Billy Jack – 35th
Anniversary Ultimate Edition
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
- Nicholas Sheffo