Whatever happened to Billy Jack (the character) and Billy Jack (the movie)? As TCM host Ben Mankiewicz explained last night, the movie was a hugely profitable hit upon its release in 1971 and its rerelease in 1973. You’d think it might be ripe for a remake in the pathetic dream factory churning out the dreck today.
TCM retrieved Tom Laughlin’s entire Billy Jack oeuvre from its archives. All told, we had four movies that put my insomnia to the test. Billy Jack was Laughlin’s first screenplay in the series, but he had to begin with The Born Losers (1967), a scary biker flick that introduced the Billy Jack character. The success of The Born Losers brought us Billy Jack, a movie that is in certain respects a humorous relic of the hippie ethos.
Billy Jack is a half-white, half-Indian Korean martial arts expert and disillusioned special forces Vietnam vet who protects the Freedom School — a school built on principles of pacifism by kicking hell out of pesky rednecks. After his discharge from the Army, Billy 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. (For this plot summary I draw heavily on Bad movies: Billy Jack.)
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.
Mr. Posner and his son Bernard (especially Bernard) are the villains of the piece. Bernard rides around 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.
I thought that Mr. Posner and Bernard were unmistakably Jewish, but I am only aware of this 2017 review that agrees with me. I thought that Laughlin overlaid a nasty ethnic quality onto the usual suspects in the film.
Each of the Posners is in his own way loathsome and despicable. 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.
Billy Jack was followed by The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977, produced, according to the credits, by Frank Capra, Jr.). Laughlin stretched his conception of the Billy Jack character to the breaking point to make him a stand-in for Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith. I was dozing toward the end in the early hours this morning, but I don’t think anyone in the film exclaimed, as I wanted to, “Senator Jack, you don’t know jack!”