Every so often a “little” movie comes along and creates a sensation that was totally unexpected not only by the public and critics, but likely by the filmmakers as well. Halloween and The Blair Witch Project immediately come to mind. But in 1973 a little film getting a re-release after a failed limited run two years earlier took the country by storm.
Billy Jack pushed a button with America’s moviegoers. The film, starring Tom Laughlin (who co-wrote and directed it under different pseudonyms for some strange reason) plays the title character (originally introduced in 1968’s Born Losers) as a war veteran who watches over a hippie school for kids with no families or family issues. The real custodian of the school is June (played by Delores Taylor, Laughlin’s real life wife and the other writer of the film). The school is looked down upon by the townspeople, an odd mix of racists and hateful people and they clash with the kids, June and Billy himself.
Billy is represented as almost mythical. June tells a policeman that she doesn’t know where Billy lives but that when they need him, “he happens to be there.” Sure enough Billy does seem to show up when needed on either his horse or motorcycle. It’s an interesting notion that I wish they had followed up on more than they did.
The film opens with the daughter of the deputy sheriff returning home after having been missing for some time. The deputy slaps her around and she is hospitalized. Billy comes to her rescue and takes her to the school to heal and be around other kids her age. This is the crux of the plot. The deputy, while searching for his daughter, goes after Billy Jack along with other hot heads in town.
The kids from the school are treated poorly when they come into town. One scene has them in an ice cream parlor where flour is poured on the heads of a few of the kids. Naturally, Billy appears in time to rescue them and kick some of the bad guys butts via his own style of kung fu.
There isn’t much more to the movie than that. The kids are persecuted by the town and Billy takes revenge on the town. Things turn a little too serious when June is raped by two thugs.
There are enough scenes in Billy Jack that work well enough that I would recommend seeing the movie. Several scenes of the kids putting on stage productions are quite unusual and well put together. We get to know these kids and we like them. We don’t want them to get hurt not just because they are young adults but because we have seen the innocence within them and truly care what happens to them. A few of the fight scenes are well shot and we truly enjoy watching the bad guys get their comeuppance.
On the downside is the thinness of the plot. Once the main action starts it simply repeats itself for 115 minutes. We get the idea after an hour. The performances are uniformly awful. Taylor, especially, is terribly wooden. Most of the kids weren’t professionals and can be forgiven. Character actors such as Ken Tobey overact so broadly it’s almost comical. Laughlin, on the other hand, turns in a passable performance as Billy and that’s important since he carries the movie.
Another thing worthy of mentioning is the beautiful song, One Tin Soldier, played over the opening credits and in the film’s final scene. It’s a powerfully moving song and one not easily forgotten. How it wasn’t nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song is beyond me. It certainly deserved the recognition.
I, for one, can remember just how big a hit Billy Jack was back in 1973. What I didn’t know until I did research after watching it was that it was originally released by Warner Bros. in 1971 under a very limited release. The film was a flop. Laughlin sued and got the rights to his movie back and re-released it nationwide in hundreds of theaters in 1973 and the film would go on to gross over $38 million. It was so popular it would spawn two sequels (both unseen by me), 1974’s Trial of Billy Jack and 1977’s Billy Jack Goes To Washington. The former was a critical bomb but a financial hit. The latter was, as far as I can find out, never released to theaters. It may have got a small limited run but it was never widely released.
Billy Jack became a hero to Americans during a time when America needed a hero. We were still in Vietnam and innocent kids were dying every day. I dare say that even now America could use a few more heroes. Maybe this generation should be introduced to Billy Jack. He’s not like anyone you will ever know and isn’t that what a hero should be?