JIM VANBEBBER: THOUGHTS ON “BILLY JACK”
“Listen children, to a story that was written long ago…”
Going to the movies in the 1970s was, for me, a magical time. Back then, the only way to see a film in its intended form was to visit a cinema. There were no video recorders and if you missed it in a theatre, you had to wait until it showed up on network television in a censored form, interrupted by banal commercials. One of my greatest movie-going experiences was catching Billy Jack on its 1973 national release. After the auspicious debut of the character in The Born Losers (a rather sleazy biker film featuring Billy in a straw cowboy hat) in 1967, Tom Laughlin brought back the embittered Viet Nam veteran hapkido master in iconic fashion with the eponymous Billy Jack. Bungled in distribution by Warner Brothers upon its limited release in 1971, Tom Laughlin re-introduced the film to audiences by four-walling it and building word of mouth amongst the members of the youth movement.
Like its great white guilt counterparts Easy Rider and Walking Tall, Billy Jack flew in the face of standard action fare, offering lead characters who decried the status quo of American bourgeois and supported the counterculture. Manna from Heaven for a young Jim VanBebber.
Here was a film chock-full of non professional performers, hippie-ideals and crude, almost documentary directorial technique. It was startling. It didn’t hurt that it also featured one of the greatest martial art beat downs in cinema history, which was revolutionary for its time, excepting the Hong Kong imports of Five Fingers Of Death and Fists Of Fury a.k.a. The Big Boss. As a friend of mine has said…”Billy Jack inspired a whole lot of karate-taking..”. Unlike Bruce Lee, who would change everything forever with Enter The Dragon in 1975, here was a Caucasian who simply kicked hapkido ass when he “went berserk” while defending the multi-ethnic children of Jean Robert’s Freedom School. Later, of course, we would find out that it was Korean Bong Soo Han that was doubling Tom Laughlin, but by then, it didn’t matter. Tom Laughlin/Billy Jack was a bad-ass American Hero, a war veteran who hated the war, preached pacifism but broke bones against red-neck bigots when needed. Hell, he even briefly enjoyed a short run of his own Marvel comic books. Blessed with an inescapable title song, “One Tin Soldier” by the satanic band, Coven, which leaped into the American Top Forty, Billy Jack became a truly monstrous hit. The less said of the following sequels, perhaps the better. The Trial Of Billy Jack in 1974 was an overblown windbag of a film, complete with television-movie melodramatics and an entirely inappropriate score by Hollywood’s Elmer Bernstein. 1977’s Billy Jack Goes To Washington was a god-awful reworking of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington that served only to re-enforce the opinion that Tom Laughlin had bought into his own myth and had lost all touch with reality. Still, nothing can tarnish the majesty that is Billy Jack…an iconic American action film, so simmering with counterculture flavor that, like the titular One Tin Soldier, it simply rides away into the sun-setting glory of American film history.