The Billy Jack franchise has been a long-standing piece of my family's household for decades. As readers of this blog and my Facebook page will well know. My sister, Linda, indoctrinated me in the late 70's, and my love of the series has only grown despite its much deserved criticism.
The second in the series, Billy Jack, has a standing that has decreased in the mainstream over the years, but its cult adoration still exists and thrives. Even modern film/tv stars like Nick Offerman sing its praises. Why the fans exist is a question answered with multiple responses. Whether its the nostalgia factor, the political leanings that dance on the fringes of history lessons, or its sympathy to the plight of Native Americans and their reservations, (these are issues still being addressed cinematically by the likes of Taylor Sheridan with the incredible Wind River, and TV's Yellowstone), all answers are valid.
My son Aidan has discovered it as well, and is a proud owner of the recent Shout Factory's Blu-Ray box set of the series. His explanation of the Billy Jack Franchise's ups and downs is as strong, if not better summation of any I've read. Sit back, put on your banded hat, prepare for a vision quest, and absorb the foundations of Milwaukee native Tom Laughlin's labour of love.
Ladies and Gents, I give you the words of Aidan Will:
It was a tumultuous time for the world, and a time of change for the cinema. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement had galvanized the youth culture into action and activism and disillusioned them with authority and government. In response, the film industry had to change. Those investing their money in film could no longer afford to ignore the youth. So, in the mid-sixties, a wave of more modestly budgeted and, frequently, more politically aware films hit the market, and these films made money. This was the scene Tom Laughlin entered with Billy Jack. Though obscured by the more well-known films of the day, Laughlin’s most well-known feature was nonetheless influential in how films are marketed and stands as a perfect example of the cinema of the early 70’s in both the methodology of its release and the merit of its content.
Tom Laughlin was a Milwaukee native who began acting in the 50’s (Spiro, Milwaukee Journal). Upon witnessing the mistreatment of Native Americans in South Dakota, the hometown of his wife, Delores Taylor. This mistreatment ranged from attempts at exclusion and intimidation at the post office to their inhumane living situations. Laughlin deigned to write a screenplay capturing his frustrations at this mistreatment. He was in disbelief seeing people living in covered cars and showering in water coming from a pipe outside of a church. (Esposito) After marrying Delores, they were off to Hollywood, because he “wanted to change things.” They were soon bankrupt but the couple managed to arrange funds to produce the exploitation film The Born Losers (1967) to cash in on the motorcycle-gang film craze and raise the money to make Billy Jack. (Wilkins, People) 17 years after the script was initially written, they were able to make the film they wanted. Fighting tooth-and-nail all the way, they experienced various production problems ranging from disputes with Warner Bros. to Laughlin’s own fiery attitude and approach to directing on set. After selling the finished project to Warner Bros. for distribution for $1.8 million, Laughlin was unhappy and suspicious of their treatment of the film. He accused them of sidelining the project’s release in preference to their own productions and took them to court. The dispute was settled and Laughlin supervised the re-release himself, booking theaters across the country. He began showings with 66 Los Angeles theaters each showing the film for one to two weeks. It then spread to nearly 400 theaters simultaneously, a number which would only grow over the next two years. (Hall, Neale, 196-197)
The film, against all odds, was an absolute hit, factoring in both its initial 1971 release and subsequent re-releases facilitated by Warner Bros. in ’72 and ‘73, it grossed around $90 million on an $800,000 budget. When adjusted for inflation this is still an incredible and noteworthy success. The film was, if only briefly, a phenomenon, it seemed Billy Jack was the hero for the right place and the right time. Something about this film spoke to people, and when its content is considered, it’s surely understandable. Billy Jack (as played by Laughlin himself) was a war veteran who hated the Vietnam war, and sought to defend people from social injustices whenever he could, perhaps the perfect hero for the youth of 60’s and 70’s. In particular, he aimed to defend the so-called ‘Freedom School,’ a facility ran by Jean (Delores Taylor’s character) where all were welcome, no matter their heritage or interests. Of course, a group of backwards townspeople, even on the establishment level, are not keen on this institution, essentially relegating it to a haven of kooks encouraging and bolstering hooligan behavior. The design of this film is, to say the least, peculiar. It defies categorization. Surely many people flocked to see the film’s impressively executed martial arts sequence, but that’s only a small fraction of the film.
It could be said Laughlin was uncertain of the sort of film he wanted to make. The focus of the final product, for all its merit, is certainly questionable. At times it does hearken back to its exploitation predecessor, The Born Losers, with a subplot involving the rape of Delores Taylor’s character, and of course the titular character’s physical vengeance upon the oppressors of the town. Yet there are large portions of this film that seem to lean towards the tendencies of the Art film, or even the Neorealist film. Billy Jack comes and goes, but what is always there is the town and its people. And Laughlin was happy to let the camera stay on the people of town and the students of the school. We see children sing songs, and men perform improvisational theatre both on campus and in the middle of the town. He had visual reverence for the natural landscapes surrounding the area. These sequences alternate between being somewhat of a drag to legitimately charming. Calling back to Neorealism, the film was shot on location and much of the cast was culled from non-professional sources, including friends of the Laughlin family. Laughlin got convincing performances out of the people where it counted. Thanks to this, the serious moments of the film operate with actual gravity and are able to land on the audience with impact.
There’s no doubt that the film is deeply spiritual as well, with Laughlin wanting to pay great respect to the Native American people. He stated in an interview his belief that in making Billy Jack he was helping to preserve the message and memory of the Ghost Religion founded by the Paiute leader Wovoka, after Wovoka’s son-in-law and last surviving descendant, Andy Vidovich flew to the set stating “Wovoka wants me to get his message out.” In consideration of more than one interesting synecdoche occurring on set (one a scene of Native Ritual, the other a dispensation of mortal justice) Laughlin states that upon filming certain scenes, “It became clear to me that Wovoka was using us to get his message through to today’s youth.” (Esposito) It has to be admitted that the film is preachy, Laughlin had no interest in subtlety here. The saving grace being that it was well-meaning, sincere, and perhaps appropriate for the time it was made. The film draws from real experiences had by Taylor growing up in South Dakota. One famous scene, in which one of the oppressors pours flour over some of the students in an ice cream shop to “make them white,” was based off of actual events. (Esposito) It is very likely, given Laughlin’s very particular anti-authority attitude and borderline-hippie aesthetic, that this film couldn’t have been so successful in any other period of time.
It goes without saying that despite the film’s stellar box office performances and warm reception by audiences (if not critics), not to mention its spawning of at least one highly successful sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) (which itself featured a highly influential marketing campaign) , it’s simply not remembered like the box office hits of its day such as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977). When looking at the time in New Hollywood when a film first became an event that could be sustained for a long time over a wide area, Billy Jack is surely not irrelevant to the conversation. Yet it’s not frequently included in such discourse. There are no Billy Jack Halloween costumes, no Billy Jack action figures or playsets, or talks of rereleases and reboots. The film’s popularity has died down from a blockbuster audience to what is essentially a cult following that, while passionate and enduring, is not massive.
So, why was the Billy Jack craze so ephemeral in comparison to that of the blockbusters that would follow? Why would a massive blockbuster audience simmer down to the most modest of followings? Perhaps it was simply too much of a product of its time, satisfying to its immediate audience, but dated in such a way to render it less palatable for later audiences. On an objective level, Billy Jack simply wasn’t as great a film as Jaws or Star Wars. The film’s unfocused and unclassifiable nature, while part of its intrigue, may have been to its detriment in the long run. This film couldn’t reward the average viewer on repeat watches as perhaps Jaws and Star Wars could. Those curious about the film’s seminal, Bruce Lee-predating martial arts sequence may have lost interest after learning they would also have to contend with prolonged sequences of singing and improvisational theater. The Trial of Billy Jack, while also a great success, was even more experimental and carried on the political themes of its predecessor, even featuring recreations of the Kent State Shootings and the My Lai Massacre. This was not a well-received film, critically speaking (Though there are those in recent times calling for a reappraisal), and the next Billy Jack film, Billy Jack Goes to Washington would end up being a cinematic vehicle for Laughlin’s real-life political ambitions, and never saw theatrical release. A fifth sequel began production but was never finished. Perhaps, if the sequels had committed to a specific genre (likely the action film) the franchise’s popularity could have maintained momentum enough for it enough to have achieved lasting mainstream recognition.
So, what is Billy Jack? Is it’s a blockbuster or a cult film? The proportion of its budget to its success was surely suggest a blockbuster, and one might demand it take a place at the table of the 70’s box office successes, given its re-release exhibition method of “four-walling” had an influence on several major studios’ re-releases of expensive pictures who’s initial box office results were disappointed, such as Warner’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Avco Embassy’s The Day of the Dolphin (1973) and MGM’s Westworld (1973). (Hall, Neale, 197) But today the film holds onto but a modest cult audience. It could be said that Billy Jack was a cult film that scratched and clawed its way to blockbuster success through the sheer tenacity of its creator.
In the end, the film’s legacy still clings to life in the periphery. Laughlin and Taylor have since passed on (Laughlin in 2013, Taylor in 2018), survived by their children who also took part in the making of their films. However rough around the edges, Billy Jack deserves a place in the discussion of New Hollywood given to its unlikely success and appeal to the youth culture. The Billy Jack franchise remains as a testament to the Laughlins’ passion and their hope for social change, as well as a monument to their extraordinary perseverance in a harsh industry.