10 Of My Favorite Bad Movies – #9 BILLY JACK
Billy Jack is quite the awesomely bad movie. I mean let’s go over the story to start with. Billy Jack is a half-breed Cherokee Native American, Green Beret, Hapkido master and gunslinger. That is the main character. Doesn’t that just signal to you that a whole bunch of people are going to get their asses kicked?
I mean, it is one thing if you’re main character is a half-breed cherokee Indian. That pretty much means he is bitter and there is a 50/50 chance he hates the white man. Add the ex-Green Beret, Hapkido master stuff in there and it is a miracle he doesn’t go John Rambo on the small southwestern town he has moved to after the events of the first Billy Jack movie The Born Losers. Here is the synopsis of that movie, Billy Jack fucks up a gang raping motorcycle gang. Pretty basic drive-in fare. Ah but the second movie is all about Billy Jack (that’s why his name is on the poster kids). Anyway, a bunch of hippies open a ‘Freedom School’ in a small southwestern town. Billy Jack gets tied up with these counter-culture cut-ups (including a pre-WKRP Howard Hesseman) much to the chagrin of the redneck locals. See traditionally, rednecks in both film and real life don’t really like hippies.
Despite just wanting to be left alone, Billy Jack stands up for the school and gets himself into several fights with the locals. The locals like Billy Jack even less than they like hippies (if you can fathom that) and one of them, a total fucking idiot by the name of Bernard, decides to go ahead and rape Billy Jack’s girlfriend Jean. To give you an idea just how dumb Bernard is, raping Jean isn’t bad enough so he goes and kills a Native American student of the Freedom School. Jean won’t tell Billy Jack about the rape because it is established that he’ll go bugfuck insane and kill Bernard. Let us review things we know about Billy Jack already that helps Jean come to this conclusion:
1. Billy Jack is a half-breed Native American (soemthing the rednecks like to mention quite a bit)
2. Billy Jack just came back from Vietnam where he was a Green Beret.
3. Billy Jack is a Hapkido Master. He can fuck you up pretty good
4. Billy Jack probably already hates the white man on some level.
Hey you know what could only make things worse? If Bernard was the son of the wealthiest and most infuential man in town. Wouldn’t that be some kind of cosmic irony? You see where I’m going with this right? Yup, you guessed right, Bernard pretty much gets a pass on murdering a child because daddy owns the cops. The fact that the cops hate hippies and Billy Jack, kind of helps also. Finally, having had enough of the corruption of the white man Billy Jack does exactly what you want him to do… GOES BAT SHIT CRAZY! He finds Bernard, gets shot and then kills the redneck dirtbag with a deadly karate chop to the throat, despite the fact that Billy Jack isn, in fact, A Hapkido Master). This all leads to Billy Jack being pinned down by the cops in a deadly shootout. It takes pleading from Jean and the hippies to get our hero to surrender. So as the cops lead Billy Jack away, the hippies exercise their right to silent protest by raising their fists in the air in defiance. Of course this isn’t the end because it all leads into The Trial Of Billy Jack. I wish I were kidding…
All things considered, Billy Jack tries to be a socially concious film, as one of its main themes is Billy Jack getting in touch with Native American roots. We get to see Billy Jack engage in several tribal rites and tell tales to impart Native American wisdom to the next generation. How much of it is authentic Native American lore is up for debate but director, writer and star Tom Laughlin was very socially concious about the plight of the Native American during the Civil Rights Movement. I mean we tend to forget that nobody got screwed more than Native American during westward expansion and even before that. Sure Billy Jack hammers the plight of the Native American a bit overzealously but it is effective because you can’t come away from that movie without thinking “Man, the Native Americans got screwed in that movie”.
The ironic thing about Billy Jack is that it’s main message is peace and loving your fellow man, yet it is quite possibly one of the most violent movies of the 1970s. I mean it isn’t Godfather level violent, but when you consider that Billy Jack beats the living fuck out of people (in self-defense always… save for Bernard) and the movie features one of the main characters getting raped and a child being murdered… well it is a giant contradiction of a movie. Honestly though, if Billy Jack didn’t go around kicking ass in the name of the Freedom School he would just babble on about how the white man had done nothing but cheat him and is not to be trusted (No really, there are several times that our hero won’t shut up about it). So what we end up with in the end is a violent movie with a pacifist message.
The biggest irony of this is that Tom Laughlin made a mint off of Billy Jack and its 2 sequels by pretty much inventing the concept of the Blockbuster film. See the way movie theaters used to work is, there were a limited number of prints of a film made, then theater owenrs would have to book the print for a certain number of weeks before the print would move to the next theater. The studio, Warner Brothers, decided to make hundreds of prints of Billy Jack so it could open at every major theater simultaneously. Thus Billy Jack made huge bank and actually one of the most successful movies of all time, hell it remains in th top 100 grossing films of all time when adjust for inflation. I mean, it is a pretty cheap looking film and the acting can be laughably bad but it delivers in the action and violence department. Not bad for a movie about Pacifist half-breed, Green Beret, Hapkido Master.
I need to warn you about the theme song of the movie as well. “One Tin Soldier” by Coven, is a song that will get stuck in your head and trust me, YOU DON’T WANT IT THERE! It is your typical hippie/counter-culture song with a message about peace and love. Ironically listening to this song enough will incite you to want to punch someone. Even worse are the hippies in this movie. For the record I hate hippies but these aren’t the type of hippies you can really hate on. They aren’t the traditional dope smoking, haven’t showered in 6 weeks hippies. These are actually kind of ok hippies, who want to teach kids that being different is ok and to love each other. I mean how often do you actually want hippies to win? About as often you’d like to see Nazis win is my guess (maybe its just me…) .
So to recap, Billy Jack is about a pacifist Half-Native American who can totally KICK YOUR ASS! GO RENT THIS RIGHT FUCKING NOW!