Billy Jack

I was never a big “Billy Jack” fan (as a matter of fact, my review of the re-release of the film back in the late 70’s caused me to leave the daily I was working at), but my brother was, so I was destined to see the film (hey, he could drive at the time, I couldn’t). He was into all of that karate and Kung Fu stuff at the time (thank you Bruce Lee), so he really got a kick (literally) when Billy Jack would slap people on the side of their face with his foot.

A true talent even a mother would be proud of. I tried it, and all I got was a groin pull. Mother was disappointed. billyjackdvdcover.JPG (141706 bytes)Billy Jack” wasn’t a big hit when it came out, but all of that changed.

The studio that released the film, Warner Bros., had no faith in the film. It was an inexpensive pick-up that they felt would fill drive-in screens for a week and then disappear forever. They were wrong. The legend of “Billy Jack” began to grow. The song from the film, “One Tin Solider,” became a big hit. People wanted to know what all of the ruckus was about, and therefore helped make this little independent effort a major hit. So big that it spawned one sequel that got released (“The Trial of Billy Jack“) and another that still sits on a shelf somewhere (“Billy Jack Goes to Washington“). Funny thing is, the film’s director/co-writer/star Tom Laughlin appropriated the character from a 60’s biker flick he starred in called “Born Losers.” It wasn’t until 1971 that the character Billy Jack came into his own, and a legend was born.

Using more pseudonyms than Michael Jackson on vacation, Laughlin co-wrote the film (using the name Frank Christina) with his wife Delores Taylor (using the name Teresa Christina), directed it (using the name T.C. Frank) and starred as the former Green Beret turned Indian activist who fights to keep the local Native American population and the Freedom School safe from the bigoted townsfolk. The Freedom School is a progressive school located on the Arizona reservation where Billy stays. It’s run by an idealistic woman named Jean (Taylor), who believes that all kids are good is they are allowed to explore their feelings and surroundings. Her philosophies don’t sit well with most of the locals, who would like to see Jean and her ilk run out of town on a rail. When Billy’s not saving wild mustangs from being slaughtered by greedy business men, he’s protecting the kids from mean spirited townsfolk.

While the sheriff is on Billy and Jean’s side (he even helps relocate a friend’s pregnant daughter to the school in order to hide her from her abusive father), the rest of the town is mad as hell and doesn’t want to take it anymore. That means raising the stakes until Billy has no choice but to do what he does best: kick some ass. As written by Laughlin and Taylor, all of the cards are stacked in Billy’s favor. He gets all of the best lines, all the best action sequences, and gets to wallow in his own ego. Unfortunately, Laughlin isn’t a very good actor. His performance suggests that he saw every Marlon Brando film made after 1965. He mumbles his lines, and has less expression than a brick wall. Delores Taylor isn’t must better. Her performance suggests nothing more than a cold reading.

Luckily, the supporting characters, most of whom never acted in a film before, are better than the leading players. Veteran Clark Howat is honest as the local sheriff, while the kids who flesh out the Freedom School actually show some signs of life. Members of the Committee, including a young Howard Hesseman, join in for some improvisational comedy, which is dated but still funny. Despite the corny dialogue and heavy-handed message, there is actually some redeeming values in the film. It does go to great lengths to address the plight of the Native American (although I don’t know if Laughlin is the person who should be carrying the placard), and the scenery is beautiful.

I guess “Billy Jack” is one of those love it-hate it movies. I don’t really hate it, but I’ve never understood it’s appeal. Laughlin, who resented Warner Bros. for not cutting him in on a piece of the pie, took over complete control of the sequels. He four-walled “The Trial of Billy Jack” to insure that he get paid for every ticket sold. Unfortunately, “Trial” didn’t catch the public’s fancy as the first film had. That didn’t stop Laughlin from making a third film, a quasi-remake of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The film was shown on briefly, and then pulled from release, where it remains in limbo.

I met Laughlin at a Video Software Show in Los Angeles two years ago where he was trying to drum up business for a video release of the last two “Billy Jack” films. Obviously he failed, because after about six months, I called the number on the brochure (which stated that a new film called “Billy Jack and the Elders” was in the planning stages) and the line was disconnected. Laughlin looks old and tired. So if he was going to play “Billy Jack,” who in the world would he have to dig up to play his elders? Well, “Billy Jack” now lives on thanks to DVD, so if you’re a fan, let the celebration begin.


VISION: [ ] 20/20 [ X ] Good [ ] Cataracts [ ] Blind

Even though it is presented in a full-frame version instead of widescreen, the digital transfer is pretty solid. There is some flecking and a little wear and tear on the negative, but overall, the images are sharp. The colors are adequate but not over powering, while some of the low lit interior scenes look pale. The depth of field is okay, and the blacks hold up for the most part. Flesh tones are flattering (you can see every wrinkle in Delores Taylor’s face) while the white and shadows are as good as they were on the original print.

HEARING: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Minor Hearing Loss [ ] Needs Hearing Aid [ ] Deaf

The Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack gets the job done. The music sounds better than the dialogue track, but both are equally strong.

ORAL: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Good [ ] Poor

Closed captions in English for the hard of hearing.

COORDINATION: [ ] Excellent [ ] Good [ X ] Clumsy [ ] Weak

Main and scene access menus.

PROGNOSIS: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Fit [ ] Will Live [ ] Resuscitate [ ] Terminal

As a cult item the DVD may have some value, but for everyone else it’s just a rental for nostalgia sake.

VITALS: $14.99/Rated PG/114 Minutes/Color/36 Chapter Stops/Snapper Case/#1040




HMO: Warner Home Video

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