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Category:    Home > Reviews > Action > Political > Vietnam > Billy Jack - 35th Anniversary Ultimate Collection

Billy Jack – 35th Anniversary Ultimate Edition


Picture: B-     Sound: C+     Extras: C+     Films: C+



One of the least-examined moments in the last golden age of American filmmaking are the films of Tom Laughlin, a moment certain political interests and money interests would like you to forget.  The films in question center on the character of Billy Jack, a part Native American character who cannot take it anymore and decides he can no longer be Mr. Passive Resistance.  What began as another possible throwaway exploitation film from American International in the late 1960s went on to become one of the first independently successful franchises in film history.  Billy Jack – 35th Anniversary Ultimate Edition brings together all four feature films and some extras from Ventura on DVD, so now people can see the big moneymaking lost franchise the Left and Right are both afraid of.


Born Losers (1967) introduces Billy Jack, working to fight prejudice against Native Americans, free a young man from a gang, help a woman in jeopardy of a bike gang, fight business-owning bigots, battle for civil rights and use martial arts violence as a last resort against those who would… well, use violence.  The cast outside of Laughlin is mostly unknown; by he did get Jane Russell to play the mother of one of the young girls in jeopardy.  The film is a hoot, but would still have trouble getting made today due to its leftist politics.


Billy Jack (1971) was a film that went through three studios before it landed up at Warner Bros. in a classic battle between Laughlin and the studio.  He cut an all or nothing deal with the studio over the film’s bookings and won, which resulted in a huge box office blockbuster still in the Top 150 adjusted grosses of all time.  It continued to be an even huger hit in its 1973 release and one-hit-wonder Coven had a Top 30 Pop hit with the opening credit’s theme song One Tin Soldier to which horses are slaughtered as metaphor for genocide.  This time, the film becomes more explicit about its politics, violence and it is no longer held back by the low budget and conventions of AIP films.  This is the best of the four films, and though dated and problematic in its use of action/violence that the Left have criticized everything from Death Wish to Rambo for, the film essentially implies a revision of hero myth.  For instance, why have the Lone Ranger & Tonto when you can have Tonto AS The Long Ranger?  More important, Billy Jack is a response to John Wayne, a target of the Left as Fascist hero.  Ironically, Laughlin appeared in a scene from Wayne’s Brannigan (1975) that was cut.   Bert Freed is great as the main villain, who is good, because the acting is often laughably bad; something it has in common with the Right’s cinematic precursors and responses to this film series.  Points though for dealing with real social issues and injustices as more than just talk, something all the 1980s and 1990s responses to it very badly bring up for a split second before pouring on much more extreme and fantasy violence than this series could ever afford to.  There are villains young and old, complete with robbery, rape, murder and terrorism for Jack to stop.  It is a minor classic of the action genre, no matter who likes it or not.  Howard Hesseman debuts as (surprise) a hippie!


The Trial Of Billy Jack (1974) runs nearly three hours and that is at least 75 minutes too long, but it was another huge hit and is even more politically explicit.  This time, Jack has been able to get the children to set up their own TV station and when they report the news, their naïve ideas of fair and balanced are enough to send Fox News executives climbing the walls.  Of course, they will get targeted by violence, but not before they demonstrate consumer rights and political criticism that you would never see today, except on small Internet sites.  Those sequences could serve as a model.  Too bad it dates badly, runs on too much, the film gets corny and shows Laughlin’s limits as a filmmaker, but it was a huge independent hit and no one can take that away from him.


Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977) has the luxury of a cast that includes Sam Wanamaker, E.G. Marshall, Dick Gautier, Pat O’Brien, Lucy Arnaz and even Suzanne Somers in this bizarre remake of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  Despite being a film “for the people” and the like, the Capra films were always Right of center no mater what they claimed and this film buried the franchise for good.  The script does not help, including Jack reeling-off amazing one-liners like “You guys ought to be ashamed of yourselves.  I mean Kunta Kinte would turn in his grave if he saw you hire out to The Man like this.”  If the series had continued, would he have invented Hip Hop?  We’ll never know.  The contradiction of Right-as-Left versus far Left ideologies make for a very sloppy, muddy, constipated and screwed-up film.  Because of the astounding failure of Laughlin’s The Master Gunfighter (1975) was such a critical and commercial catastrophe, that this film never got a theatrical release according to the DVD despite a PG rating and that was the end of it.


The image on all four DVDs are anamorphically enhanced, at 1.85 X 1 for the first two films, and 2.35 X 1 for the latter two shot in real anamorphic Panavision.  They all look good fore their age in clarity and color, except for Trial, which is softer, grainier and has some depth issues.  Otherwise, they play back nicely and look fine for their age, especially in the color reproduction, the simplest of which is lacking in most current productions.  The films have all been remixed for Dolby Digital 5.1, but Losers just spreads the old monophonic sound around and the latter two have limited surrounds despite their age and Elmer Bernstein scores.  Billy Jack fares best in the sound department as well.


Extras include two commentary tracks on all four films.  The tracks with just Laughlin and Dolores Taylor are from 2000, while their son who joins them in the conversation hosts the new 2005 tracks.  He is also the producer of these DVDs.  All offer interesting insight and information on the films and are Dolby Digital 2.0, though the 2000 recordings can sometimes be hot or harsh.  On Billy Jack Goes To Washington, the couple seems authentically shocked to have been treated so badly in trying to shoot their film in Washington despite spending three hit films criticizing the nation’s capital.  That is so naïve, it is almost charming, but their extremely explicit depictions of Vietnam atrocities, oppression and memory of history like Watergate, Kent State and other Kent State-like youth and protester killings is something 35 years later the Right is still trying to make everyone forget!  DVD 5 is the bonus disc that includes a quiz, brief-but-effective featurette on the story behind the second film’s phenomenal success, website information, photo gallery, cut-your-own-fight and book excerpt features on the BillyJack.com website and the original TV ads.  The disc tries to act like TV was never used to sell movies before and TV trailers go back to the early 1960s at least, but what Laughlin did invent was interviewing the moviegoer in the lobby.  That has become bastardized since the 1980s, but was a great selling tool at the time.


It also suggests there were no independent blockbusters before Billy Jack, but films like George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968) and the original Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) are examples of big indie hits, not to mention Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), an independent production despite going through Columbia Pictures.  Yet, Billy Jack deserves to be remembered for what it did accomplish and the important place it holds ideologically in American filmmaking.  Film schools don’t dare examine it, it never shows up in the textbooks and yet it is highly ignored all around.  Even with its many mistakes and flaws, bad acting, editing, datedness and even corniness, campiness, sappiness and bad cinema, the films are still considered too strong, too subversive and too dangerous to even speak of.  For all the filmmaking posers out there with their slick productions, claims of daring and controversy in films that are really almost always rip-offs, overhyped gimmicks, and sensationalized productions that audiences seem to finally be getting tired of, these films are sincerely done in their political intent.  To have films in this day and age that are considered that dangerous is an unexpected result Laughlin and company could have never imagined.  That is reason alone for any serious film fan and filmmaker to catch Billy Jack – 35th Anniversary Ultimate Edition.  The more you watch, the more you laugh and the more you see where Hollywood went right, Right and wrong.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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