You may have thought that Billy Jack was dead after The Born Losers, shot in the back while trying to do the right thing. The truth is, he was just getting started. An anti-authority film, this movie struggled to be made, with American International Pictures pulling out while it was being made. Then, 20th Century Fox stepped in but refused to distribute the film. Auteur Tom Laughlin would not release the sound for the film, making it unreleasable until he could own the film himself, getting Warner Brothers to distribute it. He was unhappy with how Warner Brothers sold the film, so he sued them and finally released the movie himself.
At the heart of the film, the movie presents a conundrum: the only way to achieve peace is to repeatedly beat the stuffing out of people.
Also, the Navajo Green Beret Vietnam War veteran and hapkido master known as Billy Jack is played by director (as T.C. Frank), producer (as Mary Rose Solti) and co-writer (as Frank Christina) Tom Laughlin, who is totally white. That said, the role of Billy Jack is anything but the way that Native Americans had been portrayed up until the early 70s.
Laughlin was also a muckraker, really in the best of ways. He’d written the film nearly two decades before after seeing the way Native Americans were treated in Winner, South Dakota, the home of his wife Delores Taylor. What took so long to get it to screen? Well, beyond building his acting career, Laughlin also quit acting in 1959 to start a Montessori preschool in Santa Monica, California.
After the school went out of business, he went back into acting and after the Billy Jack series, he was set to change the world with Billy Jack Enterprises, which had plans for a new Montessori school, a record label, an investigative magazine, books, a distribution company and more message-laden movies, including films for children. Yet the last movie, Billy Jack Goes to Washington, didn’t connect with audiences. Or, as Laughlin charged, it was the fault of Warner Brothers illegally selling the television rights to his films. Or even Senator Vance Hartke, who he said told him that, “You’ll never get this released. This house you have, everything will be destroyed.” in front of Lucille Ball, angered that the film correctly pointed out how senators were owned by lobbyists.
There was going to be a fifth film, The Return of Billy Jack, that ended in the 2000s when Laughoun got hurt and the money ran out. He claimed for years that it would get made with the title changing to Billy Jack’s Crusade to End the War in Iraq and Restore America to Its Moral Purpose, Billy Jack’s Moral Revolution and Billy Jack for President, with the plan to have Billy Jack and President George W. Bush debate each other.
Man, I wish that was made.
That said, the original Billy Jack is an incredibly strange movie, a film made of a singular vision.
Billy Jack is the defender of the Freedom School, a school full of happy children taught my Laughlin’s real-life wife Delores, who are assaulted from all sides by the horrible folks of the redneck town where, for some reason, they have decided to make their home. A movie this strange demands a run-on sentence like that to describe it.
This is the kind of movie where the hero must face off with a snake and purposefully be bitten with venom so that he can become brothers with the snake, as well as have a theme song “One Tin Soldier (The Legend of Billy Jack),” which was recorded by Jinx Dawson and her band Coven, whose album Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls is as metal as it gets, even featuring a black mass as its second side.
You don’t really watch Billy Jack. It washes over you. The words I use to describe it aren’t enough. It’s absolutely ridiculous in the finest of ways and I really want you to experience it.