Monday, July 2, 2012

Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, 1971)

Exploitation fans know that the genre is full of hits and misses. Happily in our modern world of the intertubes the hits more solid and the misses less painful. There is no reason to not turn off a bad movie if it streams without cost (aside from the cost of the streaming service), which also means there is no reason not to start a movie. This is partly how I came to watch Billy Jack.

While this is tipping my hand, Billy Jack is (in my opinion at least) one of the high points of the Exploitation genre. It is in many ways a mystical Blaxploitation film, save that the oppressed are native american. There are some martial arts, political rhetoric, and most importantly an evil white man out to get our hero. Also, like many of the better Blaxploitation films, the hero is a Vietnam veteran who, rather than turning to crime as bikers typically did, turns his skill and experience towards aiding the oppressed.

The character Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin) is a former Green Beret, and appeared in the biker film The Born Losers (1967). There are four Billy Jack films all together, each staring and directed by Laughlin. In Billy Jack, he returns to the American West to become the protector of the Reservation and the school run there. It is presupposed here that Billy Jack has mystical powers, as no one knows where he lives, but when he is needed he appears. We soon discover that he is being trained by a shaman, and will go through a trial to become the "Brother of the Snake".

The general story is one a small town bordering the Reservation and town boss Stuart Posner (Bert Freed) who takes advantage of the local lawlessness and hunts mustangs on Reservation land to sell to the dog food plant. Billy Jack prevents him from doing so, which increases the town's anti-native american sentiment. The real action starts when Posner's son, Bernard (David Roya), is caught humiliating some of the kids from the school who have come into town for ice cream. First, the store owner refuses to serve the native americans, then Bernard pours flour on their faces to make them white. Billy quickly dispenses some justice on Bernard and his friend, then notices the crowd of local toughs gathering outside. Billy sits down and starts taking off his boots. You don't have to know much about Kung-Fu films to know this is going to mean trouble for several someones. From here the violence against the school escalates and drives the rest of the narrative.

The film has its sappy moments, but for the most part is very solid, and has some very natural dialogue (a thing often missing from Exploitation). In a cinematographic sense it looks like a Russ Meyer film, and not just in the use of the dessert. A favorite part is that Billy Jack is not a completely likable character. He is revered by those he protects, but they understand that his protection comes with a price. They are pacifists, where Billy Jack is a warrior of the old school. He has to grow as a character more than we typically see in these genre films and we have to learn to like him. His growth is not of the "become bigger, stronger, faster" variety, but he must grow more civilized or perhaps adult; more open to diplomacy as a weapon.

8 comments:

Atom Kid said...

That's one of my favorites of the Exploitation genre. My Dad introduced me to Born Losers back when I was 12, and I've never looked back. Great series!

Darius Whiteplume said...

I want to move on to the others, but Netflix doesn't have The Born Losers. I guess I can always see it last. I think there is a 4 DVD set out now for under $20.

Thomas Pluck said...

Love these movies. I need to see Billy JAck goes to Washington, and Born Losers. As a kid, they affected me deeply. They affect what I write, too. When I was 8 I joined a petition that successfully banned using Mustangs in dog food, too. Long live Billy Jack.

Darius Whiteplume said...

I believe "Washington" is streaming on Netflix. Laughlin was quite the clever film maker, though I am only judging by this film.

teddy crescendo said...

I saw this on TV in the late 70`s and thought it was pretentious nonsense.

T. Roger Thomas said...

I really like the cover art for Billy Jack.

Darius Whiteplume said...

Exploitation can be that way :-)

Darius Whiteplume said...

It is a cool picture. I have seen other, artsy/abstract ones that are cool as well.

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