You've got due process, Mother's Day, supermarkets, the FBI, Medicare, air conditioning, AT&T, country clubs, Congress, a 2 car garage, state troopers, the Constitution, color television, and democracy. They've got Billy Jack!
—Original movie tag
The critics (and there were many) said there was nothing remarkable about the 1971 cult film Billy Jack. They said the plot was uncomplicated, the dialogue sparse, the acting at times bordered on the barely credible, the message if there was one was not very deep or profound, and the camera work and editing at times was sloppy. So why after 40 years do fans (me included) still feel compelled to watch it time and time again and sing its praises if it is so unremarkable. It seems the cult film of 1971 still has a cult following 40 years later. Perhaps its because hard core Billy Jack fans have looked beyond the surface and in doing so have embraced the vision of Billy Jack creator/star/producer/ director Tom Laughlin and his wife/collaborator Delores Taylor. They have come away with a deep admiration and respect for that vision.
Set in a small Arizona town bordering an Indian reservation during the 60's (most of the film was actually shot in 1969) Billy Jack deals with the consequences of helping a pregnant teenage runaway who finds shelter at a school for troubled youth located on reservation land. The character Billy Jack is a martial arts trained, former Green Beret, "half-breed" Indian who acts as a sort of tribal policeman whose girlfriend ( Delores Taylor) is head of the Freedom School. Oh – and the teenage runaway's father? He happens to be a corrupt sheriff's deputy who takes his marching orders from the menacing town boss Mr. Posner. Both the deputy and Posner are adamant about retrieving the runaway and shutting down the "troublemaking" school. In their spare time they're out killing wild horses on the reservation and selling the carcasses to a dog food plant for six cents a pound. (No joke, of course we're talking 1969 prices here.) Billy Jack positions himself as the school and reservation protector amid the violence and bloodshed brought on by Posner and his cohorts.
The film's themes are many. First and foremost is the treatment of Native Americans. The genesis of Billy Jack actually started back in the 50's when Laughlin, then a college student, visited then girlfriend Taylor at her home near the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He came away appalled at the abject poverty and discrimination suffered by the native peoples there. Billy Jack is one of the first Hollywood films to portray Native Americans in a positive light. In an old People magazine article, a friend is quoted as saying "Tom cares more about the Indians than Brando ever thought about". Education as it relates to the Freedom School also was an aspect of Laughlin's past. In the early sixties, he and his wife started a Montessori school in Santa Monica, California. Elements of a Montessori education with particular emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child's natural psychological development can be witnessed in the film's portrayal of the FreedomSchool. Of course the film introduced to the world the Korean originated martial arts technique of hapkido. One may be tantalized nowadays by the chicken shit acrobatics of a Jackie Chan which passes for martial arts but hapkido goes much deeper than that. Hapkido Grand Master Bong Soo Han who choreographed the fight scenes and served as Laughlin's stunt double in Billy Jack calls the martial art form "…a way of life that stresses courtesy, tenacity and perfection of character". One can also infer vibes of Jungian psychology while watching the film. Laughlin himself was an avid student of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.
That a man could meld his beliefs, his passions, and his vision (oh yea, that again) into a film and have that film released is truly inspiring. Considering the much publicized battles he had with the studios regarding its release and distribution (Laughlin rereleased the film himself in 1973) its release was truly miraculous. Depending on who is doing the figuring, Billy Jack continues to be one of the highest grossing (in today's dollars) independent films of all time.
Billy Jack has drawn comparisons with another film released the same year – Dirty Harry starring Clint Eastwood. Eastwood's character Harry Callahan was also a lone wolf lawman who took matters into his own hands when he felt those hands were tied. It is interesting to note the scathing reviews at the time of its release which denounce the film's violence and rightward political slant. In fact, Burt Lancaster and Paul Newman turned down the role of Harry Callahan because of their left leaning political stances. Newman did suggest Eastwood would be a fine candidate for the role. It seems the right needs their heroes (real or make believe) just like the left needs theirs. Perhaps this all reverts back to a concept found in Jungian psychology – the use of archetypes. The hero being one such archetype. One could argue that Billy Jack embraced the counterculture, denounced racism, and exposed anti-democratic practices as espoused by the good ol' boy network. Harry Callahan in contrast saw the counterculture as the problem with its assault on the moral order of the day. Its laxness and permissiveness exacerbating the problems of crime and decadence. Petty rules and bureaucratic regulations hindering officers from doing their jobs – to protect and to serve.
And while I don't dislike Dirty Harry, (it does have some memorable lines) Billy Jack remains a more endearing and enduring film. In an August 19, 2007 St. Petersburg Times article, writer Ben Montgomery revisits Billy Jack and its lasting impact. Montgomery mentions a rape victim, a teacher, and a screenwriter inspired by the film and Laughlin's character. Even the film's most vehement critics can't deny the powerful imagery of the closing scene. After killing Posner's son who murdered a Native American Freedom School student and raped Jean (head of the school), Billy Jack eventually surrenders and is led away in cuffs. As he is driven away, supporters line up along both sides of the road and raise fists in salute while the film's anthemic theme song One Tin Soldier plays. When democracy is not democratic, when one group of people think that they're better than another group of people, when troublemakers are branded troublemakers for merely questioning the status quo then one understands the void that Billy Jack fills then and now. I salute you as well Mr. Laughlin. I'm sure you will be inspiring fans for another 40 years.