(NOTE: The following essay originally appeared in the ‘zine “I LOVE BAD MOVIES”, volume 2. You can purchase it here)
BILLY JACK (1971) was a Drive-in Phenomenon that your parents will remember as that preachy hippy movie that introduced the song “One Tin Soldier”. It’s a real period piece that reflects America’s growing pains during the end of the Viet Nam war and Nixon’s Presidency. Part Western, part revenge film, it synergized bits of kung-fu action, Native American snake ceremonies and The Movement psychology along with some improvised scenes by Howard Hesseman for good measure. But this essay is about the love and sex and gratuitous nudity that make the movie great.
The plot is simple enough: a lone man goes up against a corrupt group of bigots that are threatening defenseless teenagers. (The film created a boilerplate for dozens of Steven Segal movies.) But at the core of this New-Age Western is a love story. Billy Jack (the short-tempered War Hero) loves Jean (the hippy pacifist who runs The Freedom School). But they’re so caught up in defending the children and Native Americans that they never get to express their love for each other.
As the hate-crimes escalate, Bernard (one of the film’s many villains) kidnaps and rapes Jean. (For the sole purpose of exacting revenge on Billy, who had recently pushed his Corvette into a lake.)
When Billy finds out about the attack, he gets on his motorcycle and tracks down Bernard in a lime-colored Arizona bordello. Billy kicks open the bedroom door and sees Bernard in bed with a naked young girl.
“13,” she answers.
“Get out.” He commands, and the girl runs across the room naked.
Bernard quickly takes out a revolver, shoots and misses his target** Billy karate chops Bernard in the throat, killing him instantly.
This one scene perfectly captures what makes the Billy Jack franchise so successful:
We, the viewing audience, get to condemn a man for sleeping with an underage girl.
But we also get to see her naked.
It’s the best of both worlds.
Throughout the film (and its sequels) Billy Jack strives to follow pacifism, but when he sees racism or sexism or hippie bashing, he… just… goes… BERSERK! And the ass-kicking begins! Again, writer-actor-director Tom Laughlin gets to have his cake and gun it down in cold blood, too – by preaching a message of Peace while filling the movie with exciting, lyrical bloodshed. By doing so, Billy Jack became the largest-grossing independent film of all time. (Source: back of Billy Jack DVD box set.)
Where are they now?
Writer-Director-Actor Tom Laughlin made four Billy Jack movies. He’s since written books about screenwriting, and the psychology of cancer. In 1992 he ran for President (and received 2% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary). Today Laughlin is developing a new Billy Jack film and is accepting donations via his website.
Update: Tom Laughlin passed away on Thursday December 12th. He was 82.
** From a short distance that may have inspired George Lucas to say “Sure, Greedo could miss Han Solo.”