The Legend of BILLY JACK Continues! (National Student film Co 1971, re-released by Warner Brothers 1973)

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When last we saw Billy Jack, he was dismantling a brood of outlaw bikers in BORN LOSERS . This time around, he’s taking on a whole town’s worth of rednecks as Tom Laughlin’s half-breed ex-Green Beret returns in BILLY JACK, the wildly popular film that combines action with social commentary, and helped kick off the martial arts craze of the 70’s.

BILLY JACK almost never saw the light of day, as Laughlin’s financing was shut off by American-International Pictures. 20th Century-Fox then picked it up, but didn’t think it deserved to be released, so Laughlin went the indie route, under the banner of National Student Film Co. in 1971. Poor distribution and poor reviews caused the film to tank, but the good folks at Warner Brothers saw something in it, and gave it a national release two years later. Young audiences of the day flocked to it in droves, cheering as Billy Jack…

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One Hit Wonders #2: “One Tin Solder (Theme from BILLY JACK)” by Coven (1973)

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The theme song from Tom Laughlin’s BILLY JACK has quite a history behind it. First recorded by Canadian band The Original Caste in 1969, it became a #1 hit… in Canada! When Laughlin was making his picture, the song was re-recorded in 1971 by singer Jinx Dawson of the psychedelic occult-themed proto-metal group Coven. The Dennis Lambert/Brian Potter penned tune made it to #26 on the U.S. charts, but the film itself was poorly  distributed. Warner Bothers picked it up two years later, then Jinx and the band re-re-recorded the song, reaching #79 in 1973:

Coven made their debut with the 1969 LP “Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls”, featuring songs like “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”, “Dignitaries of Hell”, and the 13-minute opus “Satanic Mass”, which consists of ominous chanting and prayers to Satan in Latin! Coven is credited with introducing the “devil’s horns” sign to rock, later appropriated by virtually every heavy metal musician ever…

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Shattered Politics #29: Billy Jack (dir by Tom Laughlin)


“Go ahead and hate your neighbor; go ahead and cheat a friend.
Do it in the name of heaven; you can justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowin’ come the judgment day
On the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away”

— From One Tin Soldier, the theme song of Billy Jack (1971)

Yesterday, we took a look at The Born Losers, the first film to ever feature the character of future U.S. Senator Billy Jack.  The Born Losers ended with former Green Beret-turned-gun-toting-pacifist Billy Jack (played, of course, by Tom Laughlin) saving the girl, killing the bad guy, and getting shot in the back by the police.  As Born Losers ended, we were left to wonder whether Billy would survive his wounds or would he just be another victim of the establishment.

Well, audiences had to wait five years to find out.

When Laughlin returned to the role in 1971’s Billy Jack, it was revealed that not only had Billy Jack lived but he was now residing in a cave with his wise Native American grandfather.  Billy still had little use for civilization but he would occasionally emerge from his cave.  Sometimes, it was to protect wild mustangs from being hunted the evil Old Man Posner (Bert Freed) and his sociopathic son Bernard (David Roya).  Other times, it was to protect the Freedom School and, even more importantly, the Freedom School’s founder, Jean (played by Laughlin’s wife, Delores Taylor).

The local townspeople viewed the Freedom School with suspicion and whenever the students went into town, they would be harassed by Bernard and his friends.  Fortunately, the students could always count on Billy to show up, say a few angry words, and then lose control. Billy may have been a liberal but he was no pacifist.  Jean, however, fully embraced nonviolence and she always made it clear that she wasn’t comfortable with Billy providing her kids with a violent example.

Finally, both Jean and Billy’s convictions were put to the test.  First off, the bigoted townspeople tried to close the school.  Then, Jean was raped by Bernard.  And finally, Billy found himself barricaded in an old mission, surrounded by police and national guardsmen.  Even as Jean pleaded with Billy to lay down his weapons and to peacefully surrender, Billy made it clear that he was willing to die for his beliefs.

And, as the film ended, you would never guess that Billy Jack would eventually become a member of the U.S. Senate.  But, in just a few years, that’s exactly what would happen in Billy Jack Goes To Washington!

Now, of course, Billy Jack is ultimately a product of its time and that’s both a blessing and a curse.  To be honest, if anything could transform me from being the socially liberal, economically conservative girl that you all know and love into a card-carrying right-wing extremist, it would be having to spend any time with the students at the Freedom School.  They are all so smugly convinced of their own moral superiority that the townspeople almost start to look good by default.  Whether they’re attending improv class or disrupting a meeting at town hall, the majority of the students come across like a bunch of rich kids from the suburbs, playing hippy and slumming by hanging out with poor minorities.  As you watch them, it’s difficult not to suspect that most of them are going to get bored with rebelling after a year or two and eventually end up growing up to be just like their parents.

Fortunately, the film is saved by the pure sincerity of Laughlin and Taylor.  For all the attention that the film gets for the scenes of Billy Jack beating people up, the most compelling scenes are the ones where Jean and Billy Jack debate nonviolence.  There’s an honesty and a passion to these scenes, one that proves that Laughlin and Taylor, as opposed to so many other self-styled counterculture filmmakers, were actually serious about their beliefs.  Billy Jack is an essential film, not only as a time capsule of the era in which it was made but also as one of the few films to actually make a legitimate attempt to explore what it truly means to embrace nonviolence.

Billy Jack is also a historically important film.  When American Independent Pictures withdrew from the production, Laughlin took Billy Jack to 20th Century Fox.  When 20th Century Fox looked at the completed film and did not know how to market it, Laughlin distributed the film himself, without the support of a major studio.  And, despite what all of the naysayers may have predicted, Billy Jack was a huge hit.

And every indie filmmaker since owes a huge debt of gratitude to Tom Laughlin.

Shattered Politics #24: The Born Losers (dir by Tom Laughlin)

Born Losers

For the past few days, I’ve been in the process of reviewing 94 films about politics and politicians.  With that in mind, you may be wondering why, after reviewing films like The Last Hurrah, Sunrise at Campobello, and Advise & Consent, I am now reviewing a 1967 biker film called The Born Losers.

It all comes down to Billy Jack.  In the 70s, Tom Laughlin would write, direct, and star in two hit films — Billy Jack and The Trial of Billy Jack.  In these films, Laughlin played the title character.  Billy Jack was everything that you could hope for in a counter-culture hero.  First off, as an American Indian, he was an authentic American as opposed to just another European intruder.  He was a war hero, who had served as a Green Beret in Vietnam.  He often carried a gun with him, which meant that he understood and supported the 2nd Amendment and good for him!  Billy Jack was also a master of hapkido, which meant that he could kick ass in the most visually appealing way possible.

Even more importantly, Billy Jack called the Man out on his racism and his intolerance.  Billy Jack was an environmental activist before anyone else.  Billy Jack went on vision quests.  Billy Jack was anti-war.  Billy Jack was a pacifist.  And, of course, Billy Jack ended up killing a lot of people but they were all bad guys.

By making and distributing Billy Jack himself, Laughlin became an independent film pioneer and made history.  He also became a counter-culture hero and Billy Jack remains a cult figure even today.  But what a lot of people don’t realize is that Billy Jack first appeared in Born Losers and that, in the little seen Billy Jack Goes To Washington, he eventually ended up serving in the U.S. Senate.

When you consider that Billy Jack would eventually be Sen. Jack, that means the Born Losers isn’t just a low-budget, violent biker film.  Instead, it’s the exploitation version of Young Mr. Lincoln.  It’s a chance to see what Billy Jack was doing before he became a statesman.

(And rest assured, the other three Billy Jack films will be reviewed before Shattered Politics ends.)

As we discover at the start of Born Losers, pre-politics Billy Jack was just an enigmatic veteran who lived in the mountains of California.  When we first see Billy, he’s walking along a grassy hill.  A deer safely runs by the camera.  A rabbit pops its head out of a hole in the ground and looks relieved to see Billy.  If I’m being a little bit snarky, it’s because I’ve seen all of the Billy Jack films and I know how often this exact scene is played out over the course of the franchise.  But, in all fairness, it’s actually a fairly well-done and visually appealing scene and, as an actor, Laughlin had the presence to pull it off.

A far less pretty scene is occurring in the town of Big Rock, where teenagers are showing up to hang out on the beach and are being harassed by a group of bikers, the Born Losers of the title.  The Born Losers are an odd collection of bikers, with half of them looking like extras from Sons of Anarchy and the other half looking like the type of hipsters that I always see whenever I go to a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse.  Their leader (Jeremy Slate) is named Danny but the rest of the gang are known by their nicknames.

(For instance, there’s Crabs.  Why is he called Crabs?  “Because he’s got them!” Danny helpfully explains.)

After the Born Losers rape four girls, they launch a campaign of violence and intimidation to keep the girls from testifying in court.  Billy comes to the aid of one of the girls, Vicky (Elizabeth James, who also wrote the script).  I related to Vicky, largely because she does things like ride a motorcycle while wearing a white bikini, which is exactly the sort of thing that I would do if I lived in California.

Now, there’s a lot of negative things that I could say about Born Losers.  It’s talky.  With the exception of Laughlin and Slate, it’s obvious that the majority of the cast was made up of amateurs.  The final half of the film drags as you wait for an ending that you have probably already predicted.

But you know what?

I actually like The Born Losers.  Hidden underneath all of the exploitation trappings and heavy-handed moralizing, this is a very sincere film.  Whatever they may have lacked in budget or subtlety, Laughlin’s films made up for in sincerity.  And, as strange as it may be to say about a film that features four rapes and is padded out with a thoroughly gratuitous striptease, The Born Losers is not a misogynistic film.  Both Laughlin the director and Billy Jack the character are on the side of the victims of the Born Losers and when the film calls out society for blaming the victims instead of the rapists, it does so with a fury that elevates the entire film above your typical 1967 biker film.

And, while I don’t know if I’d ever vote for Billy Jack, there’s nobody I’d rather have on my side.

Billy Jack: A Retrospective

So, earlier today, I came across this big discussion/debate going on in the comments section of Arleigh’s review of the “Vatos” episode of the Walking Dead.  One comment in particular caught my attention.  It was from KO, one of my favorite frequent commenters, and it concerned the “Billy Jack” films of the 60s and 70s.

Now, I have to be honest.  Of the four Billy Jack films, I’ve only seen the third, the 3-hour Trial of Billy Jack.  It nearly put me to sleep but the character of Billy Jack continues to fascinate me.  As a Native American, karate-kicking, Viet Nam vet, peace activist, Billy Jack appears to represent everything that was good and bad about the 70s.

So, with that in mind, here’s a chronological collection of Billy Jack trailers:

1) Born Losers (1967) — This was apparently Billy’s first appearance.  On the one hand, it appears to be a pretty standard bikers flick.  But, on the other hand, I want those white boots.

2) Billy Jack (1971) — Apparently, this was — for several years — the most succesful independent film ever.  I’ve got it on DVD.  The back cover reads, “Billy Jack’s just a man who loves children and other living beings.”  Except, apparently, for old, fat, white guys.

3) The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) — Okay, so there’s some legal copyright issues that apparently makes it illegal for me or just about anyone else to post the trailer to this movie online.  Well, it’s a pretty boring movie, to be honest.  But there’s about two and a half minutes of karate action that’s kinda fun and here it is.

4) Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1978)

The final (completed and released) Billy Jack film finds Billy Jack appointed to the U.S. Senate in a remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  From rebel to establishment in just 11 years, that’s our Billy Jack.

Apparently, the actor who created and played Billy Jack — Tom Laughlin — has been attempting to get a new Billy Jack film off the ground since the late 80s.  He also ran for President in 1992, 2004, and 2008.  Apparently, he’s been dealing with some health issues over the past few years but he still occasionally updates his Billy Jack web site

I wish him the best and I look forward to the return of Billy Jack.