwin Award nomination. At this the cops give chase, and administer a savage beating when they corner him in an alley. The chase, by the way, is accompanied by the sort of action music that wouldn’t pass muster in an episode of The Rookies.
A crowd of bystanders follows, like a hundred or more of the Freedom School kids, but they disperse when ordered to by the cops. That’s some good civil disobedience there, by golly. However, as they leave, a stoic figure appears in their wake. It’s (bum bum bum) Our Hero, Billy Jack.
“We’ve got a tough monkey here,” one cop notes. (‘tough monkey’?) They try to chase Billy off, too, but he remains. “Somebody else need a lesson here?” one cops drawls. “Yeah,” answers another, “our tough monkey here.” OK, I’m sorry, but wasn’t ‘jive-ass turkey’ the stupid ’70s epithet of choice?
Anyway, Billy starts removing his boots. The first time he did this, in Billy Jack, it was kind of cool. Now the notion that he must doff his footware before strutting his stuff becomes increasingly comical each time it happens. Apparently his foes could neutralize Billy by sneakily squirting some Super Glue in his boots, thus keeping him from taking them off.
The cops now realize who this Awesome Figure must be: Shoeless Joe Jackson. Er, Billy Jack. At this they immediately start panicking, despite there being four of them and they having weapons and stuff. One nervously declares that he’ll have to shoot Billy. However, when Our Hero starts running in their direction-in slow-motion yet, very much like the Lou Ferrigno Incredible Hulk, which doesn’t exactly help the scene’s dramatic impact-they all just scamper off. See, bullies are all cowards, and when you stand up to them, they fold like a non-Chinese Laundry. (Whew! Just narrowly ducked a racist comment there!) That’s exactly how it always works in real life, too, of course.
By the way, the cops were just about to leave anyway, so Billy didn’t really accomplish much here. On the other hand, The Man missed another pretty good opportunity to shoot Billy Jack under circumstances that would probably be legally justified, especially given how corrupt the System supposedly is. (Not that we’ve seen much actual evidence of this.) Nor do they show up later with a warrant and arrest Billy for assaulting police officers or even obstruction. Man, these are some inefficient Tools of the Oppressive State.
As a break from this heart-pounding episode of quite near almost veritable action, we cut toâ€¦a bunch of people griping about The Man. Yes! Boy, you just can’t get enough of this stuff. This is, according to the DVD chapter titles, a ‘tribal council meeting,’ with the firebrand female lawyer and a couple of her fellow Indian activist comrades basically running the show. The activists are spouting off about how the Gov’ment has the right to completely do what they want with all Indian lands. This sounds a little suspect, and of course the source of these assertions isn’t exactly lending them much support. Meanwhile, I wondered again why none of these people ever took these grievances to higher courts.
Lawyer Chick starts laying it out: “They control our water, they control our plumbing, they control our worship [??], they control our land, and they control our money, they control every damn thing in our lives!” Here I expected a high-minded and altruistic call for the right to establish a casino, but strangely the subject never comes up.
Their government agent, who for some reason is in attendance, suggests that they lease their lands to industrial concerns if they wish to generate their own money. This, naturally, is viewed as some sort of evil plot or something. Frankly, I’m not sure what the activists actually want, as the dialogue here tends to veer around an awful lot.
In a particularly charming moment, one Indian says of another, “That’s not Yellow Hawk, that’s Little Uncle Tommie Hawkâ€¦He’s a bought and paid apple and you know it!” (Bought and paid apple? Tough monkey? What the hell?) After a bit of this, Lawyer Chick kicks in again: “They control our health! They controlâ€¦” Wisely, the sound fades away here as we cut over to Jean having a word with Billy.
Next the activists start babbling about bringing cases before, what else, the International Court. I’m not sure what jurisdiction this institution has over American citizens, given that it’s not elected by us and, you know, what with the whole U.S. Constitution and that kind of thing. However, this sort of talk rouses a quick response from the Indian Agent. “A person could get killed with foolish talk like that,” he warns. Actually, I suspect the actor flubbed his line here. I’m pretty sure he was supposed to say, “That sort of talk could get a person laughed at mercilessly.” I mean, that at least makes sense.
I guess I’m wrong, though. “Many of us already have been,” Lawyer Chick retorts. “Because if they can’t buy us off with scholarships and grants, they kill us.” I’m sorry, what exactly was it again that you guys are agitating for? I mean, seriously, it would really help us in the audience follow what’s going on. You don’t want help from the Government, I guess, and you expect the ‘International Court’ toâ€¦do what now? Man, I’m confused.
I’m not helped much by the following bit, either. Suddenly we cut to Billy Jack and a pair of the more authentic Indians leaving the meeting. “They voted ‘it’ down,” one reports with disgust. Er, voted what down? (See what I mean?) Well, whatever it was, if Billy was for it, it must have been what the rest of the tribe should have supported. “That damn Yellow Hawk,” one Authentic Indian sneers, “will probably get a personal invitation to the White House for that.” Uhâ€¦yea-aah. I’m sure a leering Gerald Ford-certainly the most malign of Amerikkka’s presidents-is rubbing his hands together right now as he is told of the tribe’s feckless decision. Whatever it was and whatever it was about.
Jean wonders how ‘They’ could have converted a Noble American Indian into their lackey. Hmm. He actually believes that the position he advocates would be better for the tribe? Or, to be slightly more cynical, he’s merely in it for personal gain, even if he is an Indian, and thus theoretically better than all that?
“They caught him embezzling funds,” Authentic Indian reveals. (Again with the ‘They’). “The White House promised to hush it up if he cooperated.” Cripes, this is tin foil hat stuff. Seriously, the White House? By the way, I notice that they didn’t, in fact, ‘hush it up’ very well, since you’re talking about it now, you morons.
The capper, though, is when he concludes these assertions with a casual, “You know, the same old story.” (!!!!!) Yeah, if I had a buck for every time the White House has caught me embezzling funds and offered to hush it up, sorta, if I talked people into voting againstâ€¦ erâ€¦ something that was somehow good for them, well, I’d be so rich I wouldn’t need to embezzle funds anymore. Although I probably would because I’m so damn greedy.
Billy asks why Lawyer Chick and the Amazing Indian Activist Squad don’t “take it to the World Court just by yourselves?” Yeah. Or perhaps instead The People’s Court, since that’s a somewhat more dignified forum. “I mean,” Billy continues, “you don’t have to bother with all these committee and tribal decision things.” Ah, I see. If the sheep-like Masses are too stupid to follow your wise advice, you should attempt to ram it down their throats via supranational, extra-legal institutions. And if that doesn’t wise them up, there’s always the Gulag. I mean, you know, broken eggs and omelets and all that.
Meanwhile, Posner-the film’s villain and the brother of the previous film’s villain, if you remember when he was briefly alluded to about fifty minutes ago-and a bunch of fellow fat cats are taking a hunting party, including a hefty supply of booze and whores (see previous notes re: sexuality), up into *gasp* the very mountains that Running Deer was sentenced to quite nearly two weeks in jail for trespassing on.
Carl, the local sheriff, ineffectively attempts to send them home, which is purely so that we get that he’s powerless in the face of Posner’s The Man-ness. “On this bus,” Posner sneers in reply, “we’ve got corporation presidents, Pentagon officials, Washington politicians and even the Lieutenant Governor!” Plus, I imagine, a brace of TV game show hosts and Mr. Clean. See, if Billy wants to see anything done, he’ll have to do it himself. Per usual.
Cut to another raucous tribal council. Man, if you had to pick one word for this movie, it would have to be ‘dynamic.’ This time they’re complaining about the hunting party, which admittedly they have a fair beef with. I actually thought the best idea for dealing with the situation was one guy’s suggestion to take pictures of the guys cavorting with their whores and send them to the newspapers*, or, as another puts in, their wives.
[*Oddly, no one suggests filming their antics and broadcasting the footage as part of one of those all-powerful Freedom School TV exposÃˆs. It’s like this film has ADD and can’t remember what it was burbling about fifteen minutes ago.]
Instead, Billy Jack decides to organize a posse-composed, of course, “of anyone in this room who’s man enough to go with me”-and ‘arrest’ the party for trespassing on tribal land, prior to booting them off. This approach is of dubious legality, and involves sending an armed group to confront a bunch of similarly armed drunks. Frankly, I think the photography idea was a lot slicker, especially as it would turn the fat cats into subjects of public mockery. Run them off at gunpoint, and illegally, at that, and they are instead a group of prominent social leaders assaulted by a group of violent injuns.
Lest common sense prevail, however, Billy seals the deal by scornfully asking, “Or are you afraid to stand up to the White Man, even when he’s [drunkenly] shooting at your wives and your children?” Thanks for your levelheaded leadership, Billy Jack.
Cut to the hunters. The scene is set with an image of two naked hookers holding a board up over their heads. On the board are some empty liquor bottles, which members of the Fat Cat party are shooting to pieces. (!) Meanwhile, Posner is warning some other dudes about some “International Symposium on the Law,” which is *gasp* threatening to give Indians legal rights, or some damn thing. Of course, the Fat Cats only oppose this sort of thing because it threatens their eee-vil power. I mean, what true blue American doesn’t wish to see an unelected and Constitutionally unconstrained international group-hey, ‘international’ has to be better than ‘national,’ right?-come in and start fixing this country up? Help, China! Help, Soviet Union! Help, Cuba, and the Sudan, and so many other more progressive places!
They continue to talk in such a way as to lay out exactly how corrupt they are-it’s rather like listening to a meeting of the Legion of Doom-but soon find themselves surrounded by dozens and dozens of Billy’s righteous crusaders. We’re all supposed to cheer, of course, but frankly I found the scene kind of creepy. You get the idea that were the Indians to just start shooting down their tormentors, that many of the original audience members would have cheered that, too.
Instead, and perhaps more horrifyingly, Billy Jack proceeds to deliver unto them some righteous speechifying. During this he alludes to a stack of comically fake dead ‘deer’ the hunters have gleaned. This conversation ranges from Running Deer’s jail sentence-which, again, was for ten days, rather than a supposedly legally mandated year-to the artificially low wages The Man pays Indians, to the corrupt (albeit, what’s that wordâ€¦oh, yeah, legal) way an Eee-vil Corporation got a lease on the land the party is now hunting on.
Billy also, and at some length, begins to calmly dismember all of their corrupt counter-arguments. This is like watching the most dearly loved fantasy of some disaffected fifteen year-old projected up on a screen. (Which, I guess, at least partly explains the film’s box office success.) You get to compel authority figures-parents, the cops, whatever-to debate their grossly arbitrary rules. They vainly and nervously attempt to defend their capricious strictures, but you coolly have an answer for every dodgy argument they make, until they themselves are forced to admit the righteousness of your cause, and let you stay out later than 8:00 on school nights and not have to get some stupid job during summer vacation, when Cosmic Justice itself dictates that you should be hanging out with your friends on your parents’ dime.
My favorite such moment occurs when Billy asks an Eee-vil Corporation Head, “How much money did you donate to the Secret Campaign Fund?” (Love that ‘secret.’ Next Billy will be asking him how much advertising he does with the ‘Jewish Media.’) “One hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars,” ECH answers in defeat. This rather violates the whole ‘secret’ thing, but there you go. “You know, I think I’ll just kill you right where you stand,” Billy sneers, as he works the action on his rifle. Yes! Nothing spells J-U-S-T-I-C-E like shooting down unarmed sixty year-old men. You go, Billy Jack!
The Lt. Governor points out that anything Billy’s men do here will come back to haunt them later. Man, I hate when the real world intrudes on things like that. Luckily, that won’t happen very often, at least in this movie. However, the Noble Natives instead elect to let the Fat Cats and their whores go on their way, although they take a photograph of each of them before they leave, I guess so they can prove who was there, or something. Meanwhile, Posner grabs Billy Jack and issues the usual threats and such.
Cut to the Freedom School, where Sheriff Carl and Doc Sampson join Jean for lunch in the cafeteria. It seems that the pictures referenced above were indeed broadcast by the student’s TV station. Carl warns that this has brought a lot of additional heat down. Jean, however, notes that the students are granted complete and quite groovy autonomy on what they do with the TV station, so that there’s not much she can do about it, even if she wanted to.
In one of the movie’s better moments, Carl and Doc argue that by refusing to make her own beliefs known, she is tacitly suggesting that the students are incapable of listening to her views without being unduly swayed. This is part of what’s so frustrating about these movies. While I myself would never agree with the Laughlin’s baseline politics, the films would be a lot more persuasive weere they to present opposing viewpoints without literally demonizing those who disagree with them. The film’s like a stream of consciousness monologue delivered by someone suffering from a high fever, who has occasional moments of lucidity but then quickly lapses back into gibberish.
Here we’re about an hour and ten minutes into things, with a tad more than an hour and forty minutes left to go. Considering the already prodigious amounts of padding we’ve seen so far, the viewer might fairly wonder how it’s possible that we’ve not yet even reached the film’s halfway point, especially given that Billy’s actions have already made a confrontation with the villains seemingly inevitable.
The answer is the movie is about to sideline us for nearly an hour with, among other things, Billy’s Vision Quest. That’s right, you can’t make a movie, at least since the late ’60s, about American Indians and not have a Vision Quest scene in it. Laughlin’s fascination with Indian culture is intriguing, especially in the way that it will be echoed by fellow action maven Steven Segal two decades hence. Neither star was, in fact, of Indian descent, but both repeatedly played characters who have steeped themselves in American Indian culture.
Amazingly, Segal probably comes out ahead on this score, since he never tried to play anyone who was actually part Indian himself. (Given his attempt, such as it was, to play a Russian in Half Past Dead, this was without doubt a wise call.) It’s actually kind of funny that Laughlin was so easily accepted as Billy, because frankly, he doesn’t remotely look to be of American Indian ancestry. He basically carries it off by acting all stoic, and with a lot of assistance, of course, from his famous hat. Segal attempted something similar with the beaded Indian jackets he sported for a series of films, although rather less successfully.
In any case, Billy pursues his quest by asking for instruction from a Wise Old Indianâ„¢ named-inevitably-Grandfather. Grandfather speaks in an authentic Indian language, but his remarks are overlaid with a spoken English translation, and accompanied by the obligatory American Indian sounding-music.
Billy opens things with a request that suggests he was adlibbing this part of the movie: “Grandfather, I would be honored if you would teach me how to pierce the veil and go to that other world and make my own inward journey to find my own center.” Grandfather, meanwhile, is entirely with the Billy Jack program. “There are many enemies in this world waiting to destroy you,” he reveals. “If you are to survive, you will have to find peace in yourself first.”
Billy agrees that this is so, and that this is why he wishes to make the inward journey. Grandfather warns that his chosen path is dangerous. (And pretentious, and boring, and interminableâ€¦ mostly interminable.) It is “filled with terrifying evil. There are many demons of great power. It takes much wisdom to learn that they are of your own making.” (Wow!) I don’t want to be mean, but this ‘ancient wisdom’ isn’t much different than something Dr. Phil might dish out. If I’m following this, Grandfather is basically telling Billy he has to stop being a can-don’t’er and start becoming a can-do’er.
Indeed, when the exchange is viewed with a critical-or at least non-chemically altered-mind, there’s not much there:
Grandfather: “And first, you must learn to see your own shadow.”
Billy: “But how will I learn to see my shadow, Grandfather?”
Grandfather: “Many can not survive the dangerous inward journey, but if you do, in time you will come face to face with your own shadow. [chuckles] Then you will know what I mean.”
Nice dodge, Grandfather. Also, if I’m following this, Billy must first learn to see his own shadow, which will allow him to survive the upcoming perilous inward journey, after which he willâ€¦see his own shadow. My head hurts. But that’s OK, but it’s all mystical and stuff, and therefore doesn’t have to be constrained by my limited White Man’s logic.
We cut to Billy sitting (presumably) naked in a sweat lodge. “I see it, Grandfather,” he says to the apparently empty chamber. ‘It’ is a blue-tinted flame with shooting white sparkles cartoonishly superimposed before his face. Basically, it looks like one of those energy beings that were always economically invading the Enterprise on the original Star Trek.
Meanwhile, Billy conducts a (I guess) telepathic conversation with Grandfather. Oops, wait, Grandfather is sitting in the lodge opposite Billy. We didn’t see him because the film’s DVD presentation is atrociously pan ‘n scanned, radically cropped from a 2.35 : 1 aspect ratio to fit a square TV screen. This is weird, actually, because Laughlin himself released the Billy Jack DVDs. For some reason he used what I assume is a TV print to put on the DVD, rather than a theatrical print, which I can’t quite figure out. You’d think he’d want to preserve the integrity of the film more than anyone else, especially given the fact that he’s always bent over backwards to associate himself with Billy Jack.
“What color is [the flame]?” Grandfather asks Our Hero, and is told it’s blue. “That is a spirit looking to see if you are worthy,” he explains. “It takes many forms.” Then the flame disappears. “Where did it go?” Billy inquires. “When you can tell me where the flame comes from,” Grandfather replies, “I will tell you where it goes when it goes out.” Seriously, this is just generic mumbo-jumbo, and could just as easily have come from Master Po as he instructed young Grasshopper.
As with Grandfather, Billy is speaking in a native language, over which we hear an English translation. The latter consists of him speaking in short, declarative sentences, relayed in a slight sing-song fashion. This is presumably an attempt to convey the flavor of whatever tribal tongue he is speaking in (lines that he sounds like he learned phonetically), but the effect is to make him sound like a learning impaired person reading from a Curious George book.
From this we cut to a panoramic helicopter shot traveling along some beautiful mesa country. Soon we see Billy and Grandfather standing upon a magnificent butte. I have to admit, shots like this always make me queasy, as I suffer from severe acrophobia. “Grandfather,” Billy asks via voiceover, “where will I look for my shadow demon?” Again, he is told it emanates from inside himself, and that it represents “all the evil in you that others can see in you, but you cannot.” This goes on at great length, and I mean great length, but remains similarly murky and abstract.
Then we get this, after Billy asks how he can recognize his evil side. “By the things in others that make you angry,” he is told. “Whenever you get upset at someone or something, it’s because that quality that you’re upset about really exists in you.” Well, guess what, that’s not even insulting dime-store psychology, it’s outright bullshit. So if I become angry upon seeing a rapist, or a child killer, or some moron in the KKK, I’m angry because inside I secretly want to rape woman or murder children or wear a sheet and expose myself to be a massive retard? Sorry, I don’t think so. It’s quite a leap from “we all have an evil side” to that sort of statement.
Blah blah blah, and on we go. Even to the extent that Grandfather’s spiel is valid, it amounts to little more than a restatement of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” Don’t try to change others, change yourself. Now, that’s all well and good, unless those others are pounding in your head while they force themselves upon your wife. As a Christian, I obviously believe we have a lifelong obligation to attempt to discern and confront our own inherently sinful natures, but this is taking that idea to a rather unworkable extreme. There’s definitely internal evil, but there’s external evil, too, and that must be confronted as well. And, in fact, Laughlin/Billy Jack knows this, because otherwise he’d become a pacifist like Jean. That would be admirable, but even Gandhi admitted that non-violence wouldn’t have worked against the Nazis.
Billy asks for permission to “descend into the Cave of the Dead.” (Oh, bru-ther.) Grandfather tells him he must first find his own vision, by which I assume he means a spirit guide. Then we cut to Jean, apparently sometime later, as she rides up on a horse to ask an Indian guy about Billy’s progress. He has been fasting, she is told, and awaiting his vision. However, she must go no further. “If a woman enters these sacred grounds, the medicine is lost,” she is told. Jean jokes with the guy about this, but then placidly turns around and leaves. I wonder if she’d react so complacently if a Catholic priest was explaining why the Bible doesn’t allow for women to be ordained.
Billy is heavily sweating atop a butte, sitting on the edge and with his feet dangling over the side. (Again, this fair gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’ll give Laughlin this; he’s a far braver man than I.) Meanwhile, Grandfather sits a short distance away, watching over him. Suddenly, a woman’s voice is heard. It’s the Vision Maiden, as played by Trinidad Hopkins (!), for whom this appears to be her entire thespian career. “Come, Billy Jack. Come, for I am going to show you the true nature of the White Man through all of history*. Come and look with me over this river of time.”
[*Good thing this wasn’t a white spirit telling a white guy about Indians all through history, because that would be racist.]
“There’s St. Augustine,” the Spirit suggests sarcastically, “preaching the Christian creed of Love to the Druid mumble mumble [yeesh, you’d think a Spirit Voice could speak up a little], with the tips of their lances dripping with blood.” Oooh, burn! Snap! Oh, no, you did-int! You go, Vision Maiden! Anyway, during this another panoramic helicopter shot reveals the Spirit to be a woman dressed in traditional Indian garb, including, yep, a tall feather jutting up from her hair, and standing upon another isolated butte. I’m sure Laughlin thought all these aerial shots made his film look all cool and stuff, but to the modern eye it makes his movie seem like an extended Jeep Liberty commercial.
“Oh, and there’s King Richard the Lionhearted,” the Spirit continues, “slaughtering the heathen until they convert to Christianity. Here we see the lie of that old romanticism you were taught about the Crusades as a boy.” Wow, kids in America used to learn about the Crusades? Well, we don’t have to worry about that sort of thing now. Meanwhile, given this present hour-long display of Romanticism about American Indian History and Mysticism, well, her snide tone is sort of rich. And hey, what happened to that stuff about the evil being inside us?
The Crusades Romanticism Debunking continues: “See how they butcher this village of Jews, in the name of God, and Love?” Wow, your indictment of people who lived hundreds of years ago in a world and cultures that I can’t even remotely imagine is shaking me to my core. On the other hand, the idea that Richard the Lionhearted was pushing some Gospel of Love is pretty friggin’ hilarious. Who knew?
“And remember that great, brave Indian fighter, Kit Carson?” she continues. I think she might be skipping ahead a bit, chronologically speaking. “He had rounded up over 400 Navaho women, children and babies [oh, noâ€¦ not children and babies!] in this cave [camera zooms in towards cave] and his men bravely and methodically shot them to death.”
I think you can assume the Spirit’s use of ‘great,’ ‘brave’ and ‘bravely’ is meant ironically. However, I can believe the ‘methodically.’ Let’s say Carson had twenty men on this job. That means that each man was responsible for shooting 20 women, children or babies. That would have required quite an amount of time, and multiple reloadings of whatever rifles, shotguns or revolvers they may have been equipped with. Such things were a lot more difficult back before the Maxim gun was invented.
[I have been unable to find information to confirm this account. The massacre part sounds like an account, albeit more than a little altered and exaggerated, of an episode in which Spanish forces in 1805 killed a hundred or more Navajos, including perhaps 25 women and children, in circumstances (somewhat) similar to those described here. This took place in the aptly named Canyon Del Muerto. This has since been known as Massacre Rock, and is presumably the inspiration for the otherwise spurious account given here.
Meanwhile, as far as I can tell the Laughlins conflated the Massacre Rock incident with Carson’s 1864 besiegement of the Navajos in the nearby or adjacent Canyon de Chelly. After their eventual surrender, Carson force marched thousands of the Navajos to a reservation, an event now known as the Long Walk. During this, hundreds of the Navajos died. Carson led what was certainly a brutal campaign, but I haven’t found any evidence that he ever participated in the sort of massacre described here. I welcome any information that would clarity this, however.]
“What the White Man calls ‘the spread of civilization,’ his Christianity and so-called democracy,” she lectures on, “have a secret shadow [Ken Howard?]; greed and power. Look well into your own heart, see how much of your violence comes from the same lust for power over other people.” Here we cut to a weird insert shot of some Indian fellow-one of the activists we met earlier, I think-having his head shoved under water by White Men in order, presumably, to drown him. Billy Jack screams in outrage at this (Imagined? Metaphorical?) perfidy. This wakes Billy back to the ‘real’ world, and we are treated to further sweeping helicopter shots as he gazes around.
We cut back to the childcare room at the Freedom school. Jean is in a corner, watching as Carol works with Danny, the one-handed lad introduced four or five hours back. (I think that’s right.) She’s building something with blocks, and trying to get him to join in, but he reacts by knocking over the tower she’s constructed. Watching through a window, Lynn reacts with frustration. “I don’t know where [Carol] gets the patience,” she tells another student.
We then cut outside, where Jean is giving the dejected Carol a buck-up speech. “You have to remember,” Jean expositories, “Dan has been in over 20 foster homes, and was even put in solitary confinement in one detention home when he was four years old. He’s never known anything but brutality and rejection.” Carol acknowledges all this, but is discouraged. “Every single expert told me he’s hopeless,” she explains. Jean’s advice is basically to keep loving him and loving him and loving him, no matter what.
Cut to what I guess is the Freedom School’s Petting Zoo. (I mean, why the hell not? They have everything else.) Here, a pack of the Groovy Kids is being lectured by some Representative of The Man while a miniature burro and calf look on in mute protest. “This school has no legal right to detain the child,” RoTM maintains. “If we have to find Danny’s parents and get them to regain custody, we will.” Yeah, after the kid’s spent at least six or seven of his ten years rotating through 20-plus foster homes? Sure. Man, the situations in this movie must be Ripped From the Headines, they seem so real.
“If that doesn’t work,” RoTM nazis on, “we’ll have him committed to a mental hospital.” In the original script, I think the guy said they’d haul the lad away at gunpoint and tie him to train tracks and cavort with whores while their group, including stoned-out-of-their-minds Richard Nixon and Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, watched him being squished by the 8:14 Express. Oh, and they would have dissolved his other hand with battery acid first. However, they apparently cut that dialogue out because, while it presented a totally realistic portrayal of how things are done in this country, the lines sadly drew laughter from naÃ”ve audiences who hadn’t yet rejected the old romanticism they were taught about the Crusades as children.
So anyway, after Castro threatens to toss the kid into a mental hospital-oops, sorry, my bad, it was OK when Castro threw people he didn’t like into asylums (which is good, since he did it a lot)-the Groovy Kids angrily speak Truth to Power. Lynn, for instance, informs them that any such attempt will be “met by the finest lawyers and the most widespread publicity money can buy!” And not just lawyers, but Yoga Lawyers!
Carol, meanwhile, lays the cards on the table. “You’re just trying to get back at us because we’ve exposed the filthy conditions of your state hospitals!” she exclaims. “Why don’t you go and clean them up so they’re fit for human beings?” At this juncture even Bertolt Brecht might decide to move on to the next scene. However, the Laughlins still have a mess o’ speechifyin’ and truth tellin’ left in ’em.
One Authority Figure sneers that getting the courts on their side shouldn’t be too hard, given the “radical environment” the school represents. “What you men are really saying,” Jean translates, being as she is so good at saying what others are really saying, “that this constant harassment and this bugging of our telephones [ooh, and don’t forget the awarding of all that state grant moneyâ€¦oh, wait], it’ll all magically stop if we decide to give up the Indian Rights Seminar.” Her opponents deny this, but pretty unconvincingly. “Bugging your phonesâ€¦but that would be illegal,” one notes, drawing cynical laughs from the Groovy Peanut Gallary. Indeed, even without the Lie Detector Bong made by that guy that Jean thinks was maybe from CalTech, we can tell that the two are prevaricating.
Cut to the two Representatives of the State joining the Groovy Gang in the Freedom School Super Science Lab. Here the kids are demonstrating their amazing Phone Tap Detector. Again, I like the way the various strawmen authority figures in this film-and in the previous movie, as when the local Town Council adjourned to the Freedom School in order to view a typically ghastly display of Improv Comedy-are so utterly compliant about going where they’re told so that they can be exposed for what they are.
The School’s Tech Guy, Bugger [shouldn’t he be ‘Debugger’?], for instance, confirms that the phone before them is tapped. “It’s an Infinity type [bug],” he explains. “It is picking up everything being said in this room from this phone, without having to lift up the phone receiver.” Hey, enough with that technical jargon! This isn’t a Tom Clancy novel!
At Jean’s command, Bugger hits a switch on A Groovy Gadget, whereupon we cut to two squares in an office somewhere, who are monitoring and taping the above conversation…
Uh, so the Freedom School is this gigantic facility, and the one phone they just happen to be sitting by is being monitored by two guys? Logically then, this would suggest that every phone on campus is getting similar treatment. Assuming the agents work in 8 hour shifts, and that the School has (rather conservatively) one hundred phones, that means The Man is laying out enough filthy, blood-stained lucre to field 600 agents a day just to attend to this particular chore!
Anyway, one of the two is just sitting there and looking over a magazine centerfold, another example of decadent, disgusting objectifying-sexuality. His partner, meanwhile, reacts with panic when the phone tap feed cuts off. “It’s gone blank, I can’t hear anything!” he squeals. This is so dire a situation that the other guy actually puts his magazine down. It’s no good, though, for they have been flummoxed. Take that, Mr. Man!
We cut to the town bank, where a reporter from the Freedom School, complete with an entire recording crew, is giving Posner-remember him, he’s the villain of the piece-the third degree. Again, why would Posner bother talking to these people? It’s not like they have subpoena power or anything. Scenes where the Joker lays out his entire evil plan because he has Batman and Robin tied up in a giant deadly Sno-Cone machine frankly make more sense.
As you might expect by now, the Reporter’s queries sound like they’re being issued by a particularly didactic Fourth Estate ‘Bot: “Mr. Posner, allegations have been made that the eighty million dollar trust that was given to you by the Indian Bureau for the land sale was turned over to you as trustee instead of the bank in Wyoming and that this is because of your heavy campaign contributions in Washington.” And yes, the actress playing the reporter does have to stop to audibly gasp for air in the middle of all that.
Now, you might notice that the Reporter’s remark is not, in actually, a question. Even so, Posner reacts angrily to the accusation, apparently made byâ€¦ somebody. We then cut back to the Freedom School, where the Groovy Gang is monitoring the telecast with their Magical Groovy TV Lie Detector. The best moment comes when Posner looks at Indian student Patsy Littlejohn (Sacheen Littlefeather-really) and calls her “Princess,” garnering a outraged chorus of watermelon, watermelon catcalls from the observing Groovy Gang.
One great thing about the film’s using non-professional actors is that the amateur cast members often can’t quite get their wads of stilted dialogue out. Sometimes they just run out of steam mid-sentence. On more than one occasion I could only catch what they were saying by going back and turning the volume on my TV set way up: “Aren’t you responsible,” Patsy inquires, “for helping Eisenhower back in the ’50s affect the transfer of, uh, Indian trust monies to local banks here and throughout the state so that you, could, uh, invest it, uh, at great personal profit?”
Posner directly denies the, well, I guess it’s a charge. Back at FSHQ, a woman transfixed with the Power of Truth runs into the broadcast control booth, yelling “What does it say? What does it say?” ‘It,’ of course, being the Magical Groovy TV Lie Detector. Bugger confirms that it says Posner is “lying through his teeth!” Gasp! Not Posner?! Then what middle-aged white capitalist authority figure can we trust?!
Needless to say, the Powers that Be cannot allow this to stand. Therefore we cut up to the roof of the School’s transmitter building, where a man is skulking around the broadcast tower. Ominous music plays, to let us know that he isn’t one of those good guys who would be skulking around at night around a broadcast tower.
In any case, The Man’s Plan ‘A,’ it’s now evident, is to blow up the Tower. (Plan ‘B’, should that fail, is to stop regularly conducting protracted, hostile television interviews at the request of the people who you are doing everything you can to undermine and destroy.) However, typically, the man is a numbnuts who is caught in an incendiary explosion so powerful that it changes his blue jeans and green jacket into brown overalls and his hair into a black knit cap. He emerges screaming and covered with flames. You might think this makes the mission unsuccessful, by the way. However, there is evidence that the French commandos who traveled to New Zealand back in 1985 and, er, ‘covertly’ blew up the Greenpeace flagship vessel Rainbow Warrior used this same plan.
Cut to an ambulance on the scene, picking up the body. Sheriff Carl, ineffectual as always, apologetically explains that Posner has convinced the Governor to declare a state of martial law and to send the National Guard to occupy the local town. The stated rationale for this is a fear that the Freedom School’s radical students will retaliate for the bombing in kind. Everyone reacts to this news with angry incredulity and disdain. Despite that, with the deployment played up as a typically eee-vil ploy on The Man’s part, the movie’s very next scene indicates that the decision was actually pretty rational. Of course, I doubt if the Laughlins ever stopped to consider that.
Actually, I’m also a bit confused as to why the Groovy Gang would be so against the National Guard occupying the town. Doc, for instance, reacts by furiously asking, “Why aren’t they out here guarding the school?!” See, you can’t win in a movie like this. Imagine the furor if the Sheriff instead said, “The Governor has decided to station the National Guard on campus. He says it’s to protect the students.” Then the question would be, “The School?! Why aren’t they stationed in town, where the bomber came from?!“
Seriously, I don’t get it. Well, OK, if you consider the National Guard to be purely an evil instrument of a fascist state, then I guess any appearance by them is suspect. However, you’d have to think that in the real worldâ€¦ ah. Never mind.
“Well, as long as the laws work one way for the rich and one way for the rest of us [Huh? How does that even remotely apply here?], looks like there’s only one thing to do,” Patsy cynically notes. At this we cut to a Student Forum-gad, the radical’s belief that everything can be solved with giant yakking sessions-where Patsy and some of her fellows are advocating exactly what we were just told was a ridiculous fear. By which I mean, they promote sneaking into town and, in the words of one fellow, “Bomb the hell out of them!”
This is actually an interesting scene, and an indication of the films Laughlin could have made if he weren’t quite possibly schizophrenic. Here we see the students dedicated to a non-violent solution battling it out with the ones who want to advance their goals by any means necessary. Notably, Jean finally decides to add her two cents, despite her qualms about possibly being viewed as (Ick!!) an Authority Figure. However, Patsy responds virulently to her request to speak. Moreover, it’s pretty clear that this is solely because she knows Jean will advocate non-violence. If Patsy thought Jean would be supporting the bombing of the town, there’s little doubt she would be actively pushing Jean to speak.
Instead, Patsy gratuitously insults Jean and the students arguing against violence by predicting that the other students will blindly follow whatever position Jean takes. Jean, already uncomfortable with actually, you know, acting like an adult and standing up for her beliefs, literally throws her arms up in the air and walks out, her piece unsaid.
Now, this is all pretty sharply observed stuff, and no surprise there, as the Laughlins had probably spent quite a lot of time engaging in exactly these sorts of debates. And I say that despite the fact that the film, by which I really mean the Laughlins-it’s really difficult to separate the two-obviously have a lot more tolerance and sympathy than I do for those argue for a campaign of violence.
No, the reason I say Laughlin is schizophrenic-and let me state this clearly, so that you can agree or disagree-is that he can at one moment advance the most paranoid fears, then himself (through his films) completely undercut the basis of those fears a second later, and not even notice the contradiction.
For instance, as noted before, the film earlier had several characters pushing the idea that Billy Jack would never be allowed out of prison (and, even before that, the Army) alive. Well, he was, and in fact we never see any evidence that the State actually wanted him dead. In fact, I again reference Billy Jack, in which a state official arrived on the scene of Billy’s stand-off with the law, the one during which Billy had already killed at least one police officer, with the sole concern of ending the stand-off with Billy still alive. In furtherance of this, he actually allows the government to be blackmailed by Jean.
Do you see what I mean? It’s like half of Laughlin had written a script that actually shows the government taking extreme measures to keep Billy alive, at a juncture when it easily could have arranged and justified his death. Yet at the same time, the other half of him writes scenes that assure the viewer that the State / Powers that Be / The Man / Whatever will do anything it takes to see that Billy is killed.
Moreover, not only does Laughlin hold these two conflicting views at the same time, but it seems likely that he doesn’t expect us to notice this dichotomy either. From everything we’ve seen up to now, and in more than one movie, there’s no reason to believe that the State wants Billy dead, at least to the extent of arranging his demise. Despite that, when two cons exchange gossip to the effect that Billy is a marked man, we’re obviously meant to take it as gospel.
This is another, similar situation. The reactions to the Governor’s stated fear of violent retaliation from the students of the Freedom School against the town immediately paint them as a patently outrageous and cynical lie. Yet twenty seconds later we indeed see a group of students advocating exactly that, a spree of violence-“bombing the hell out of them” doesn’t sound like a call for a measured response-and even playing dirty politics to keep opposing views from being heard. And yet again, we’re apparently not supposed to notice.
Ultimately the film argues against meeting violence with violence (although it seldom seems wholeheartedly). Even so, it obviously views the radical’s impulse to employ violence as understandable and actually quite justified. These people are still on the side of the angels, and Billy, and Laughlin, still have no enemies to the Left. Laughlin approaches nuance in scenes like this, shades of gray, but he just can’t embrace it. His worldview is Manichean-in the political sense, of course, not the theological-and just will not allow him to make that final leap.
To an extent, this might also be driven not only by Laughlin’s hypocrisy, but by that of his audience. While he doesn’t brand the radical students as evil, as he does any number of others, the film does definitely take the side of the non-violent in this debate sequence. We can tell, because the main audience identification characters-Jean, Carol, and Lynn-all argue against striking back.
However, it’s hard to make a film advocating pacifism when what really sells the tickets are the scenes where Billy doffs his boots and kicks Authority Figure ass. At least a major portion of his sizable ‘youth’ audience demographic laid down their money because they wanted to see the Fascists get the holy hell beaten out of them, and one presumes that Laughlin was aware of this. Moreover, Laughlin’s films all take a certain amount of glee in presenting violence, a fact undisguised by the layers of solemnity with which he attempts to coat them.
This is why Billy Jack retains an audience far beyond that which still champions The Trial of Billy Jack. (That, and the fact that Billy Jack isn’t three friggin’ hours long.) It would be hard to find something who disagrees more strongly with Mr. Laughlin’s politics than myself. Yet-and I doubt he will ever understand why or even really believe it to be the case-even an admitted right-winger like myself derives immense satisfaction out of watching Billy beat the crap out of a bunch of racist thugs molesting a little girl*.
[*One difference being that for Laughlin, the main issue is that that little girl is an Indian. For me, it’s that she’sâ€¦ a little girl.]
That describes the key scene in Billy Jack, and although it’s no more subtle than most of the material here, it presents a believable portrayal of some authentically vile behavior. The problem is that in this movie we’re asked to swallow a much more epically absurd view of an America which is evil at its core, and most of us are just never going to.
Anyway, moving on. (And yes, I fully appreciate the irony of the fact that I bitch about the length of the movie but then offer up an equally interminable review-not that the two are entirely unrelated.) We cut to the National Guard arriving in town. For some reason, they drive into town with their sirens (?) blaring (??). A reactionary Old Man-we can tell, he’s wearing a string tie-looks on with approval. “Thank God we’ve got a governor with guts,” he avers. I assume this fellow is not meant to be speaking for the Laughlin.
Meanwhile, the Radical students are hoping to get Billy’s support for their agenda, and have gone to the foot of the mountain where his Vision Quest ceremony is taking place. (So much for Patsy’s not wanting her fellow students to be swayed by an authority figure.) However, they find their way stymied by Blue Elk, who is guarding the mountain while Billy and Grandfather conduct their busines.
This leads to a discussion about taking drugs, and off we go onto yet another extraneous tangent, this one redolent of Laughlin’s strange brand of Puritanism. Of course, anyone who studies martial arts to the degree he has is going to be big on discipline, which itself is sort of antithetical to the entire ‘hippy’ thing. Even so, I really wonder what his mass audience thought of his occasional preaching against the casual use of sex and drugs. I imagine they just sort of ignored it and waited for him to kick some middle-aged white dude in his fat, florid face.
“You mean they purify themselves to take drugs?” a bewildered Hippy Girl asks. Taking drugs, Blue Elk explains, is properly a mechanism to meet the Divine Spirit. “If one is not totally prepared to meet him,” he warns, “if one has not fasted or purified oneself thoroughly, or if outsiders interfere [here he gives them a Significant Look], the Spirit would be angry, and make Billy sick, or even take him away.”‘
Obviously this dude knows what he’s talking about, because he’s, you know, an Indian, so the hippy students struggle to grok it all. “Like when a kid is spaced?” one inquires. “Off in Stoney Land?” However, they’re still not getting the sacred part. “No, no,” Blue Elk explains. “You people don’t know anything about the Other World, or about the Power that could so easily kill you.”
By the way, congratulations. Halfway through the above quoted line of dialogue, we hit the film’s exact halfway point, andâ€¦ Hey, quit your bitching. You think reading this entire endless review is unpleasant? [Assuming anyone has.] Imagine writing it.
Anyway, Blue Elk continues on-of course he does, he’s in The Trial of Billy Jack-about why only Indians should do drugs, blah blah. This basically amounts to the fact that they don’t do it “for kicks or to get high,” as with foolish hippies. And by doing so, he cautions, they “run a great danger.” By the time he finishes, you’re half expecting Mr. T and Nancy Reagan to come out and tell the kids to Just Say No.
Finally, the students are told to return the next day, at which point we cut back to Billy’s ceremony. This is currently ensconced in a cave wherein a pair of flour-covered Indians are chanting and dancing around a fire. Some Elders, meanwhile, observe them from the sides. Then a curtain is shoved aside to reveal Billy, who enters shirtless and wearing a wide blue and white sash. Oh, yeah, and his entire upper body and head, except his hair, is covered with red paint.
Then it’s back up to the mountain top, where Grandfather’s teachings are again translated for us Palefaces. “You are going to descend to the Cave of the Dead, where our people were massacred,” he informs his student.
As Billy is lowered a huge distance down the cliff face via a rope*-man, I don’t dig that-Grandfather gives him warning. “Be very careful,” he advises, “because there are many spirits there who would like to take you with them, and others who do not want to pass on to the Next World, so they would like to enter and possess your body. The souls of these dead wreak
[*As Jabootu proofreader Bill Leary points out, this seems a lot of work to get into a cave that was accessible enough to allow for the massacre of hundreds of people.]
“There will be demons also,” Grandfather continues. (Hmm, maybe I would have gone down that rope after all. This guy just won’t shut up.) “If you show any fear, they will tear you to pieces, and the ghosts will possess your soul. If you show that you are not afraid, no matter what they do, the demons will stop terrifying you and become your friends.” Weird behavior for a demon, you’d think, but there you are. Actually, I think Syd Hoff did a kid’s book like that, Danny and the Demon.
Hey, wait, it just hit me! The murder trial wasn’t “The Trial of Billy Jack.” This is! It’s a metaphysical trial! I get it! Wowsers!
“Are you afraid?” Grandfather asks. “You once taught me,” Billy explains, “that courage is not the absence of fear, but the conquest of it.” Wow, I was taught the same thing one time! Only I didn’t learn it from a wise Indian Elder, but from fortune cookie. Finally, as Billy is actually being lowered down into the cave itself, Grandfather is heard to warn, “Beware most of all the Red Eyed Demon. By his screams you will know him. [Well, that and his red eyes, you’d think.] He is the most powerful of all the demons, and because you will do much good if you survive, he will kill you on the spot if you show any fear.”
Soon Billy, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, has been lowered to the floor of the cavern. Lighting up a torch he brought with him, he goes on a tour. I was sort of hoping he’d meet up with Zontar, but the latter probably had better things to do. However, Billy does come across a hissing cobra. Needless to say, it’s appearance here in (I’m assuming) New Mexico is a little odd, which I guess is that point. Still, you’d think an Indian spirit would have enough respect for the land to appear in the guise of an indigenous reptile.
“No cobras live in this country, my friend” Billy observes. I hope he’s as knowledgeable about emus or hippos, just in case he sees any of those. On the other hand, he’s presumably speaking for our benefit, since there isn’t any one else down there with him. I mean, he seems to be addressing the Spirit, but wouldn’t a spirit just know what he’s thinking? In any case, Billy asks the Spirit, or Demon, or whatever, to leave, and it disappears in a burst of badly superimposed flames, allowing Our Hero to proceed on his way.
Entering a large cavern, Billy hears animal roars, and sees a nest of rattlesnakes. Then a mysterious wind-because it’s in a cave, oooh, spooky-comes through and blows out his torch. Then the screen turns a negative blue through the use of the reliably cheesy solarization effect, and suddenly Billy finds himself wearing a full fringed and beaded Indian buckskin rig. It’s white with turquoise highlights, and thus looks very fashionable against his currently bright red skin. He also has spontaneously generated some think beard stubble, and actually ends up looking a bit like CSI‘s William Petersen.
Billy hears more roars, but drops the unlit torch and slowly begins to make his way through the large contingent of rattling snakes. The roars and screams get louder at times-humorously, we occasionally hear the mewling screech used as the voice of the monstrous arachnid in Bert I. Gordon’s Earth vs. the Giant Spider, which itself lived inside a cavern. So I might not get Zontar, but hey, close enough.
Billy takes his sweet time walking through the snakes, because this is, after all, The Trial of Billy Jack, and continues to hear the disembodied screams, as well as seeing bats that make cat noises. (!) Eventually the bats begin climbing all over him, but he fights to remain calm. Comically, when the bats are actually clambering over his torso, we never see Laughlin’s face in the shot, and when we see both his face and some bats at the same time, the latter are suddenlyâ€¦ oddly doll-like. I’m just saying.
Suddenly Billy sees some glowing eyes in a shadowed area of the cave, apparently represented via some highly sophisticated penlights. Then’s a brief animation of a big green snake head, or some damn think. Our Hero, however, steadfastly refuses to break.
At this, the bats disappear, and Billy is standing before a superimposed blue flame effect. This disappears and he finds himself confronted with his exact opposite, only Ersatz Billy is painted blue rather than red. “You’re me,” he observes, lest we somehow don’t ‘get’ the doppelganger idea. “I am your inner self,’ Blue Billy clarifies. “Someday when you fully accept your fate and your death, then you will have me as your inner guide.” Blah blah blah. Oh, man, I can’t believe there’s still an hour and twenty minutes of this movie left. That’s a whole friggin’ film right there.
Blue Billy tells Real Billy that his problem is that he’s too empirical-sorry, I think I just had a brain aneurism-and tells him to return to the desert for (NONONONONO!!) more lesson from the Spirit Maiden. So saying, Blue Billy disappears, and the blue solarization effect is used again, and we get a cheesy B-movie sci-fi sound effect, and then Red Shirtless Sash Billy finds himself beneath the blazing desert sun.
A Spirit Maiden (literally) appears before him, holding a white bunny rabbit. (!) “I am here to show you the way to the house of the Great One,” she says (oh, man, let that be the Great One from Robot Monster–please!!), “but first you must prove yourself generous of heart.” Billy proclaims himself ready, and she points out a surrealistic assembly of guys raucously cheering on a football game in a living room set plunked down in the middle of the desert.
Among this group is a Football Player, a Pimp (and yes, he’s black), a guy who looks like the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island, an Army officer, a lounge lizard, a minister and, I’m pretty sure, Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee. The Maiden directs him to go slap one of the men, and then to take whatever is given him in return without defending himself.
Billy is bewildered, but game. Striding forward, he chooses the Sea Captain, perhaps because he’s the burliest of the bunch. “I don’t think you’re going to particularly like this,” Billy chuckles, and slugs the guy. (Actually, she said he should slap the guy, but hey, in for a penny, am I right?) Sure enough, the guy retaliates and plants one on Billy’s kisser. However, when Billy straightens up the men and furniture are gone, and before him stands the Maiden and her bunny, who I think she calls George.
“That man was on the lowest level, and reacts only with animal instinct,” she explains. “Treated with violence, he was immediately pulled down to the violent animal level, no better than the man who hit him.” Actually, I’d say a guy who would walk up and punch a stranger in the face is quite a few rungs lover than a guy who is punched for no reason and then returns the favor, but then, I’m not a wise Spirit Maiden. She further explains that the second man is thus “controlled by the animal in the man who hit him,” and there’s a kernel of validity there, but I’m not sure how practicable that philosophy is.
Billy is then confronted with a lecture class set out in the desert. A groovy young teacher—we can tell from his Greg Brady hair-is lecturing on the evils of war and capitalism and all that stuff. Needless to say, Billy is a lot less comfortable smacking some dude who’s righteously attacking giant soft drink conglomerates than some fat working class dude watching a football game, but he does as the Maiden commands.
“This is probably going to seem as stupid to you as it does to me, butâ€¦” Our Hero notes, but he goes ahead and clouts the guy. The Teacher doesn’t react psychically, but instead starts screaming at Billy, and his students join in. Then they disappear, too. “He was on the second level,” the Maiden explains. I thought that might be the level for guys who can’t handle themselves in a fight and so take a punch rather than toss one back-that being the level I tend to live on-but this proved wrong.
“He could not be pulled down to the level of the brute beast, acting on physical violence,” she ‘explains,’ (I mean, really, I think we already figured out where this is going), “but was easily pulled away from what he was doing and lost control of his own center. So he too did not own his own soul, but could quickly be controlled by another.” Yeah, imagine being “pulled away from what you are doing” solely because some dude just comes up and punches you in the face. There’s no doubt that guy has serious control problems.
Because this is The Trial of Billy Jack, we must now see the third level illustrated. Good grief, Spirit Maiden, I think we’ve kind of hashed out where you’re going with all this. Yet rather offensively-and for this movie, quite weirdly-Billy is then told to go punch Jesus in the face. (!!) Good to know that the Son of God is available on demand for a damn Pagan Indian spirit. And wow, how brave! Actually, if Laughlin really wanted to be brave, he’d have had Billy walk up and hit Buddha in the face. Boy, I’d like to have seen the reaction to that one.
Apologizing, and noting “I have no idea why I’m doing this,” (yeah, this exercise is so damn hard to figure out), Billy slaps Jesus. By the way, since Billy is employing violence at the Maiden’s command, isn’t he being “controlled by another”? I guess I’m not getting all this. Anyway, and you might want to sit down unless this following part blows your mind, but Jesus just takes the slap and, well, turns the other cheek. (Oooh, Big Man, Billy. That’s like making faces at one of the Buckingham Palace Guards.) “I feel sorry for you,” Jesus replies. “Only a child thinks that being a man is being tough and violent. Someday you may learn that being a man has to do with self-discipline over one’s [something] and one’s emotion, with a deep and compassionate understanding for other people’s feelings.” Great, a Jesus who sounds like a therapist on Oprah.
Billy then returns to the Maiden, who notes that “This man has reached the third level.” Oh, now I get it. Still, as a Christian it’s good to know that Jesus reached the highest of the three rungs of human spiritual progress. Billy however, intuits that there is a fourth level. (Ooops, sorry, Jesus. Still, third level is pretty good.) She tells him no more, however, but explains after Billy asks that he can never go to his Spiritual Guide, but that the Guide will appear to Billy when he feels like it. Ooh, Big Man.
Now his job (oh, brother, would somebody please edit this thing!) is to accept his Shadow, which represents his own weaknesses and flaws, the ones that make him who he is andâ€¦ Hey! Isn’t that that same speech Captain Kirk is always giving about what it means to be Human? That’s the punch line to all this tripe?! I must still be on the first level, because that makes me want to be controlled by another and punch the people who made this ferschlugginer movie in the face.
Billy makes to ask the Maiden another question, but she has disappeared, and the cackle of Grandfather indicates that Our Hero has (finally!) returned to the ‘real’ world. Only when Billy comes aware, he’s no longer sharing a butte with Grandfather, but is seated on another. Oh, wow, somebody, get Rod Serling in here, stat! Then we get the film’s six hundredth helicopter shot, showing Billy (or a reasonable facsimile) sitting atop a hugely tall but terrifyingly narrow rock outcropping. All I can say is, Noooo, thanks!
Billy, back in his normal garb and sans the red paint, returns to the bottom of the mountain. Sure enough, he finds the radical kids waiting for him. They entreat him to lead their bombing raid against the townsfolk, and maybe do a couple of kidnappings (!!). Hey! Wait a minute! It just hit me that the lessons Billy just learned from the Spirit Maiden coincidentally apply exactly to what the radical kids are asking him to do!! Wow, that’s almost creepy.
Unsurprisingly, Billy turns the kids down and suggests they abandon the Road of Violence. At the same time, however, he lectures them at length about Social Injustice and stuff, but I’m frankly too tired to get into it. However, I did perk up when he criticized “psychotics” who would “kill a lot of innocent bystanders and maybe grab a lot of headlines by spouting some sophomoric slogans about ‘class struggle.'” OK, that legitimately makes his stance on non-violence a lot more even-handed and respectable. Again, though, he’s Billy Jack, so you know he’s going to be pulling those boots off sooner or later, no matter what the Spirit Maiden told him.
We cut to the town. There the National Guard are deployed in the street, arms at the ready, as if awaiting a swarm of giant, mutant insects in a ’50s sci-fi movie. (They should be so lucky.) “What the hell is that?” the commanding officer, a Colonel, snarls. “Sounds likeâ€¦drums,” a subordinate replies. The Colonel puts his men on alert, but it’s far too late. Yes, the horrifying truth of the matter is that, as the DVD chapter title states, this is where the “kids fight back with love”. Blech! However, this allows a weirdly triumphant Sheriff Carl to scream mockery at the Colonel.
A scout drives forward and learns that the sound heralds a literal parade of hippies, who have come to march through the town. Some are on flatbed trucks and some on foot, but all clap loudly in rhythm to loud band music. One flatbed displays the school’s Yoga Belly Dancers, decked out in full belly dancer regalia. Take that, Joe Sixpack! In any case, there’s little doubt that all this unauthorized, unlicensed noise and traffic disruption is sure to get the hoi polloi on the students’ side. And cannily, the majority of the parade is designed to appeal to the unsophisticated hicks and rednecks that reside in Anytown, USA. There’s a marching band and a cheerleading squad performing baton drills and other vulgar sights to placate the masses.
The Colonel sneers in frustration at the sight, presumably because this clever, non-violent ploy does not allow him to open fired on that tantalizing hoard of hippies. (Yes, it does, Colonel! Shoot! Shoot!) Soon a public address system is employed, and the townsfolk learn that they are witness to: “The world’s first Total Man Meet in history.” Uh, you might want to work on that name a bit.
Next the Loud Speaker Lady asks (seriously), “Howard Cosell, where are you?” (In a much better place sweetheart. In a much better place.) For some reason-and again I’m guessing it’s because they believed him to be an identification figure for the ignorant hillbilly town dwellers-this is a slogan for the parade, as indicated by a large sign posted on one of the lead parade trucks:
WHERE IS ??
Howard Cossell ?
And yes, that’s right; they managed to spell his name wrong. (!!!)
The parade, much like the movie it appears in, is loud, seemingly endless and highly unentertaining. Meanwhile, what is torture without first having instilled the fear of torture? And so the Loud Speaker Lady sadistically spells out what the innocent citizenry is in for: “Each team has a poetry team, a belly dance team, a rock band, a sprinter, a pole-vaulter and a relay team!” (A belly dance ‘team’? Has there ever been such a thing?) Moreover, the Loud Speaker Lady assures her captive audience that anyone can join in on these far out activities. However, there will be no prizes or awards, because those are icky and might even (ugh) favor the talented.
Meanwhile, director Laughlin attempts a bit of satire-although again, humor isn’t exactly his forte-by contrasting in the same shots the glowering, rigid, automaton-like National Guardsmen with the joyous free spirits taking part in the parade. Of course, the Colonel must be a laughably paranoid sort, and so he reacts to the parade by ordering his men to be made ready for action. “Be on the alert!” the order dutifully rings out, as the camera plays over some cheerleaders, “This could be a clever diversionary tactic!” Ha! Dr. Strangelove had nothing on this picture.
We jump forward to sometime that evening. On the way back to the School, a bus ferrying some of the Groovy Gang has become stranded in the desert, its tires mired in some loose dirt. Lynn and Carol are on the scene, and Lynn has been radioing into the school for replacement transport. Meanwhile, a call has been made to town, requesting a tow truck.
After a while, some cars appear at their remote location. Russell naively assumes that someone has come to help, but Carol is wiser. Heeding her friend’s fears, Russell radios in and asks that somebody phone the Sheriff’s office. However, a whole posse of hostile cowboys-wearing ten gallon hats and even revolvers in holsters (!), the whole rig-climbs out and prepares to have their evil way with the peace-loving students.
The leader of the Mean Cowboys, Jason, smashes one of the kid’s guitars. This apparently was manufactured in East Germany, since it appears to have been made of balsa wood. I personally was willing to give this guy the benefit of the doubt, thinking that perhaps he was trying to reach out to the groovy youngsters by doing his Pete Townsend impression. Either that, or he might have simply been acting in self-defense. These kids might not fight, but they do sing-sort of-and having heard them I know which one I’d be more worried about.
Russell tells Carol that nobody can find the Sheriff, but that Billy is on the way. Of course, now that he’s embraced non-violence, I’m sure he’ll follow in the removed boots of Mahatma Gandhi and refuse to engage in fisticuffs no matter what the provocation. Suuure, I do.
Tiring of picking on stringed instruments, the cowboys begin working over one of the students. Then they team up to push over the stranded school bus, an action punctuated by the sort of music that alerts the viewer that Bad Stuff is happening. Following this, a can of gas is produced and the bus is doused with petrol.
Carol begs for them not to set their vehicle alight. In answer, Jason punches her in the stomach. (This is also Bad Stuff, according to the music.) That accomplished, he stokes up his disgusting phallic cigar-which is just the sort of thing a ‘man’ like him, who undoubtedly has a small penis, would be smoking-and tosses it at the bus, which bursts into aflame. It’s like the most terrifying episode of The Partridge Family ever.
And thus, after nearly an hour and fifty minutes, we finally get the sort of action that Laughlin’s audiences theoretically wouldn’t want but no doubt were by this time badly craving. First, a nice bit of safely outrage-provoking arson, followed by the appearance of Our Hero. I can almost hear them as they sat in the theater: “Go, Billy! Show them that they don’t control you! Remain completely non-violent no matter what they do to provoke you! That’ll show them!“
Billy surveys the situation and finds himself confronting not only about twenty guys, but with one veritable goliath who must stand at least six foot eight. Oh, wait, they actually go out of their way to confirm that he’s 6′ 9″ and weights 285. Duh, sorry, this is The Trial of Billy Jack, and everything must be spelled out in excruciating detail. In any case, this fellow smugly towers over the diminutive Billy, which of course is meant to make us savor his inevitable ass-kicking all the more.
Billy reacts by going into his patented, “Aw, shucks, you scamps, what am I going to do with you?” routine. At this, we’re supposed to start salivating like Pavlov’s dog, waiting for the moment when he beats this guy like drum. Except, of course, that at the same time we all abhor violence, but not, you know, against guys like this, because they’re like, you know, Nazis or something, and anyway people like that have always picked on us and certainly it can’t be too bad to see one of them get pounded into pudding, can it, even though of course it’s certainly beyond debate that violence can never be the answer but stillâ€¦
Taking his own sweet time about it-because this is, after all, The Trial of Billy Jack-Our Hero sets about repeating, only at greater length (which defines the relationship of the two films in a nutshell) that great moment in Billy Jack where he calmly informed Posner that he was going to kick him in the face and that there’s wasn’t anything Posner could do to stop it.
This time around, Billy methodically explains to his gargantuan foe that all his mass isn’t going to stop Billy from taking him down by nailing a nerve cluster on the guy’s thigh. He even explains how such a blow done right-which of course, it will be-would “tear that muscle all the way down under the kneecap. You might even have to have surgery.”
It’s all a delicious set-up to that great moment of release when Billy finally does chop the guy, and one thing that’s so neat about the scene is that he does engage in what seems like real violence. This isn’t a movie fight where the two trade horrific blows for five minutes with little permanent effect. No, as Billy explains, he’s going to take the guy down immediately, in order to neutralize his size advantage, and in doing so do the guy real injury.
This scene, therefore, fully illustrates the schizophrenia of Laughlin and Billy Jack. For all the hippy speechifying and Native American mystical mumbo-jumbo, the Billy Jack pictures are action movies, and ultimately they attract an audience because viewers want to see the good guy beat up some bad guys.
In any case, I’m not someone who thinks that violence is never a solution. Therefore I’m not much bothered by the fact that Billy still decides to employ violence when he considers it necessary. If I were that sort of person-as, again, many of Billy Jack’s target audience proclaimed themselves to be-then I wouldn’t watch movies like this.
So it’s not Billy utilizing violence that bothers me. Instead, it’s the undeniable joy Billy, and Laughlin himself, takes in being a bad ass. Perhaps Billy has decided that tragic necessity is now forcing him to lower himself to the beast level and allow someone else to control his soul blah blah blah.
However, does that mean he has to take such evident satisfaction in it? Does he need to derive such patently obvious pleasure from being so superior to his opponent that he can taunt the guy about how he’s going to cripple him-which he does for well over two straight minutes before delivering the promised blow-secure in the knowledge that even so there won’t be any way for the guy to protect himself? That’s the fundamentally dishonest heart of the Billy Jack movies, and one the films’ fans can’t get around it.
So Billy disables the guy, as promised, and then braces for an attack from the remaining cowboys. He responds to this by executing a series of kicks that downs four dudes, all of who scream loudly in agony. Again, I doubt that was intended to disgust or disturb anyone in the audience.
That accomplished, he runs over to stop Patsy, who’s busting up one of the cowboys’ cars. “What do you think you’re doing?” he barks. “This just pulls you down to their level!” She sneers the obvious rejoinder, “Well, what the hell do you call what you just did?” Billy responds to this query with a look of profound shock. If I’m following this, this is meant to indicate that he only now realizes that beating those guys up violates the Spirit Maiden’s lessons. If so, Billy must be one of the densest heroes in motion picture history.
In any case, Billy is bundled into a jeep and drives off with Carol and Russell. Hilariously, Patsy (and presumably others, given how many were in the bus) are left behind, still stranded, and at the mercy of the remaining cowboys, who you’d have to think are seriously pissed off right about now. Despite this, we never get any indication that the kids were subsequently molested.
Cut to Russell and Jean walking around the desert and discussing the upcoming Indian Seminar. Then they come to a stop right in front of the camera, and Jean asks, “What’s the matter?” At this point we cut to an extremely tight close-up of the (presumably) just-arrived Carol. “Just look who They said would never leave his room,” Carol replies. At this the image widens out and we see One-Armed Danny beside her, riding atop the previously established miniature burro. Jean then reacts with great pleasure at Carol’s triumph.
Read that paragraph again. That’s right; this is just unforgivably horrendous filmmaking. The only way the action makes sense is if Jean doesn’t see Danny until we do. However, unlike the viewer, she’s not watching a film in which the flow of information is restricted by what the camera shows her. Instead, she’s supposedly facing both Carol and Danny, who are positioned three feet directly in front of her. It’s like one of those cheesy horror movies where the person in the film doesn’t see the monster until it lunges into frame with them, even when the setting would make its invisibility impossible.
“Danny says he might like that thing now,” Carol explains. She’s referring to one of those arm prosthetics equipped with an opening and closing pincer hook. So saying, we cut to Jean and Doc looking on later as Danny, prosthetic in place, is receiving instructions on how to play the guitar with his hook. (!!!) Consider that he would never even talk before, I’d say this represents a pretty good amount of progress. Freedom School, is there anything your enlightened inhabitants can’t do?
We next cut to some night or other, watching as an Indian male (this might be the same guy who was in Billy’s drowning vision) walks to his car. With a blare of music, a gang of rednecks previously obscured by the darkness is revealed when they turn on their car headlights in a synchronized fashion. I’m sure it was a lot of work to get that timing down just right, but hey, it’s a nicely dramatic effect.
As an Ominous Tuba blats, we cut to the Indian, in slow motion, being forced down under some body of water, exactly as in Billy’s vision. (Wowsers!) This takes place in broad daylight, so I don’t know what they were doing with the guy in the meantime, especially since he doesn’t exhibit any obvious indications of manhandling.
We then jump ahead, to find Sheriff Carl, Billy, Jean, Doc and others on the scene. The victim’s Volkswagen Bug (of course, what else?) is being hauled out of the water, and he himself is presumably dead. Even Doc is prepared to fold, telling Jean that “I hope this is going to end your Indian Legal Rights Seminar.” Meanwhile, Jean cynically anticipates that the available evidence will suggest that the death was accidental. “What the hell did you expect?” the Sheriff asks. A bitter Doc picks up the refrain. “Yeah, a sign? ‘Courtesy of W. A. Posner and his friends from the CIA’?” (The CIA!!! Man, these people just can’t help themselves.)
However-duh-the Seminar goes forward, and is even nationally (!!) televised. (So what, did they manage to rebuild their broadcast tower already?) A woman decked out with Indian jewelry is addressing a crowded room of, I guess, various civil rights experts and whatnot. Unsurprisingly, her remarks are oddly specific yet vague, fantastical but boring. “The mass confusion over what really are the Indian rights, makes it impossible for even Indians lawyers to grasp the laws that are mostly aimed at depriving him of thirteen million acres of prime real estate in the United States. Let us now look closely atâ€¦.” And so on and so on.
She also refers to a chart, apparently whipped up by twelve year-olds the night before the seminar, detailing various relevant committees of Congress. This purportedly illustrates how “two hundred and twenty million people are totally controlled by the votes of four or five [committee chairmen].” Well, sort of, except for the ‘totally’ part, which is ridiculous. Meanwhile, those four or five committee chairs first have to be elected by their constituents, but yes, that is in a gross sense how the representative form of government functions. Meanwhile, we cut away and see that these hearings are being watched by some of those selfsame congressmen in Washington. (!!)
Next Blue Elk steps up and serves up another stew of obvious statements and outright balderdash. For instance he details (well, not details) how some Indians, who he charmingly calls ‘traitors,’ get themselves a monopoly from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to sell their fellow Indians supplies, at which point the prices of, well, something are marked up by 1,000%. Then the impoverished Indians are offered credit at “interest rates usually falling between 45 and 75% annually.”
Let’s just assume that all this is true, although it sounds like something from a Snidely Whiplash cartoon. Even so, I guess the non-traitor Indians could pool their money and establish their own loaning mechanism, one that would not charge such rates of interest. However, that solution, although it might actually, you know, work, smacks of that whole free market thing, which is unthinkable. Better to get on TV and bitch about things.
By the way, it’s during Blue Elk’s spiel that we hit the one hour and fifty-three minute mark, at which point there’s exactly an hour of movie left. Yep, that’s right. An hour of movie left.
At this point, we jump around, and see that the entire town is watching the broadcast, even those fascists at the furniture store. Meanwhile, Posner glowers as Blue Elk directly accuses him of processing congressional kickbacks to Congress through his bank. Needless to say, since there doesn’t seem to be any proof of this (although we ‘know’ it’s true), you’d think Posner would immediately be on the phone to his lawyer and preparing to sue the Freedom School out of existence. Once again, though, the villains allow an obvious solution to their problems to go by the boards, presumably because that solution is insufficiently Blofeldian.
We then get our third speaker-this is why there’s still an hour left to go-who proves a wizened woman who looks disturbingly like Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis in drag. After a further half minute of platitudes, we finally cut to Jean, who is (thankfully) closing the Seminar out. During her own speech, she references, “â€¦the overwhelming despair, gnawing away at every Indian, and every other person in the United States, knowing that there is no longer any way he can directly affect the destiny of this country, and therefore, he can no longer control his own life.” Hey, speak for yourself, Sweetie Pie.
Nonetheless, she continues on, and even sets the folks at the Freedom School up as the natural heirs of the Founding Fathers (!!!), who she lists the names of at length, because this is, after all, The Trial of Billy Jack. (Hilariously, for this crowd, she doesn’t mention that most of them owned slaves, or their record with the American Indians.) When she finally, finally, wraps up her address, she is, of course, given a standing ovation. Considering how numb my ass got while listening to her drone on and on, I almost joined in myself.
Grievously wounded by this televised display of Truth Telling, the Establishment strikes back with all its many tentacles. Since this is The Trial of Billy Jack, each incident is detailed for our edification.
First, the State has finally been granted legal custody of Danny. We learn this when we cut to Doc’s hospital, where a seething, guitar-brandishing Carol is holding off Harry, an unctuous John Carradine-like State Representative. (Hey, if you really want to hurt him, sing that “Don’t Turn Back, Billy Jack” song.) Behind her, a sobbing Danny cowers in the corner.
When Harry attempts to carry out his malign mission, Carol indeed whacks him with the guitar. Of course, he doesn’t have her arrested, even though she just committed battery in front of several witnesses. In fact, by attacking him in order to keep him away from Danny, she’s technically guilty of kidnapping to boot. So why not have her tossed in jail? Hell, they could have nearly every student at the Freedom School in the pokey by now if they wanted. Man, I would so be a better eee-vil dictator than these guys.
Anyway, Doc appears and is so furious that he himself threatens Harry in the most direct terms, which means he’s guilty of assault. Maintaining the peace for a while, Sheriff Carl escorts Harry off, but as Harry has been named Danny’s legal conservator, the victory is temporary.
Meanwhile, Grandfather (!) is arrested on some trumped up charge or other, a frame-up orchestrated by the villainous Yellow Hawk. (Hmm, ‘Yellow’ Hawk. Are they perhaps trying to imply something?)
Finally, that night we see Blue Elk and a friend walking along the street. Jason the Meanest Cowboy, number one stooge to Posner, drives up and offers Blue Elk an invitation to come talk with Posner one-on-one. The savvy Indian is suspicious-yeah, you’d think-but ultimately decides to see what Posner has in mind. However, as soon as he’s in the car, Jason drives off, leaving Blue Elk’s friend behind. This fellow turns and runs for help.
Blue Elk is conducted to a town dance Posner is overseeing. As you might imagine, this is about the squarest such event ever, with somnambulistic old white couples shuffling around to catatonia-inducing ‘live’ music. (But hey, if it’s this to listening to Carol sing, there’s no contest.) Jason appears and signals Posner, who ducks into the back, where some of his men are holding a battered Blue Elk. “I’m not one of your drunken Indians!” the still defiant Blue Elk spits. “Doing this to me is going to create a lot of attention!”
Sadly, though, this is what Posner wants. Yep, with only about a third of the film’s running time left in which to actually act villainous, Posner has decided to take off the kid’s gloves. At his command Blue Elk is beaten further and then dragged unconscious out onto the dance room, much to the shock of the local gentry. Even so, the only dissention is presented by one old couple who leaves, while everyone just mills around. That’s the kind of country we live in, I guess. Blue Elk is then further degraded (stripped to his underwear) and tortured, and forced to perform an impromptu Indian dance for his tormenters.
However, Billy-wearing a black knit cap, for no apparent reason-and Master Han (playing himself, remember) drive up outside as this is happening. They enter the building from the rear, and suddenly Jean magically appears (?), trying to keep Billy from doing anything that will get him sent back to prison, or worse. However, Billy’s at the “a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do” stage. So again, what was the purpose of all that Spirit Maiden stuff?
Since Billy is being pig-headed (and searching rooms, which is weird, because he knows where Blue Elk is being held), Jean tries to stop all this by bursting into the dance hall and doing a J’Accuse number on the guests. Needless to say, though, since they are bourgeois white folks, they don’t do anything to help. Indeed, as presented, most of them seem to be getting a kick out of Blue Elk’s predicament. (To which I say, please.)
Oh, wait, I see. Billy stayed in the back so that Jason and his crew could file in for a big fight scene. Now, considering how things went last time, you’d think they would just use those guns they’re always carrying. However, then Billy would be dead, so instead they apparently are determined to do the job manually. For this purpose, they’ve come equipped with clubs, pipes, monkey wrenches and so on.
Jean runs in and tries her shame routine again, with even less impressive results. When she realizes it’s no go, she heads out, presumably to find help. Meanwhile, Han and Billy prepare for battle by, yes, removing their shoes. Because this is the Billy Jack universe, the cowboys all stand around waiting while Billy yaks and yaks and yaks, cordially allowing him to make the first move. Eventually, though, the battle is joined, featuring lots of slo-mo mayhem and sound effects right out a Road Runner cartoon.
This is probably the weakest fight scene in the Billy Jack series, largely because it’s the most ridiculously outsized. Laughlin had always tried to keep the violence on a somewhat realistic scale before. In the prior movie, when Billy was fighting a couple of dozen opponents, he got his licks in but eventually got whipped. Here, however, he and Han defeat a similar number of much more heavily armed opponents, and all without breaking a sweat. The moves, especially the kicks, still look fairly realistic, and at least their enemies don’t keep popping back up blow after blow, but the sequence is still shockingly run of the mill.
The scene ends with Billy more or less outright murdering Jason. Don’t get me wrong, he had it coming. Still, though, this was not, you’d have to think, the wisest idea. I mean, Billy’s been through this before. And again, why did I have to sit through all that mystical pacifism crap if the whole movie was leading up to another gee-whiz cool beans fight scene?
His men quickly decimated, Posner finally decides, hey, why not try a gun? Billy, as invulnerable as ever (well, more so, since he actually did take a bullet in Billy Jack), merely reacts to this with boredom. “Up to now it’s only been a couple of broken bones,” Billy asserts, despite the fact that he just forced Jason to stab himself with a knife and then threw the guy through a second story window. However, Han decides to force the issue, and begins advancing on the clearly rattled Posner. Unsurprisingly, the end result is that he gets shot. This triggers the inevitable Billy Jack Enragement Moment, and he charges Posner, who conveniently misses him at point blank range. Billy leaps in the air and kicks Posner in the throat, killing him.
Later, we see Han taken away in an ambulance. Sheriff Carl apologizes to Billy, but explains that he has to take him in. Billy, however, sees that as a death sentence, and refuses to go. A confrontation between the two is averted when hundreds of kids from the Freedom School swarm the area* and begin to attack the police. In the confusion, Billy slips away. Then a riot squad tromps onto the scene and starts laying down the Hippy Smackdown. I must admit, I found this was one of film’s more enjoyable moments.
[*Despite supposedly being an enraged crowd, several of the extras are visibly grinning as they run into shot. I was actually watching for this, because no matter how frightened or angry a movie mob is supposed to, the extras are usually smiling away like fools because they’re in a movie. See the crowd that runs from the movie theater in The Blob for a classic example of this.]
The Governor is enraged by news of Posner’s death, and tells an aide to “get” Billy. “We can’t, sir,” the aide replies. “The whole world saw it, and it was clearly self defense.” Actually, there were no witnesses at all to Posner’s killing, which you might think they’d expect us to remember, given that we just watched Billy kill him less than two minutes ago.
As we move towards our pre-ordained climax, the National Guard troops appear and surround the same old church Billy barricaded himself in at the end of Billy Jack. For a picture that expects us to sit around for three frickin’ hours, it sure recycles a lot of material from the previous movie.
“You have no legal right to be here!” an onsite Jean tells the Guard commandeer, which seems a somewhat dubious assertion, given the riot and the murder of a prominent town banker. Besides, they keep telling us the Law is the tool of the Man. If that’s the case, what’s the point with constantly telling the authorities that they don’t have ‘the right’ to do something? Meanwhile, Jean learns that the guard’s orders are to establish and maintain a position outside the church until Billy surrenders. How dastardly! Actually, I guess it is, for some reason, since the Groovy Gang reacts to this news with a mighty hue and cry.
In another repeat from the prior film, we now get a pensive scene inside the church, as Billy and Jean discuss Where It All Went Wrong. (Here’s another similarity: The Establishment that we’ve been told over and over wants Billy dead is in a perfect position to kill him right now. Despite this, they for some reason instead do everything in their power to keep him alive, even though it would be easier to just storm the place and shoot him down.) Oddly, this mostly becomes an opportunity for Billy to explain why Jeans’ actions up to now have been hopelessly naÃ”ve.
Billy wonders how they can get out of this without anyone else getting killed, although neither of them mentions the option of him just surrendering. Jean instead suggests that he try to slip away, despite the fact that the place is encircled by a fortified National Guard contingent. Jean mentions that this standoff is totally different from the identical one last time, because now the authorities intend to kill him. The problem being that then Jean said the exact same thing. Seriously, hadn’t the Laughlins ever heard the one about the boy who cried wolf?
Noting that they “wouldn’t dare hurt me now,” (??!!) Billy decides to peek over the roof and threaten all the assembled cops and guardsmen with his rifle. Oh, yeah, how could they possibly justify shooting him at this point? It’s now official, by the way: I’ve been watching this movie so long that I know longer can tell if it’s insane or I am. Apparently Nietzsche was right about that ‘staring into the abyss’ stuff.
Getting confirmation from Sheriff Carl that The Powers That Be are only interested in his arrest, and will pull all the guardsmen off the Freedom School grounds once he’s in custody, Billy agrees to surrender. Gee, I wonder if it will turn out that The Authorities (with the Sheriff merely being a dupe) are lying? I mean, it seems pretty weird that Billy would take their word in the first place, so the only plot purpose I can see being served here is another abject lesson in the futility of trusting The Man. In any case, as a ‘comic’ coda, Billy then turns and reveals to Jean that in his haste he forgot to bring any ammunition for his rifle. Oh, my sides.
As Billy leaves the church, Sheriff Carl is arguing with the Colonel, who insists that Billy is to be a state prisoner rather than a local one. Since the Colonel bears a warrant from the State Supreme Court, Carl loses the argument. Instead, the Sheriff avers that he will follow after the convoy of state patrol cars taking Billy into custody, “to make sure nothing happens.” However, as Billy is taken way, Carl finds his way blocked by a guard truck. Obviously it’s all part of an Eee-vil plan.
Then GASP!! it turns out that not only aren’t the guardsmen leaving the School grounds, but additional ones are being brought in to reinforce them. Tactfully calling them the “Gestapo” (yes, that will help keep things calm), Jean demands to know what’s going on. Well, I guess what’s going on is an abject lesson in the futility of trusting The Man. Goes to show you. In any case, the Colonel smugly notes that he’s “just an order taker.” WHICH IS JUST WHAT THE NAZIS SAID!
[One odd note: For no other reason other than plot convenience, there are absolutely no reporters anywhere around. This is strange, because Billy, you’d think, would be quite a famous character in these parts, and was standing off the police for the second time in five years following his having killed a member of the prominent Posner family. I don’t know, that seems like a story to me. Also, why aren’t the Freedom School news cameras recording all this? If they could reach a nationwide audience with an Indian rights symposium, you’d think this situation would inspire quite a bit more interest.]
Meanwhile, the cops pull over on a deserted stretch of road. At gunpoint, they order Billy from the car, obviously intending to finally accomplish what we’ve been told The Man has been relentlessly attempting to do since about 1957: Kill Billy Jack. This strikes me as strange. Were I planning to kill him, I would have had a sniper shoot him during the standoff, rather than waiting until after he’d voluntarily surrendered himself before witnesses. Killing him in the public commission of a criminal act would seem to make more sense.
The handcuffed Billy obeys, and while surrounded by cops, has one push a revolver towards him. I guess that’s because sticking it in his hand after they shoot him would be too complicated an Eee-vil scheme. Billy picks the weapon up, holds it against his head, and fires, knowing it’s empty. Still, it’s nice for them that he’s put his fingerprints all over it and everything. Then they shoot him and Billy dies and the movie’s over.
Oh wait, that’s not what happens. And the movie’s not nearly over; there’s still thirty-six minutes of it left to go.
Instead, Billy wryly notes, “Now that’s the funniest thing. You know, one time, I don’t remember where, somebody told me that if at any time I was ever arrested and they gave me a handgunâ€¦.” That seems an oddly specific anecdote, but anyway. Having thus distracted his putative assassins, Billy tosses the revolver aside and manages to kick the two guys nearest to him. He then runs off into the desert, as the four cops stay in place and try to shoot him, without, as you might expect, overmuch success.
However, as he runs over a rise, Billy finally seems to take some shotgun pellets to the back. Meanwhile, the cops are freaked. “Do you know what ‘They’ will do to us?” one frets. Despite this well founded fear, however, the same guy also refuses to go into the desert and hunt down the wounded fugitive. “Are you nuts?” he snarls. I mean, the guy out there is Billy Jack!! So he stays behind and cowers as his comrades enter the scrub.
Just a few second later, numerous shots ring out, followed by silence. Unfortunately for Scaredy Cop, however, Billy has somehow Offscreen Teleported to a position behind him. Billy gets the guy at a disadvantage and requisitions his handcuff keys, revolver and the keys to his squad cars. Then, apparently, he sat there in the car waiting until the other cops returned some minutes later, I guess so that he could then dramatically peel off and be fired at as he escapes.
Meanwhile, back that the Freedom School, the kids are responding to the Fascist Occupation by-three guesses-crowding into a room and all yelling at the top of their lungs. Here we learn that the devious dealings of The Man have finally radicalized many of the pacifist students. Russell, for instance, stands up and admits that her previous embracement of non-violence was misguided. “Brute power can only be met by brute power!” she shrills. One radical suggests bombing The Dam, because that would “get coverage on CBS.”
Finally, Carole manages to get a word in. “Jean built this school without any help from us,” she observes, if inaccurately. Her point being that Jean should be allowed to give her position. This draws boos from the more radical students, but Jean finally decides that its time to step up to the plate. Yelling, she notes that whether they want to hear a speech from her or not, “You’re going to hear one, baby!”
Enraged and crying, Jean reads them the riot act. This is supposed to be a Big Moment, and if you were genuinely a fan of the film-in the orthodox way, rather than the manner in which I and my ilk are fans of it-it might well be one. Even for myself, I’ll give it this: Non-violence is a hard row to hoe, and Jean’s continued belief in and advocacy of it, despite the rather cartoonish level of oppression she faces in this universe the Laughlins created, is admirable. (Now if the film could just decide whether it believes in violence or not, we might have some idea of what we’re supposed to take away from all this.)
Even as I was writing that, though, and trying to be fair to the Laughlins and give them some points, they do what makes this film this film and go so far over the top that attempting to be fair ceases to be an option. Rather than letting her impassioned speech stand by itself, Jean then follows with a concrete example of The Power of Love That They’ve All Forgotten by-No! Yes!!-bringing young One-Armed Danny up onstage to sing a song with Carol.
So they haul the kid up, and hand (hook?) him a guitar, and soon he and Carol are strumming away. They sing “I Saw the Ships on Christmas Day” (?) and needless to say, there’s soon not a dry eye in the house. Laughing uncontrollably will do that to you.
With the situation defused, at least on their end, they try to get the guardsmen to decamp. Meanwhile, Doc is trying to get federal marshals on the scene, but of course, the Feds are In On It and it’s no go. By the way, and I guess this is supposed to be a naÃ”ve question, but exactly what is the justification for the National Guard is using to occupy the school? There isn’t any unrest occurring-now at least. And again, where is the press? They should be swarming this place.
Oh, there’s the answer to one of my questions. The Governor is on TV, pledging that the government won’t start any confrontation (“Damn you, liar!” a miffed Jean yells), but will meet with immediate force any criminal act. Of course, that means the wise strategy would be for the students to peacefully hold tight until eventually the Governor starts looking silly and withdraws the Guard, but of course They won’t allow that. By the way, do I need to point out that this situation as drawn is nothing like the ones that preceded the real life shootings referenced at the beginning of the film?
We cut outside for a variety of shots of the Guardsman setting up a perimeter, as Bombastic Sinister Music booms on the soundtrack. Hilariously, we then cut away for Ironic Contrast to an Ordinary Joe Guardsman, who that very night is leaving his house to report to duty. As mawkish, syrupy music plays, he bids farewell to his pretty wife and cute young son Danny-the name isn’t a coincidence-whom he is carrying around in his arms. “Now give your Old Dad a hug!” he demands, and wow, what a happy, happy family this obviously is. (The acting here is even worse than the general level the film provides. You can actually see the kid looking offscreen for his cue as to when to say his line.) And so, after showing that even some of the faceless Tools of the State are themselves only innocent pawns of The Establishment, we move on.
Back at the school, the kids have lit bonfires and begun throwing rocks and crap at the Guardsmen. Yes, that’s a wise decision. Meanwhile, a squad leader is informing his men of the rules of engagement. If their position is approached, a verbal warning is to be given, followed by a warning shot, followed by orders to “shoot to kill.” If anyone can provide evidence to support the idea that in any of the real school shootings, the Guard or cops propagated orders to shoot to kill, I’ll eat my hat.
Indeed, Ordinary Joe Guardsman is aghast. “Do they really expect us to shoot college kids?” he asks in disbelief. Yes, my friend, because They are Just That Evil. However, in support of this, They have made sure to spread the idea that the students have set up snipers all over the place. Being a more typical example of the sort of ignorant redneck the Guard attracts-after all, could such a murderous organization really have many Ordinary Joe Guardsmen in it?-his squad mate has bought into The Lie without question. Even so, he has no answer when Ordinary Joe asks, “What are we shooting them for?” Well, because the Laughlins wrote the script that way, my friend.
Meanwhile, a wounded Billy is being tended to by a group of Indian Elders, although (Thank goodness!) in a purely holistic fashion as they shake maraca-like gourds and chant. Whew! I was afraid they’d employ some of that awful Western Medicine, by injecting him with antibiotics or something of the like. None of that nonsense for the Wise Peoples of the Land!
However, Blue Elk tells Billy that the Medicine has failed, and that “the bullets are killing you.” This, however, isn’t because that’s what bullets are designed to do, but instead because Billy has failed to live by the teachings of non-violence provided on his Vision Quest. Well, that’s convenient. You can’t sue for malpractice, I guess, when the effectiveness of the tribe’s medicine varies according to your own moral worthiness.
A weakened Billy admits that this is so, but that they still have to stop The Man from killing Jean, which I guess is their plan now. On the face of it, that doesn’t make much sense, since Jean is the only one keeping the lid on things. However, if you buy into the idea that everything is a big conspiracy, then I guess the idea is that The Man actually wants the kids to riot, so that his forces finally have an excuse to crack down on them and inaugurate the police state that we know is The Establishment’s fondest wish. Also, Jean is Good, and The Establishment is Evil, so, you know, that’s probably enough right there.
The more radical students skulk about the grounds with torches, and eventually set fire to a shack. Well, that will strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. Meanwhile, Carol is frantically wondering where One-Armed Danny has gotten himself to. When somebody reports seeing him in the bonfire area-didn’t anyone think that was weird, a ten year-old kid wandering around a potential riot zone?-she runs out to find him.
Some of the cops are skulking around too, and some of the radical kids decide it would be a good idea to sneak up on them and hit one in the face with a tossed brick. I have to admit, my sympathy for their plight sort of diminished after that. Meanwhile, some of the Guard arrive outside the burning shack and begin pushing the kids back. Why a shack in the middle of the desert would be worth such effort is left to our imaginations, but that’s the Madness of War, I guess.
The wounded cop, the one beaned and knocked unconscious with a brick, is reported-whether by innocent mistake or malign purpose, I couldn’t tell-to be the victim of one of snipers the Authorities have been warning about. Believing that one of their men has been shot, the Guardsmen are even more inclined to end the protest through force. I’m sure the fact that the kids-who are the only ones on the grounds who have employed violence up to now, we should remember-are currently tossing Nazi salutes in the Guardsmen’s direction isn’t exactly helping.
With the kids approaching the barracks, a warning shot is fired. However, some civilian guys with a pistol, and I have no idea who he is, assumes that the shot came from a sniper and begins firing into the massed protesters. In the confusion, the Guardsmen around him follow suit, and things quickly escalate when the Guard command, believing themselves under fire, issue a general order to begin shooting.
As the students flee and the wounded tumble to ground, we get a scene so appalling that it’s hard to describe with a straight face. This is the ultimate example of how the Laughlins sabotaged their own film. Up until now, the situation has been played as resulting from a tragic series of mistakes. That, you would think, would be bad enough.
However, the Laughlins just can’t let bad enough alone. The authorities can’t just be misguided, they must be evil. Therefore, in one of the rankest displays of political paranoia since the heydays of the Nazi and Soviet propaganda films, we now cut to Danny, who is cowering in the stables. The One-Armed Lad, who we’ve watched heroically break free from his psychological chains, is there, clutching a bunny rabbit (I swear!) as he seeks to protect his pet miniature burro.
Running to find him, Russell takes a bullet and goes down, one of seemingly dozens of students to do so. Several of the featured students (Patsy, Bugger, etc.) also are seen being shot, and then Jean gets her, as we watch in loving slow motion as packets of stage blood secreted under her sweater spew forth their contents. This is accented by shrilling hooting horns, like the ones heard in the original Planet of the Apes, so that we get that seeing the film’s heroine shot down is bad. By the way, trivia fans might like to note that the music here is by Elmer Bernstein (!), certainly his most impressive assignment since Robot Monster.
Again, though, seeing a number of the film’s featured cast being shot down isn’t enough. Therefore, we cut back to Danny, still clutching his bunny rabbit. Meanwhile, an officer comes up to Ordinary Joe Guardsman, demanding to know why he isn’t firing into the crowd. When he refuses to do so-and I really, truly swear this is what happens-the officer puts his .45 up against Ordinary Joe’s head and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t shoot down into the crowd. Really. No kidding.
With no recourse, Ordinary Joe turns and fires, and naturally-for this movie anyway-his bullet lands plumb in the center of One-Armed Danny’s back. (Damn, he probably killed the rabbit, too.) I mean, what can you say to that? No matter how nutty you expect Laughlin to be-and in my case, that’s pretty nutty-you cannot be prepared to see an officer of the National Guard order a subordinate, at gunpoint, to kill an eight year-old boy. A boy with one arm. Holding a bunny. Trying to protect his pet miniature burro.
And remember how I said that Ordinary Joe Guardsman’s son, roughly of Danny’s age, was also named Danny. Get it? He has just been forced to kill a boy just like his own son! Oh, the humanity! Obviously Joe didn’t really intend to kill anyone, but now he will forever have to live with the fact that he killed a little boy, one just like his own son. Only with but one arm. Holding a bunny. Trying to protect his pet miniature burro.
Amazingly, despite taking an M16 round square in the back, Danny is still alive (!), because, you know, if you’re going to go this far you might as well milk things a bit. So the lad painfully begins dragging himself forward with hand and hook. (Oh, we do see that the rabbit is OK, so apparently there were some places Laughlin wasn’t willing to go.)
With the firing more of less concluded, Carol comes running up, calling for Danny. She sees him just as he gives up the ghost, and screams and runs toward him and takes a bullet herself. Then, as the bullet continue to fly around her-and the general firing has stopped, so obviously the sole intent is to make sure she’s dead-she begins crawling forward towards her fallen protÃˆgÃˆ. Dragging her body over his, she takes two more bullets and presumably dies.
In the aftermath of the massacre, several wounded students pitifully call for help. At that moment, though, some flares light up the sky. This heralds a torchlight procession of Indians marching in the Guard’s direction. Meanwhile, uninjured students run outside and collect up their wounded comrades. I’m sure the ones with spinal injuries especially appreciate their efforts.
In what I guess is meant to be an inspiring image, although I’m not exactly sure why, the large number of Indians, several hundred of them perhaps and with torches held high, form protective ranks in front of the school. Then Blue Elk steps forward. In perhaps my very favorite of the film’s myriad absurdities, he informs that Guard that a treaty from 1868 disallows government troops from setting foot on the local Indian land, including, I guess, the land on which the school sits. (Which, if I recall from way the hell back earlier in the movie, was built atop an “abandoned military base.”) Apparently the idea is that while the Guard might be willing to fire into a dense crowd of unarmed college students, threatening man, woman, child, bunny and burro, they would certainly be daunted by the prospect of violating a hundred year old treaty. Meanwhile, Blue Elk warns, raising his Walther (?) in the air, “If the country must have another civil war, then let it start here!”
At that moment, however, Sheriff Carl drives up in his squad car, gets out, and joins the Indian ranks. At this, Ordinary Joe Guardsman, sickened at being forced to shoot a young boy-with one arm-holding a bunny-protecting his miniature pet burro-tosses his rifle away in disgust and also crosses over to the other side. (Why Evil Officer doesn’t respond to this by shooting him, as he was quite prepared to do a few minutes ago, isn’t explained.) Acting as a Moral Example, other guardsmen follow along after him. At this the Guard’s commanding officer, a General (!), admits defeat and leaves. Meanwhile, the wounded are carried inside where they may be tended to.
Now, obviously, because of the whole thing with Danny and the guardsman getting a gun held to his head and so on, you can’t really take this scene seriously. However, it’s only Laughlin’s inability to scale things short of outright ludicrousness that prompts the viewer to just write it off. Ironically, had they employed a little more restraint, the scene would be much more successful at selling a still wildly exaggerated scenario. In fact, this provides a useful example of how the Big Lie can become the Slightly Too Big Lie.
The worst part is their attempt to tie this in the aforementioned, real life shootings. In an effort to forestall accusations of exaggerating things-although what callous madman could level such charges?-let’s remember the title card that noted that during the Freedom School shooting, 3 were killed and 39 wounded. The number of students killed corresponds to the real deaths that occurred in the real shooting incidents. However, the number of wounded is rather higher. Where the grotesque and, to my mind, morally bankrupt exaggeration really comes in though is in the presentation of the massacre. As horrifying as the real life incidents were, they were not the result of ordered, sustained firing into a crowd. Instead, the casualties resulted from short, and in all probability, unplanned reactive bursts of fire. Otherwise, given the lethality of modern military arms, many more deaths would have resulted.
Here, though, we are shown lines of guardsmen, positioned behind fortified lines, pouring sustained fire directly into a massed crowd, for minutes on end. Given the way things are shown us, there’s no way that many, many more students wouldn’t have been killed. However, by maintaining that only a small number of deaths resulted, they imply that this sort of purposeful, sustained shooting characterized those real life shootings too. Hence the earlier remark made by Jean about “thousands of bullets” being fired at those events. Unless our guardsmen were staggeringly inept, however, there’s no possible way that “thousands of bullets” fired into a massed crowd would not have killed dozens, at the very least. In contrast, at Kent State, the incident in which the greatest number of people were killed–four students–the firing lasted for a period 13 seconds, and, as noted earlier, a total of 61-67 shots were fired.
Aside from so pimping, for their own political ends, such gruesome and sad incidents, though, I must also give the Laughlins points for writing and filming a slow-motion sequence wherein their own daughter is bloodily shot to death by the government. Nice.
Anyway, after a final shot of a fat cop radioing in to, what else, gloat about the massacre, we cut back to Jean in her hospital bed, where the film began several weeks-no, wait, is itâ€¦hours? No, it’s got to be more thanâ€¦. Really? Ok, several hours ago.
Tearfully, Jean says, “I thought the Freedom School was the symbol of everything good and right in the American Spirit. [I think she means the Yoga Sports.] We had kids of different races, ideologies [yes, from far left to waaay far left] and religions, all living and working together in peace and harmony.” Yes, and then the fictional fascists that your real life self helped dream up came and destroyed all that. Tragic, really.
The Reporter notes that the kids want her to reopen the school, but Jean is devastated by the knowledge that the local townsfolk, in her words, “not only supporting the shooting, they were happy about it.” Not a couple of morally retarded oafs, mind you, but the townsfolk writ large. I’d point out that these were the same townspeople who earlier in the film were identified as providing the funds that allowed the school to flourish the way it did, but why bother? Such incongruities will never penetrate the minds of the Laughlins, who apparently believe themselves to live in a country that I thank God I don’t even remotely recognize.
Meanwhile, an apparently comatose Billy has been hauled to a mountaintop, where further drumbeating and chanting are taking place. Blue Elk is asked if he’s gone yet, and replies that, “Not as long as there’s the chance for another sequel.” Well, OK, that’s not what he said, but it’s the general impression I got. Instead, Blue Elk calls for some of the men to go find Jean and bring her here.
Meanwhile, Billy is (gaak) having a vision-isn’t this friggin’ movie over yet?-wherein he lies in the desert in a hospital bed, while the Spirit Maiden, sitting up upon a limb of a monstrously huge cactus, continues to lecture him. “You haven’t learned enough to come over this to side yet,” she hectors. “Besides, shouldn’t you be working on the next Billy Jack sequel?” OK, maybe not that last part. However, the Spirit Maiden still is cradling a bunny, which I guess is meant to tie her in somehow with the deceased One-Armed Danny, but I’ll be darned if I can figure out how. Not that I have much energy left to muse upon it, I must admit.
Oh, wait, there is a hospital bed there, but Vision Billy is not lying in it, he’s sitting on the ground nearby. “Why?” he asks. “My spirit progresses so poorly over here.” (Not to mention his filmmaking talents.) Yeah, this is a little weird. Earlier we were told the Indian Medicine wasn’t working because he hadn’t learned enough from his Spirit Guide, and now apparently he’s not being allowed to die because heâ€¦hasn’t learned enough from his Spirit Guide. Oh, well, those spirits. Who knows what goes on in those ectoplasmic heads of theirs?
Then we cut to a direct shot of the Spirit Hospital Bed, and see that Carol lies within its oxygen tent. Man, that girl’s tough. Normally taking three rounds from a M16 would do the job. However, as we watch, she comes awake. Yes, inside Billy’s vision. I don’t know what that means either.
Anyway, Billy has to go back to serve as an example of how someone so violent can learn to give up violence and find peace. Plus, you know, there are still Billy Jack sequels to churn out. Unless one were to screw the pooch with the next one andâ€¦oops.
This goes on for a while, but frankly, I’m dying here. Cripes, there’s still ten more minutes of this to go. Blah blah spirits, Fourth Level, Billy sees a vision of Jean, etc.
Anyway, sent back by the Spirits, Billy returns to his earthly body. Coming awake, he finds Jean sitting in a wheelchair and waiting for him. You might think the lovers would take a personal moment or two-you know, maybe a “Hey, good to see you’re alive” or something-but nope, it’s straight back to business. Billy is shocked, for his part, to learn that Jean’s thinking about giving up on the whole Saving Mankind project. When she fails to deny it, he says, “Look over there.” She turns, and sees an eagle flying. Well, that proves it.
But wait, there’s more. The eagle lands on a branch directly over Jean’s head, and inspiration music bursts on the soundtrack. Unable to deny the whole, er, eagle thing, we cut to Jean meeting with her incredibly tough underlings, including Carol, Patsy and Russell, who are wearing bandages and braces and perhaps on crutches yet are still extant. (Carol is also, like Jean, in a wheelchair. Again, that’s one weird family dynamic the Laughlins have going on.)
Jean still looks uncertain, though. “Tomorrow, all over the world,” Russell tells her, “kids are going to march to rebuild the School.” Uhâ€¦OK. Kind of a Hands-Across-America thing, I guess. In fact, rather than being discouraged by the best efforts of The Pigs to murder them, they’ve been reenergized. (And why not, as they’ve apparently learned that they cannot be killed. They must be some of those Highlander folks.) Russell notes schemes to build a series of Freedom Schools, everywhere, and to actually ramp up the Establishment-scorching exposÃˆs. After all, there are probably old women all over the world in danger of losing their furniture just because they haven’t paid for it.
Billy signals towards a double door, which Russell opens, revealing a chapel filled with the Freedom School kids. And a marching band, albeit one that is presently stationary. And a girl with a guitar, although thankfully it’s not Carol. She immediately starts to sing, however, and my relief that she wasn’t Carol quickly dissipated. This is both because the lady frankly can’t hold a note, and even more so because her musical tribute to Jean included gag-inducing lyrics like, “Golden Lady, made of Love / You gave so much to me / when I-I-I had nooothingâ€¦“
And so Jean weeps as the Laughlins stage yet another scene showing how damn inspirational their alter egos are to those around them, and gah. This just goes on and on, and the song is dreadful, and I know there are those out there who wonder why people like me hate hippies so much, but as I watched this scene, I wondered how it was possible that there are people who don’t.
And at this we finally hit the film’s mind-bogglingly hypocritical final note, one that has drawn the movie much scorn over the years, as the song is followed by a mass rendition of “Give Peace a Chance” that proceeds on for several minutes, despite the fact that sum total of the song’s lyrics is “All we are saying is give peace chance” sung over and over and over again. And there were many hugs and an ocean of spilled tears and, for me, an inescapable, Lovecraftian feeling of horror.
Eventually the camera tracks back until we leave the building, and we cut to one last helicopter shot pulling away from the Chapel and into infinity, and then we get a series of cards as the Laughlins lamely try to cover their asses one last timeâ€¦
Some may feel this picture is too violentâ€¦*
but the real massacres which inspired
this fictionalized version
were a thousand-fold more violent
for those innocent people who were its victimsâ€¦**
Rather than direct anger at this re-creationâ€¦
please channel your energy toward
those officials who either ordered, condoned,
or failed to take action against these eventsâ€¦
â€¦and perhaps towards ourselves***
for also turning our backs
and letting such events occur unchallenged.****
All we are saying isâ€¦give peace a chanceâ€¦
* What about those of us who think the film is too stupid?
** Yes, I agree, real people actually killed probably found their deaths “more violent” than the fictional deaths of fictional characters.
Er, whatever that means.
*** Well, we really don’t mean ‘ourselves,’ we mean people like you, but we’re trying to pretend that’s not the case.
**** Events like Kent State went “unchallenged”? I guess, aside from the Presidential investigations and saturation media coverage whatnot.
A note for trivia fans: The film’s Production Manager was William Beaudine, Jr., the son of infamous bad movie director William “One Shot” Beaudine, famous for his lack of interest in shooting things a second time, even if some small snafu, like an actor supposedly playing a corpse opening their eyes on camera, occurred.
Nice to see a son follow in his father’s footsteps.
The Critics Rave:
“The Trial of Billy Jack is nearly three hours of naivetÃˆ merchandised and marketed with the not-so-innocent vengeance that I associate with religious movements that take leases on places like the Houston Astrodomeâ€¦Though it means to preach nonviolence, the only scenes of any interest are the violent ones, and always violence shows up as the only meaningful way to deal with evilâ€¦We are told that the Freedom School kids have successfully exposed the oil industry’s influence on Washington, yet the kids we see and hear would have difficulty exposing anything more complicated than a Baby Ruth bar. Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr. and Representative Peter W. Rodino Jr. didn’t get to the bottom of Watergate by sitting around and listening to their hearts, for heaven’s sake.” Vincent Canby, The New York Times.
“[P]robably represents the most extraordinary display of sanctimonious self-aggrandizement the screen has ever knownâ€¦I fled the theater.” Pauline Kaul, The New Yorker.
“It is one of the longest, slowest, most pretentious and self-congratulatory ego trips ever put on film.” Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times.
“Unintentionally funny. New Left rhetoric translated to the screen in the most juvenile manner imaginableâ€¦political brainwashing of the most irresponsible kind.” Benjamin Stein [yes, probably the Ben Stein], Wall Street Journal.”BOMB. Further adventures of Mr. Peace-through-Violence prove that Laughlin is the only actor intense enough to risk a hernia from reading lines. Laughable until final, nauseating massacre scene that renders film’s constant yammering about “peace” ludicrous.” Leonard Maltin’s 2005 Movie Guide.
“Half-Native American ex-Green Beret ass-kicking machine Billy Jack takes on the feds and beats the hell out of a lot of people to prove that the world can live in peaceâ€¦the film is overlong and stumbles with silly psychedelic “spirit” encounters.” Video Hound’s Complete Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics.
“Zero [stars]â€¦The self-gratifying project by Laughlin is one of the most clichÃˆ-ridden, absurd films ever to force its way onto the screen and down the threats of millions of people who flocked to theaters to sit through itâ€¦[t]he whole thing is told in flashback from the point of view of Taylor, whose acting ability consists of crying a lot because people are cruel.” The Motion Picture Guide.
“I’m tempted to call The Trial of Billy Jack the worst [film of the ’70s], but I’ll have to hold off on officially naming it as such until I have the chance to witness the awful sounding Billy Jack Goes To Washington. I can’t imagine that it would in fact be worse than the stupefying self-indulgent mess that the famous half-breed found himself in while he was on trial (the titular trial plays very little part in the movie – though they manage to shoe horn every other idea – good, bad, or mind numbing that Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor had into this one) in this movieâ€¦the movie is a stunning kaleidoscope of unfocused ranting and raving about every social ill that was popular back in the seventiesâ€¦.this movie goes on and on beyond all human conception (a little like the universe, I guess).” Monster Hunter, Monster Hunter.com.
The public has its say via reviews [edited by yours truly] at the IMDB and Amazon.com:
Possibly the most dangerous movie ever, 4 March 2002
Author: delesha from Colorado Springs, Colorado
Truth, that most dangerous of double edged swords, is the weapon of choice for this movie…Unlike supposed ‘true stories’ which in many cases hide much of the truth, this story shows us, vividly, the abuses that our society have allowed and condoned. From the refusal to treat an Indian in a ‘normal hospital’ to the illegal tapping of phones and investigations, to police brutality and power brokering, this film hits it all, with stunning accuracy. I only watched the movie for the first time yesterday, after borrowing the DVD of it from my father, but my fiancÃˆ and I both cried out against the horror of the massacre, knowing that similar things really did happen, and were almost certainly as bloody and violent. The movie showed that people were trying to stand against the Status Quo and show how we could live lives filled with love and care. Instead, the government feared that, and did everything in their power to foster hate and division. This has got to be one of my favorite movies of all times, despite its disturbing details.
Fetid and overblown tripe, 10 December 2000
Author: Marta from Omaha, Nebraska
Omaha, Nebraska, had the dubious honor of being the city Tom Laughlin chose to have the world premiere for Trial of Billy Jack. I wish he’d given the honor
to any other city but mine. I can’t think of a film that was harder to sit through than this one; it seemed to never end. I had seen Born Losers and liked it immensely. I’d seen the first Billy Jack, and it was okay. These are the only reasons I went to “Trial“, and at 17 I guess you don’t need any others; I was there on opening night in 1974.
The memory of the unending torment I endured while watching this film still sits in my brain, like a compost heap that never fully decomposes. Words can’t
express the boredom and agony of seeing this movie; 45 hours of labor with my first child was not as difficult. I should have walked out of the theater, and
in fact, while the girl in the wheelchair was giving testimony, I did, leaving my fiancÃˆ there to suffer by himself. I spent as much time as I could in the
restroom, but knew I had to go back and face the rest of the film, if only for his sake. Run, don’t walk, away from this piece of torture, if you’re ever in
the vicinity of a Billy Jack Retrospective, or find it while channel surfing. Your memory center will be glad you did.
Good film continuing the saga of Billy Jack, September 12, 2004
This is a very good follow up to the excellent second BJ film, Billy Jack. Born Losers was actually the first BJ film. Laughlin is brilliant as Billy once more
here and his real life wife, Delores, excellent as Jean again. As for some of the rest of the cast well their daughter Theresa is back as student Carol, now
more of a young lady than little girl as in the previous film, and she’s appealing in her many scenes…on the big plus side we learn lots more about Billy Jack and his past in Vietnam.
Awful !!!, 24 April 2002
ericjg623 from Twin Cities
This film was so bad that the memory of it still pollutes my brain some 25+ years later. About the only reason I went to see it was because it had been
promoted heavily as a karate movie, and martial arts films were quite big at the time. What I got instead was three hours of 60’s left wing political Bee-
Ess served up with a massive dose of self-righteousness. Naturally, the hippie school was the embodiment of everything good and wonderful while The
Establishment (meaning; everyone and everything else) was shown as being corrupt, venal, sadistic, and without any positive qualities at all. There was
absolutely NO attempt at subtlety or evenhandedness here, instead, this movie grabs you by the throat and shoves your face into its one-dimensional
worldview. In short, what ruins this film is its relentless preachiness, that, plus the fact that it so quickly became dated. Anyone wanting to know how
Reagan went on to win two landslide elections need only watch this film to understand and why, since it was this mindset he was running against.
Deeply Misunderstood Film, April 20, 2004
If you are a Billy Jack fan, buy this film!!!!! Takes off right where Billy Jack left off. The people writing negative reviews just don’t get this film.
This film does have a deeper philosophy and if you are uncomfortable with that don’t buy this film. It is an amazing work, and a strange piece of history that
this “indie film” ever reached mass market appeal. It is probably the first film that ever introduced the Native American Vision Quest and, in general, is
sympathetic to traditional Native American beliefs. Is it dated? Yes! Stand up to Year 2000 movie production techniques? No! But it does offer challenges for
those questioning what it means to live as a human being and for that I give it 5 stars.
Perfect Fodder for MST3K, June 27, 2003
A viewer (Albuquerque, NM United States)
I recently acquired this DVD and watched the film for the first time since its release in 1974. As I watched it, I couldn’t help imagining what Tom Servo and
Crow might have to say if Mystery Science Theater 3000 skewered it. Obviously, the film has numerous flaws, not the least of which is its
interminable length; cutting it down to two hours might not have made it a good movie, but it would have made it much easier to sit through. As the voice-over
commentary by Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor makes clear, they had a fixation with 1960s and 1970s campus riots, especially those resulting in student
deaths, which fixation caused them to conclude, Oliver-Stoneishly, that every single one of these incidents was a political-campaign ploy calculated to
demonstrate law and order to the electorate. Needless to say, this perspective makes the film painfully didactic and even manipulative. Finally, The Trial of
Billy Jack is much more implausible than the original Billy Jack movie, which creates major problems when it comes to the willing suspension of disbelief.
Best of the Billy Jack films, December 21, 2000
Reviewer: C. Moon (Providence, RI United States)
It is really remarkable this historic film has made it on to DVD, and equally remarkable how small our concept of what a movie has become. It seems that ever
since Star Wars, you just can’t make a movie outside the box anymore without getting completely shunned by the community, but not Billy Jack. This and the
first Billy Jack are probably two of the most successful independent films ever, but while ‘original’ Billy Jack introduces most of Laughlin’s favorite themes, he mostly sticks to the straight course. With Trial, all precautions are thrown to the wind, and the final result is something you just need to take in its entirety. Like other films from this period, their is a strong dose of symbolism and attempts to even give the film a cyclical nature (the film is actually framed where the first 15 minutes or so of the film actually occur chronologically right before the end.) To make an analogy to music, the early 70’s was the period of progressive rock, free jazz and concept albums–but also too in film. Tom and Deloris continue to experiment with improvisation in this film, their are folk musical numbers, and the presentation does manage to flow more like a psychedelic piece than a normal film (see Boorman’s Zardoz for example.)… I find myself enjoying the many messages here…The philosophies toward education are actually inspiring, and I think Deloris’s acting here really shines throughout the entire film–and in the end it is hard not to believe she is the character she is portraying.
How to overstate EVERYTHING for 3 hours…, December 23, 2002
Reviewer: A viewer
The Trial of Billy Jack is possibly the most pretentious, preachy and embarrassingly icky film I’ve ever endured. I admit I kind of liked Billy Jack (the movie),
but this unfathomably long egomaniacal kick to the teeth is not worth wasting the media on which it is saved.
There’s no way to adequately thank Jabootu Proofreading Minister Carl Fink & Shadow Minister Bill Leary for actually plodding through all this and helping to make this mess as readable as humanly possible. You guys…
And as for you, Gentle Reader… did you too really read all that? Well, here’s your reward: Click on the banner below to read Andrew Borntreger’s review over at Badmovies.org: