The Happy Hooker wasn’t the only person to go to Washington in 1977! Billy Jack may have started out killing bikers and then moved on to killing Bernard Posner and then finally ended up killing yet another Mr. Posner but, in 1977, Billy Jack was appointed to the U.S. Senate.
Now, it may seem strange to think of someone like Billy Jack being appointed to the U.S. Senate. Over the course of the previous three films in the franchise, Billy had been shot in the back, shot in the leg, arrested for murder, convicted of manslaughter, and then shot by the National Guard. In Billy Jack and The Trial of Billy Jack, Billy goes as far as to state that he does not feel the laws of the United States apply to him.
And then, when you consider that the three previous films all featured old, rich, white guys plotting to kill Billy, you would be justified in wondering how he would ever find himself appointed to serve in the senate.
But it happened!
And we’ve got a movie to prove it.
Directed by and starring Tom Laughlin, Billy Jack Goes To Washington is actually a remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. (To the film’s credit, it’s honest enough to actually give credit to Mr. Smith‘s screenwriters in the opening credits.) What’s remarkable is just how faithful a remake Billy Jack Goes To Washington actually is. All the scenes made famous by Jimmy Stewart — the scene where the newest member of the Senate attempts to introduce his first bill, the scene where he’s shocked to discover that Sen. Paine (played here by E.G. Marshall) takes orders from Boss Bailey (Sam Wanamaker), the scene where cynical Saunders (Lucie Arnaz) tells the senator that he should leave Washington, and, of course, that famous filibuster — are all faithfully recreated here. The only difference, of course, is that it’s no longer idealistic Jimmy Stewart proving himself to be incredibly naive about politics. Instead, it’s a former Green Beret, half-Indian, judo master named Billy Jack.
Tom Laughlin was a good actor, which is something that’s often overlooked by reviewers writing about the Billy Jack films. As flawed as The Trial of Billy Jack may have been, Tom Laughlin was a compelling enough presence that the film itself remains a compulsively watchable 3-hour mess. Laughlin had a very authoritative presence. You looked at him and you knew that he knew what he was doing. He was someone who you automatically wanted on your side, a natural born leader who knew how to get things done. However, in Billy Jack Goes To Washington, Laughlin attempts to play Billy Jack as the type of naive neophyte who would be shocked to discover that politicians are corrupt. But surely, after spending three films being harassed by every authority figure in America, Billy would have already realized that. There’s nothing about Laughlin’s screen presence that suggests he could ever be that innocent.
And that’s the main problem with Billy Jack Goes To Washington. For the film to have any chance of working, you have to forget everything that you’ve learned about Billy Jack over the previous three films. However, if you haven’t seen any of the other Billy Jack films, then you probably wouldn’t be watching Billy Jack Goes To Washington in the first place.
Of course, since this is a Billy Jack film, there are a few scenes that were nowhere to be found in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. For instance, Saunders’s husband is murdered when he threatens to reveal the truth about Bailey’s operation. Later, Billy, Jean (Delores Taylor), and Carol (Teresa Laughlin) are confronted by a gang of Bailey’s assassins and, for the only time in the entire movie, Billy goes through that whole routine where he takes off his boots while slowly speaking and then kicks everyone’s ass. (Jean and Carol get to join in the ass-kicking as well and good for them!)
And, of course, there’s the scene where Billy, Jean, and the kids from the Freedom School (who are apparently now known as Billy’s Raiders) have a meeting with two liberal social activists. It’s an interesting scene because it was clearly unscripted and it has a naturalistic feel to it that’s lacking from the rest of the film. However, that does not mean that it’s a particularly good scene. If I learned anything from Billy Jack Goes To Washington, it’s that self-righteous activists in 1977 were just as boring as self-righteous activists in 2015.
And yet, as I’ve said about all of the other Billy Jack films, I can’t bring myself to be too hard on Billy Jack Goes To Washington. Again, it all comes down to sincerity. It’s clear that Laughlin and Taylor felt they were making a difference with their films and that sincerity comes through in a way that makes Billy Jack Goes To Washington a likable, if rather inept, film.
Billy Jack Goes To Washington ran for a week in one theater in 1977 and was reportedly such a box office disaster that it couldn’t get a wider release. (In a commentary track that he recorded for the film’s DVD release, Laughlin suggests the film was the victim of shadowy government forces.)* While Laughlin and Taylor would later try to make The Return of Billy Jack, that film was left uncompleted at the time of Laughlin’s death. So, the last time that filmgoers would see Billy Jack, he would still be U.S. Sen. Billy Jack.
And really, that’s the perfect ending for the saga of Billy Jack. Starting out as a loner who protected a small California town from a biker gang to eventually becoming the protector of the Freedom School to finally embracing both non-violence and his love for Jean, Billy Jack earned himself a happy ending.
Having now watched and reviewed all four of the Billy Jack films, all I can do is say thank you to Delores Taylor and the spirit of Tom Laughlin. It was great ride.
* To be honest, the commentaries that Laughlin and Taylor recorded for the Billy Jack films are actually very informative and interesting. Laughlin actually had a far better sense of humor than you might guess from some of the movies he directed.