Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne


SPECIAL REVIEW: Billy Jack (1971)

Posted by Max Lalanne on May 27, 2012

When I first started watching Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack (1971) on Netflix streaming, I thought that initially it was a sort of ’70s-era dirty B-movie remake of the classic Western film Shane (1953). After all, both films are titled after the main character, a mysterious relucant loner who’s as good a shot with his rifle or six-shooter as he is with being upright with justice. Of course, that always ticks off some powerful figures who love nothing more than bullying the local population, whether they be poor famers and settlers (as in Shane) or “different” hippie or Native American schoolchildren (as in Billy Jack). But the similarities end there, for sure.

Billy Jack (Laughlin, who also directs) is a half-Indian, half-white ex-Green Beret vet who served in Vietnam and is now an unofficial vigilante protecting the “Freedom School,” a establishment off in a Native American settlement full of the afore-mentioned mix of counter-culture kids despised by the “normal” white folk. Like, really despised. Run by pacifist hippie Jean (Delores Taylor, Laughlin’s off-screen wife at the time), this school’s only protection from the cruel businessmen in the neighboring town even has time to save adorable wild mustangs from being shot and chopped up to $6 dog food from these same baddies! Oh yes, and he and Jean also are protecting the runaway pregnant teenage daughter of the corrupt sherrif (Clarke Howat), which undoubtedly prompts most of the conflict.

To start off – there’s something fundamentally wrong with Billy’s character. The half-Indian, half-white ex-Green Beret (who apparantly served in Vietnam, but I haven’t seen The Born Losers (1967) and therefore don’t know his backstory) who claims he’s turning into a anti-war, peace-loving guy – who does sometimes, you know, “GO BESERK!” – is written more to be an instant cult hero than a full-fleshed character belonging in a decent movie. The audience for Billy Jack don’t really care what he’s sprouting about race equality and how white folks keep ruining his efforts to be all pacifist, they just wanna see him doing his hapkido stuff against a bunch of racist cowboys. That’s how this story is presented, even if it’s the opposite of what this movie apparently stands for. 

And Billy Jack, by golly, does try to stand for many things. There are countless scenes where a hippie flower child stands up and starts strumming an off-key guitar, singing about how her brother died in the war until the entire room starts chanting along with her. Or another one taking place in a court-room, where an 11-year-old girl starts reciting a seemingly sensible poem about law, order and government to the jury, before revealing that Adolf Hitler wrote it and all the politicians since – including the Americans – has been listening and running their government according to this poem. But these moments are just thrown in there, with nothing of substantial importance to back it up, especially not the main character of Billy. Seriously, there’s one important climatic scene where he needs to be persuaded by a pleading Jean to give himself up instead of prolonging a violent shoot-out with the police – and all for the sake of the poor school-children! And even then, he might not…or he might. Do you really wanna know?

Billy Jack: C+

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