Home Video Hovel: Billy Jack: The Complete Collection, by David Bax
Billy Jack, the character, made kind of a sideways debut in American cinema. Director, writer and actor Tom Laughlin’s creation—a half-Native American former Green Beret who fights, literally, for social justice on behalf of those unable to or philosophically opposed to doing so—wouldn’t have an eponymous film until 1971. But make no mistake, 1967’s The Born Losers is a Billy Jack movie, through and through. Set in an unnamed town (apparently located in California), the movie tells of what happens when Billy’s taciturn, soft-spoken loner stands up for a group of college-age women who have been assaulted, abused and terrorized by a biker gang. It’s sanctimonious (that will be an ongoing theme with this series) but largely avoids being paternalistic, mostly by simply recognizing these young women as people who are deeply traumatized by what is happening to them. One of them is even Billy’s ally (or he hers); Vicky (Elizabeth James) is smart and bold. She’s just not quite as capable of shooting neo-Nazi rapists or kicking them in the face.
1971’s Billy Jack is a more concentrated dose of the quiet fury at America’s moral failings felt by Laughlin and his wife, Delores Taylor, who makes her debut here as Jean, the enlightened den mother of a new age, holistic school situated on a Native American reservation. We’re still in an unnamed small town but action seems to have relocated to somewhere in the desert—maybe Arizona? In any case, this time around, the bad guys aren’t invaders on Harley Davidson’s but the town’s own entrenched, ignorant citizens (led by figures of wealth and/or authority), who refuse to serve Native Americans and generally despise the hippies who have flocked to Jean’s “Freedom School” and come into town to put on socially conscious improv shows and the like. I call them hippies here as a shorthand but one of the many interesting facets of Billy Jack is that it doesn’t seem to have that much more patience for mainstream hippiedom than it does for the racist rednecks. The plot is kicked off when a runaway teen girl comes back to town from San Francisco, where she talks of having been sexually exploited by the men of the “free love” scene. She’s pregnant and when her father, the frighteningly narrow-minded sheriff’s deputy (Ken Tobey) finds out, she runs away to the school, sparking the antipathy between the two groups until it’s no longer ignorable. Billy Jack cranks up the action from The Born Losers. We get to see even more people kicked in the face (this is Billy’s signature move), this time including character actor Bert Freed as the town’s venerated rich asshole. But we also get more gunplay. The introduction of Jean is crucial to the series and her dedication to nonviolence sparks interesting debates between her and Billy. That’s not quite good enough, though, to avoid accusations of hypocrisy. Laughlin and Taylor get to have their cake and eat it too, stumping for peace but still letting us see the bad guys get shot and karate chopped.
Those conflicting ideologies get fleshed out in the most ambitious and best movie in the series, the nearly three hour long The Trial of Billy Jack. The previous entry was a surprise success, which is the only reason I can think of for Laughlin and Taylor (returning as Jean and as co-screenwriter) to attempt something so sprawling and unconventional as this. From the opening moments, in which gorgeous, soaring helicopter shots of the desert and canyons are overlaid with statistics from Kent State and other campus shootings, it’s clear that Laughlin and Taylor will be continuing their politics-forward method of action filmmaking. In fact, the action largely takes a backseat until, that is, the incredibly bloody finale. Even that sequence barely features Billy. He’s gone for large stretches of the movie, a non-linear telling of the legal fallout from the previous film and the life-rebuilding he undertakes once released from prison. The titles takes on multiple meanings, starting with a literal one in the first act and then including a spiritual quest Billy goes on with help from his Native American grandfather. That part leads to some uncomfortable self-aggrandizement; it should be noted here that, while Billy Jack is half Native American, Laughlin is not. But large portions of the film, especially the more or less narrative-free first hour, are composed of Jean’s students at the thriving Freedom School sitting around and having debates about politics and other heady topics. The conversations about inequality and the deep-seated systems that keep it in place are fascinating, which makes it jarring when they occasionally veer into utter bullshit like, “Let’s develop a vocal inflection-based lie detector and play a tape of the Watergate hearings to see who’s lying.” Still, a few moments of eye-rolling are acceptable in exchange for a truly unique movie like The Trial of Billy Jack, in which the filmmakers’ passions run free across the screen.
It’s a shame, then, that the best movie in the series is followed by the worst. And I mean it’s not even close. Billy Jack Goes to Washington is so thoroughly wrongheaded and half baked, it is often nearly painful to endure. Making things all the worse is the fact that it’s not just a clever name; this is a literal remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, down to the “Based on a screenplay by Sidney Buchman” credit. Sitting through a bad movie is especially trying when there’s a great movie right there to compare it to. Calling this version dumbed down doesn’t even begin to describe it. Its oversimplified conflict (Billy Jack wants to build a youth camp on the same land they’re secretly building a nuclear power plant!) is only overshadowed by its insultingly oversimplified set-up. The fact that Billy is a convicted murderer—remember, it was a whole big thing in the last movie?—is taken care of with a quickie expungement by the governor (something about securing the youth vote because young people love Billy Jack) and then never brought up again. Even when Billy is making powerful enemies, none of them even thinks to bring up his violent past. Speaking of which, we only get one real action scene here and it’s embarrassingly accompanied by Billy (who is, again, played by a white man) lecturing a group of black men for being bought by The Man. Also, Jean kicks a few people too, in a complete reversal of the steadfast pacifism that has defined both her and the series for two movies. This is never mentioned. This box set is a wonderful asset but feel free to stop three movies in.
Shout! doesn’t seem to be entirely forthcoming with how they sourced these transfers but the lack of Warner Brothers logos would suggest they likely came directly from the Laughlin estate. I suppose that suggests approval but Billy Jack fans will find that the set leaves much to be desired. On the plus side, the color, clarity and grain of the films is very well preserved. At any given moment, the image on screen speaks highly of the discs as a whole. But not much was done to clean up the dirt and scratches, especially toward the beginning of each film. Most frustratingly, The Trial of Billy Jack is presented only in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, despite 2.35:1 being its original state. Again, presumably, this is what Shout! was given to work with but it’s a shame given that aspect ratio is a deal breaker for so many home video collectors. Less bothersome but still worth mentioning is that Billy Jack Goes to Washington is only available in the pre-existing home video cut, not the original one. Why anyone would be eager for an extra 40 (!) minutes of that movie is beyond me but the excised scenes apparently feature a young Suzanne Somers, which would have been fun to see. Worse, though, the entire movie is plagued by a consistent lagging issue that should have been addressed. It would seem like an error that is too digital in nature to have been inherent to the source and therefore may have been induced in the transcode, which would make it pretty easily fixable.
Special features include two commentaries for each film, one with Laughlin and Taylor and another with Laughlin, Taylor and their son, Frank.