For the past week, I’ve been in the process of reviewing 94 films about politicians and, to a lesser extent, politics. I’ve recently taken a look at Born Losers and Billy Jack, the first two segments in the cinematic life of future U.S. Sen. Billy Jack. Today, I’m taking a look at the third part of the Billy Jack saga, 1974’s The Trial of Billy Jack!
I have to admit that, when you’re watching these first three films, it’s a little hard to see how Billy Jack is ever going to end up in the U.S. Senate. After all, The Born Losers ended with Billy getting shot in the back by an overeager deputy sheriff. Billy Jack ended with Billy shooting at the National Guard and then getting arrested for murder. And then, in Trial of Billy Jack, Billy gets released from prison but promptly kills yet another member of the Posner family and then eventually, the National Guard shows up (again!) and ends up gunning down at least half of the students at the Freedom School.
If I didn’t already know that Trial would be followed up Billy Jack Goes To Washington, I think I’d be justified in being a little pessimistic about Billy’s future.
But anyway, let’s talk about The Trial of Billy Jack. After the surprise box office success of Billy Jack, Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor set about to make a sequel that would not only revisit the themes of Billy Jack but which would touch on literally every single other political issue of the day as well. The result is a three-hour mess of a film that, despite the excessive length and a generally preachy tone, remains oddly watchable.
Despite the film’s title, the actual Trial of Billy Jack only takes up a few minutes of screen time. The prosecution lays out its case, which is that Billy Jack killed Bernard Posner. The defense calls Billy to the stand and, instead of asking him about the events that led to Bernard’s death (i.e., the fact that Bernard was a rapist and that Billy caught him with a 13 year-old girl), they instead allow Billy to give his opinions on the political issues of the day. And, since this film was released in 1974, we get a lengthy flashback to the Vietnam War where we see Billy refusing to take part in a civilian massacre.
And then Billy Jack is sent to prison. And it’s actually quite some time before he shows up in the film again. This actually took me by surprise because, when it comes to people directing films starring themselves, I’m more used to the narcissistic style of Norman Mailer. But, in Laughlin’s case, he was actually willing to stay off-screen for close to an hour and allow the film to focus on Jean (Delores Taylor) and the Freedom School.
And that is one reason why I can never be as critical of the Billy Jack films as maybe I should be. They really are such sincere films. Laughlin was willing to stay off-screen and allow the film to be about the issues and for that he should be commended. However, at the same time, Laughlin was not only the best actor in most of the Billy Jack films. He was also usually the only good actor in the films as well. So, while you respect Laughlin for not being a narcissist, you also kind of wish that maybe the film could have been more about him and less about the students at the Freedom School (which, to judge from the performances in this film, did not have much of a drama department).
When I reviewed Billy Jack, I mentioned that, if anything could cause me to transform from being the politically moderate girl that you all know and love to being a right-wing extremist, it would be having to spend any amount of time with the smug and self-righteous students at the Freedom School. Well, by the end of the first half of The Trial of Billy Jack, I had spent so much time with those students that I was on the verge of ordering a Sarah Palin bumper sticker to put on my boyfriend’s car.
(Fortunately, Billy Jack got out of jail before I went that far but seriously…)
Of course, they’re not just students at the Freedom School anymore. No, in the Trial of Billy Jack, the Freedom School suddenly has the power and resources to launch its own independent television station. The kids are now crusading journalists. They’re first expose is on a local businessman who repossessed a woman’s furniture after she failed to make the payments and … well, wait a minute. Is that really an expose? When you’re paying something off, aren’t you supposed to keep up with the payments? If the students were trying to raise money to help the woman pay off her bills, that would be one thing. But, instead, their expose seems to be that if you break a contract, there will be consequences. Uhmmm…
BUT ANYWAY! Best not to think too much when the powers of crusading righteousness are on display!
We also discover that one of the students has invented a machine that will tell you whether or not someone on television is lying. Which again … what? I mean, that’s a pretty powerful machine but it’s just kind of mentioned and then never really brought up again….
And then, for some reason, the students hold a big carnival in town and demand to know why the national media isn’t down there covering it.
Listen, this film is occasionally confusing. It’s not three hours long because it’s an epic or anything. Instead, it’s three hours long because, apparently, Tom and Delores just stuck every thought they ever had into the script. Some of those thoughts — like the TV lie detector — are abandoned as soon as they are brought up. Other thoughts — like the National Guard showing up and shooting up the Freedom School — are returned to over and over again.
Fortunately, Billy does eventually get out of jail and returns to the Freedom School. Again, he finds himself debating non-violence with Jean and he also finds himself being harassed by yet another evil Mr. Posner (Riley Hill). However, during the film’s undeniable high point, Billy goes on a vision quest. He sees a bearded professor type and smacks him. Then he sees Jesus Christ and smacks him too.
No, I’m not making that up!
However, Jesus forgives Billy and Billy learns that nonviolence is the way to go. But then the National Guard shows up and starts shooting up the Freedom School and…
(Actually, what’s funny is that one of the National Guardsmen is played by William Wellman, Jr., who also played an evil biker named Child in The Born Losers. I like to think that, after the events of Born Losers, Child cleaned up his act, got married, had a baby, and then joined the Guard. And then he ended up shooting up the Freedom School, little realizing that his old enemy Billy Jack was just a few miles away “gettin’ hassled by The Man.”*)
Like I said, The Trial of Billy Jack is a mess but I’m still going to recommend because it really is a one-of-a-kind mess. It’s one of those films that everyone should sit through at least once. Full of pretentious dialogue, half-baked political posturing, and some of the most preachy end titles ever seen, The Trial of Billy Jack ultimately stands as a tribute to the determination of Tom Laughlin to both preach to the already converted and to preserve his own unique vision.
And you know what?
Good for him! The Trial of Billy Jack may not be a good film but at least it’s a film that refuses to compromise.
Both Tom Laughlin and Billy Jack would return three years later in Billy Jack Goes To Washington!
* Copyright 1967 by Big Evil Corporation PR Department.