The passion of Billy Jack

I am a huge fan of Mel Gibson. I love just about everything of his that I’ve seen, but I especially loved his version of “Hamlet.” Watching it, I had the feeling that I understood Hamlet himself for the first time. In retrospect I think he achieved that effect through an intelligent editing of the play to focus on Hamlet’s grief. Since “Hamlet,” I have approached any movie that has Mel Gibson’s hand in it with a predispotion to like it. I look forward, perhaps with some trepidation, to seeing his latest, “The Passion of the Christ.”
The controversy over Gibson’s latest has me thinking about a film that struck me at the time and has stuck in my memory as the only contemporary (to me) anti-Semitic movie that I have ever seen. I’m thinking of the 1971 film “Billy Jack,” a movie that is in other respects a hilarious relic of the hippie ethos.
“Billy Jack” concerns a half-white, half-Indian karate expert who protects the “Freedom School” built on principles of pacifism by kicking hell out of pesky rednecks. After being discharged from the Army, Billy Jack takes up residence among Pueblo ruins near a small southwestern town. There he protects the land, wild horses, and the “Freedom School” from evil white men.
Mr. Posner calls the shots in the small southwestern town in which the film takes place. He is the leader behind the Evil White Man Association (EWMA) and, just to let you know how much of a bigwig he is, the EWMA spends half a day rounding up horses on the Indian reservation near the town. They plan to slaughter them and sell the meat to dog food companies for six cents per pound. They rounded up about two dozen horses and we will say that each weighed twelve-hundred pounds (healthy).
Now, let’s also say that they garnered eight hundred pounds of usable dog chow from every horse. After dividing the profit between six men you end up with about two hundred dollars each; probably an appreciable amount of money for your average evil redneck, but if this is how Posner amassed his fortune then it’s no wonder why he is driving that station wagon.
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Mr. Posner and his son Bernard (especially Bernard) are the villains of the piece. Bernard rides around the town in an ostentatious sports car and behaves like a cowardly bully. He finds just enough courage to annoy Billy Jack and get his throat crushed in an awesome display of Billy Jack’s prowess in the martial arts.
Mr. Posner and Bernard are of course the only Jews in the film. Each in his own way is loathsome and despicable. With suitable updating, they recall the Jewish villains of Nazi propaganda films.
I was a college student when the film came out. I may be mistaken, but I don’t recall any controversy about the unmistakable anti-Semitic subtext of “Billy Jack.” (And I am not aware of any since then, although I may be similarly mistaken.) At the time I wondered whether the screenwriter, director, producer and star of the film — Tom Laughlin — was venting feelings deriving from unpleasant professional experiences.
Contract disputes between Laughlin and various producers in fact caused the film to bounce around among three different film studios, and delayed its release for three years. Perhaps that accounts for the film’s pseudo-hippie, late-60′s ethos as well. Whatever the reason, the distasteful anti-Semitic subtext of the movie seemed worthy of note to me.
In any event, today’s New York Times carries a story on the Hollywood repercussions of “The Passion of the Christ” that seems to lend credence to the ugly stereotypes that found an outlet in “Billy Jack”: “New film may harm Gibson’s career.” (“Billy Jack” plot summary assistance courtesy of Amazon and Bad movies: Billy Jack.)
UPDATE: This post has prompted several e-mails from readers. My colleague Peter Swanson has identified Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues” as a competitor of “Billy Jack” for the Nuremberg laurels. He cites a column by Shlomo Schwartzberg on Lee’s film: “Mo’ Better Jew-baiting.”
Our faithful reader Dafydd ab Hugh is a fan of “Billy Jack” and disputes that the Posners are Jewish. Reader Jerry O’Brien identifies himself as a proud friend of Israel and “Billy Jack.” He writes that, although he now lives in California, he hails from rural Iowa. He too disputes the ethnicity of the Posners: “[I]n my viewing of that movie (many times) Posner and his son always seemed like a couple of local WASP or mean-Irish-loudmouths — just like any couple I’d find in the taverns of Adel[, Iowa].” Bernard Posner ain’t Shlomo Schwartzberg, but the Posners struck me as unmistakably Jewish from their first appearance in the film. Am I too sensitive?
Reader Rollie Smith writes: “Getting the bum’s rush from Hollywood isn’t an exclusive gripe of any one particular ethnic group. If Mr. Posner and his son Bernard had had Southern accents and rebel flag tags on their cars would you have been concerned that Southerners were being portrayed negatively? Of course not, all Southerners are loathsome and despicable. Just watch ‘Easy Rider’!”
Reader Darrell Mason is a fan of the complete Tom Laughlin oeuvre and writes to ask: “Did you know that ‘Billy Jack’ was actually a sequel? The first film was called ‘Born Losers’! A great, corny movie, Billy tangles with a motorcycle gang. When the fighting breaks out, Billy doesn’t go kung fu on the bad guys, he pulls out a gun and shoots one of them!”
Actually, “Born Losers” kicked off what now goes under the name of “The Billy Jack Series.” The series includes “Born Losers” and three sequels, the last two of which are “The Trial of Billy Jack” and “Billy Jack Goes to Washington.” Messrs. ab Hugh and O’Brien to the contrary notwithstanding, I believe that the final two films in “The Billy Jack Series” are what Mr. Posner would call “dreck.”

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