In the forthcoming Christmas-music documentary Jingle Bell Rocks, Flaming Lips frontman/professional eccentric Wayne Coyne discusses how during his childhood, his mother used to talk about this really weird Christmas movie set in outer space. The preposterous-sounding film obsessed Coyne as a boy to such an extent that he eventually figured out it didn’t exist in the form she imagined. She’d created it in her mind by falling asleep in front of the TV, then combining the unrelated films onscreen into one crazy, literally unbelievable movie mega-mix through confusion, imagination, and dream logic. Coyne eventually set out to make the movie his mother had talked about, which became his directorial debut, Christmas On Mars.
Coyne’s anecdote about the extravaganza his mother more or less dreamed up provides a useful framework for trying to understand the enduring mind-fuck that is 1971’s Billy Jack, and its even more screamingly insane 1974 follow-up The Trial Of Billy Jack, both of which make infinitely more sense as stoned dreams than as movies that exist in our world.
It’s most logical to conceive of Billy Jack as a dream-movie accidentally created by a spiritually confused, LSD-addled 19-year-old who fell asleep in the early 1970s while watching a weird, humorless movie about a half-Native American/half-Caucasian warrior who does not want to fight, because he’s too good—both in the sense of being a singularly skilled one-man killing machine, and in subscribing to a higher moral and ideological cause than his bloodthirsty brothers-in-arms And yet he’s pushed by circumstances into dramatically kicking ass, over and over.
Said 19-year-old would drift off early on and awake to find himself watching a town-hall meeting where the generational divide is being loudly debated by staid figures of the establishment and agitated, weirdly wholesome hippie types. After more dosing, the 19-year-old is watching a young Howard Hesseman illustrate beginner improvisation techniques and the philosophy of provocative street theater to someone on a local talk show. The next awakening finds the TV devoted to an earnest blonde moppet stridently singing an anti-war song, and then a song about a “Rainbow Made Of Children” in a voice quivering with righteous indignation. The 19-year-old decides to go outside and attempt to purge the confusing jumble of images and messages from his head, but first, he catches intriguing, perplexing flashes of two more television programs—one a PBS documentary on alternative forms of schooling, and the other on Native American spirituality. It’s understandable why he’s confused: It’s not as if vigilante crime movies naturally segue into demonstrations of improvisational comedy technique and then into rage-filled acoustic musical interludes. Yet Billy Jack contains all of the above.
A film this violently contradictory makes no sense. Yet Billy Jack not only exists, it was the fifth top-grossing film of 1971, behind Fiddler On The Roof, The French Connection, Diamonds Are Forever, and Dirty Harry, and ahead of Carnal Knowledge and A Clockwork Orange. True, Billy Jack had the advantage of being a sequel to a minor box-office success—the 1967 AIP biker movie The Born Losers—but that only explains so much. If anything, the fact that a typically repellent, sleazy, sordid biker movie from 1967 kicked off a massive pop-culture phenomenon of the 1970s makes the whole enterprise even more bizarre.
The Born Losers follows a grubby but commercially viable formula. It pits the denizens of a small town against a menacing biker gang, the type that looks like its members sweat whiskey and gasoline and wear buttons that say “LSD,” to convey their love of the drug LSD. The film has an exhausted, disgusted vibe that appeals shamelessly to conservative fears that the new freedoms and drugs going around were transforming young men into drug-addled sensation-freaks, out to rape everyone’s fresh-faced daughters. (Daughters so out of their minds on acid, self-hatred, and contempt for mommy and daddy’s bourgeois values that they’ll brazenly welcome being sexually assaulted by the living, stinking personification of their parents’ worst nightmares.) The Born Losers—which Billy Jack creator Tom Laughlin directed under the name T.C. Frank—is powered by a deep, incandescent sense of rage at just about everyone and everything, by a sense that society had reached a sweaty, dispiriting endgame and needed a savior to emerge from the dust.
This savior takes the form of Billy Jack (Laughlin). Who is Billy Jack? According to the opening narration of Billy Jack:
All any of the townspeople knew about Billy Jack was that he was a half-breed. A war hero who hated the war and turned his back on society by returning to the reservation—where he watched over the Indians, the wild horses, and the kids at my school. No one even knew where he lived. Somewhere way back in the ancient ruins with an old holy man who was teaching him secret Indian ways and preparing him for a sacred initiation ceremony.
Billy Jack isn’t a man, he’s a myth, the living embodiment of every cliché positing Native Americans as sacred conduits between this corrupt materialistic realm and the spirit world, and as guardians of Mother Earth and all of her inhabitants, human and otherwise. To play this most Native American of Native Americans—first in The Born Losers, then in Billy Jack and its sequels—Laughlin chose himself, a stocky, middle-aged white man and former college football player from Wisconsin who quit acting in the early 1960s to run a Montessori school with his wife, Delores Taylor. Billy Jack’s constantly stressed Native American ancestry speaks to the Billy Jack movies’ overwhelming sense that American society has degraded to such an extent that its only possible salvation lies in a purposeful, committed return to its roots, forsaking the corrupt ways of the white man and embracing a form of spirituality based in the lives and beliefs of the first inhabitants of our land.
The Born Losers appealed to parents’ worst fears about the younger generation. Billy Jack depicts young people in a much different light. The film features a strange, contradictory combination of idealistic utopianism and free-floating despair. Billy Jack is convinced that the world is a sick, sad, grotesque, demented place, a world without hope or meaning, except for the sliver of optimism provided by a radiant new generation of rainbow children who will save the world and point the way toward a new golden age with their smiles, laughter, and song.
Billy Jack offers The Freedom School, the alternative school where much of the film takes place, as an oasis of life-affirming, society-saving hope in a world gone mad, a shimmering beacon in a dystopian world. The Freedom School is the brainchild of Jean Roberts (played by Taylor, Laughlin’s real-life wife, writing partner, and soulmate), a woman with translucent skin, a generally mortified air, and a terrified monotone of a speaking voice that suggests that she would rather have nails driven into her palms than have to speak publicly. Together, Taylor and Laughlin make for an unlikely but oddly inspired pair: the woman too fragile to live, and the man too stoic and tough to die.
The 40-year-old Taylor wasn’t an actor before Laughlin pushed her into the leading role in Billy Jack, and her discomfort at being in front of the camera, especially in such a big, demanding, complicated role, is palpable and understandable. It’s also weirdly compelling, in an outsider-art kind of way. Imagine an amateur, straw-haired Shelly Duvall following a series of debilitating nervous breakdowns and you have a sense of Taylor’s singularly odd, striking presence.
Early in Billy Jack, Jean maps out the three rules that make The Freedom School both the grooviest, happiest place in the universe and a flashpoint for controversy among townspeople who don’t much cotton to a bunch of long-haired hippie types showing them up with their utopian way of life:
No drugs, everyone had to carry his own load, and everyone had to get turned on by creating something, anything, whether it be weaving a blanket, making a film, or doing a painting, preferably something that made one proud of one’s heritage and past, or by getting involved with such strange things as yoga meditation, or psychodrama and role-playing, things that the town people could never understand.
The film illustrates a little of this role-playing by having one of the Freedom School kids present an improvisational scenario: “The world is really fucked up, and needs a new savior, and [the improviser] is going to give birth to it. Let’s rap it out.” There seems to be a meta-element to the improviser’s suggestion, since The Born Losers, Billy Jack, and The Trial Of Billy Jack all depict a world that’s really fucked up, but blessed enough to already have a savior in Billy Jack.
It’s telling that the first rule of The Freedom School is “no drugs,” as Billy Jack and The Trial Of Billy Jack depict a poignantly myopic fantasy of a counterculture with no use for acid, pot, speed, or anything else that might terrify parents, including sex. In other words, Billy Jack offers a square conception of what counterculture types might look like if they could only free themselves from those nasty drugs and hormonal urges and commit themselves to yoga, improvisational street theater, and painting murals conveying their deep pride in their indigenous heritage.
Billy Jack is a film of violent contradictions. It is a fortysomething über-square’s tribute to the promise and potential of the hippies, as well as an intensely violent homage to non-violence. It is an utterly despairing film radiating hope, an action movie that is secretly a nakedly ambitious, sweeping drama about nothing less than The Way We Live.
I suspect audiences in 1971 were attracted to it because they connected, on a profound emotional level, to the film’s intense feelings of revulsion over the state of society, that overwhelming sense that things had gotten so bad, they couldn’t go on without radical changes. But I think they also responded to the film’s weird, quixotic, delusional sense of optimism, its suggestions that things might be terrible right now, but if we give our children the freedom and tools to achieve self-actualization, then a golden age looms right around the corner. Billy Jack came out of nowhere and made a fortune in 1971 because the confusion, contradictions, and incoherence of the film’s message and ideology reflected the contradictions of a deeply split society still desperately trying to figure out what the hell the 1960s were, and what they ultimately meant.
Audiences also likely responded to the film’s intense, hypnotic sincerity. Laughlin’s view of the world may be incoherent, even hypocritical, but Laughlin also deeply means what he says, even when it completely contradicts other things he’s saying. Billy Jack is not realistic by any stretch of the imagination. It’s more of a demented, paranoid middle-aged white man’s insane fever dream of what the counterculture/establishment divide looked like, but I suspect audiences responded to it in 1971 because it represents the emergence of a clear, strong, unique, original voice in an entertainment world ruled by formula and conventions. Audiences might not have dug, say, a scene of the town council debating the students of the Freedom School and the townspeople, but they intuitively understood that this weird, raw, ragged little movie was at least trying to do something different.
At the center of Billy Jack’s appeal lies Billy Jack himself, with his iconic stupid hat (most hats become iconic by being kind of stupid, like Pharrell’s), Hapkido mastery, and deep inner calm. He is a patient man who talks and moves slowly and deliberately, a solitary figure of justice in an unjust world. Laughlin plays him as an oddly ascetic figure whose love for Jean is all the more powerful and pure because it’s spiritual rather than physical. In Laughlin’s world, sex is the ugly, dirty domain of bikers, pedophiles, and rapists. The film’s plot turns on Bernard Posner (David Roya), the son of the town’s evil powerbroker, raping Jean in a fit of vengeance. The assault represents the strongest desecration and betrayal of Billy Jack’s natural world, and it kicks off a series of events that end with Billy Jack killing him and being arrested by the police, a martyr both to his cause and to his own anger.
The Billy Jack character appealed both to viewers’ need for a savior and their own desire to be one. Billy Jack wouldn’t have made sense in any other decade, but in the 1970s, this bizarre character, played by an utter unknown, captured the cultural zeitgeist like few characters before or since. He was the curious man of an uncertain moment.
Billy Jack wasn’t just a success, it was a phenomenon. It didn’t just generate box-office, it generated legends. Elvis Presley, a martial-arts enthusiast himself, reportedly saw it nine times. According to Laughlin’s son Frank, Marlon Brando, whose son Christian matriculated at a school run by Laughlin and Taylor, singled out Taylor’s performance in a post-rape scene as the gold standard to which all other actors should aspire.
Before The Born Losers, Laughlin couldn’t catch a break; after Billy Jack’s groundbreaking success, he could write his own ticket. It was as if the universe was handing him a blank check with which he could fulfill his wildest fantasies. He now had the leverage to really realize his vision in all its cockeyed glory. If Billy Jack was a movie about The Way We Live Trojan-horsed inside the awkward, ungainly form of a revenge thriller, then its sequel, The Trial Of Billy Jack, was a referendum on the state of American life and politics, circa 1974.
Laughlin was doing things on a massive scale, both inside the movie and out. In an age where movies where rolled out gradually, The Trial Of Billy Jack opened huge nationwide, with advertising during the nightly news. That choice made more sense than it might seem at first, since The Trial Of Billy Jack clearly considers itself a bulletin from the front lines of social activism and political change, an enraged manifesto that just barely takes the form of an ass-kicking sequel.
It’s a testament to the film’s didacticism that The Trial Of Billy Jack begins hectoring the audience before the action even begins. The film broadcasts its heavy-handed social significance with helicopter shots of the West juxtaposed with tallies of the people killed and injured in incidents of real-life violence, most notably the shootings at Kent State. The sequence ends with the following information:
Making the fictional murder of nonexistent characters from Billy Jack the final tragedy in a series of real-life horrors represents only the beginning of the film’s audacity. The Trial Of Billy Jack is a moody, paranoid meditation on the bloodshed and division at Kent State, but it’s just as concerned with the massacre at My Lai, which similarly finds a fictional analogue within the film.
The Trial Of Billy Jack takes place entirely in flashback, with Jean in a hospital bed following the shooting at The Freedom School. She’s apparently conducting a press conference in which she will only answer awkwardly phrased yes-or-no questions conveying basic exposition. Thankfully, those are all she gets. In her hospital bed, Jean answers queries like:
“Mrs. Roberts, did it ever happen before that so many thousands of rounds of ammunition were fired into the dormitories in such a short period of time?”
Then, a sympathetic reporter succinctly summarizes the protagonist’s entire belief system when she asks Jean, “Wasn’t Billy Jack’s main belief that a man who doesn’t go his own way is nothing?” Jean answers, “That’s right. That’s why they tried Billy, but we all knew what they were really trying was each man’s right to find his own center, to follow his own conscience and do his own thing without hurting or interfering with anyone else’s.”
Taylor has probably twice as much screen time and three times as much dialogue as Laughlin. But that should not be mistaken for humility on Laughlin’s part: If anything, he limits his screen time so that any time he appears onscreen, it’s an event.
Jean explains that since the events of the first film, the legend of Billy Jack has spread to mythic dimensions, and that in his honor, The Freedom School evolved from the most impossibly perfect school/happening/never-ending be-in in existence, and became an alternative society beyond the wildest imagination of social engineers.
Jean tells the press, “The entire school was built and owned by the kids, and they governed themselves on the simple philosophy that where there’s power, there can never be love, and where there is love, there’s no need for power.” She then expounds on the magical properties of the school, explaining:
Knowing that you can’t really deal and understand other people until you first understand yourself, every program was based on learning how to cope and understand your own feelings first, in order to understand and relate to other people. This philosophy they carried into everything, from meditation and body-awareness exercises, all kinds of dance, even belly-dancing, music, band, drill team, arts, crafts, advanced physics, mathematics, psychology, the classics, even into athletics, which they called yoga athletics—from yoga tennis to yoga football and every sport in between. The idea always being that the thrill of participating and the self-discipline one develops while training, preparing, and learning made one a winner for the rest of his life, no matter how well he played, or how the temporary contest came out. And so winning and losing and worrying about someone grading your efforts was not all that important anymore. Growing and having the fun and privilege of doing it, that was everything.
But it goes beyond that. With the empowering faith of Jean and the inspiration of Billy Jack, the geniuses of The Freedom School have developed technology that borders on science fiction, most notably a lie-detector test so advanced, it can determine whether someone on television or radio is lying. And sure enough, this fantastical device determines that everyone on television and radio is lying, especially those fat cats in Washington.
So the angel-headed hipsters at The Freedom School open a recording studio, start their own television and radio stations, and most notably, begin running a series of muckraking exposés in the style of Ralph Nader that reveal the corruption of every institution on earth. In the aftermath of Billy Jack’s success, Laughlin once boasted, “The youth of this country have only two heroes, Ralph Nader and Billy Jack.” I don’t think Laughlin considered Billy Jack any less of a hero just because he was a fictional character Laughlin created.
The Trial Of Billy Jack features Laughlin as a 1970s version of Tyler Perry. The similarities between these seemingly antithetical figures are legion. Both men have a powerful, emotional connection to their audience that is all the more potent for having nothing to do with the traditional gatekeepers of culture. (Critics, for example, have little use for either artist, probably because their films are amateurish and terrible, though still incredibly interesting.) Both paved their own way with lumpy, contradictory, incoherent melodramas that veer into myriad other genres, including action films, comedies, musicals, and shrill psychodramas. Both men see the world in moral absolutes: The good are near saintly in their kindness and compassion, and the evil drip blood from their vampire fangs and think nothing of abusing the most innocent among us. And both men are shameless in their didacticism. When Perry wants to deliver a sermon, he will put it right in the mouth of a pastor, while throughout The Trial Of Billy Jack, Laughlin puts Billy Jack on the witness stand or Jean in front of television cameras so they can deliver his messages directly to the audience.
The evil in The Trial Of Billy Jack is almost comic in its excessiveness. A flashback reveals that Billy Jack’s stint as a decorated Green Beret came to a close when his unit in Vietnam received orders to herd a group of women, children, and old people into a giant ditch and then, in the words of the horrified but obedient officer in charge, “Waste them.” Being a man of staunch morals, Billy Jack refuses to shoot Vietnamese babies for no reason (except, you know, evil) and the experience understandably leaves him with a less-than-glowing opinion of the military. In prison, Billy Jack becomes even more of a larger-than-life figure, a living symbol of all that is good in the world.
Billy Jack and The Freedom School are too good for this wicked world, however. In an attempt to purify himself, Billy Jack goes on a vision quest that lets Laughlin integrate his fascination with Jungian psychology (about which he has written several books) with his obsession with faux-Native American spirituality.
Within The Trial Of Billy Jack, The Freedom School acts as the sunshiny “shadow self” to the corrupt establishment. The establishment feels subconsciously implicated and incriminated by these radiant children and their magical Freedom School, so they must destroy them and their society rather than examining their own spiritual sickness.
Billy Jack’s tagline puts the dichotomy between the corrupt establishment and the rainbow freedom children bluntly, quipping with far more wit than any Billy Jack movie (which, Howard Hesseman cameo aside, are humor-free zones). “You’ve got due process, Mother’s Day, supermarkets, the FBI, Medicare, air conditioning, AT&T, country clubs, Congress, a two-car garage, state troopers, the Constitution, color television, and democracy. They’ve got BILLY JACK.” When you have Billy Jack, who needs all that other shit?
The Freedom School has Billy Jack, but the Establishment is intent on destroying it, him, and, by extension, each man’s right to find his own center, follow his own conscience, and do his own thing without hurting or interfering with anyone else’s. Every triumph of the Freedom School is met with a brutal insult from an outside world that cannot stand the notion of happy children.
Early on, for example, the film introduces a troubled boy whose abusive parents cut off one of his hands. This senseless act of violence filled him with rage, and he acted out, until a true believer finally reached him and not only broke down his defenses and got him to talk, but also taught him to play guitar using a prosthetic hand.
The boy inspires everyone around him with his incredible capacity for growth and change, but in the film’s climax, the National Guard descends upon The Freedom School with great fury, and a soldier shoots the one-handed li’l exemplar of human dignity, causing him to drop the rabbit he was holding. This is what the Establishment is willing to do to protect its own interests, Laughlin is asserting: They’re willing to murder disabled children holding adorable little bunny rabbits. Just because.
The Trial Of Billy Jack ends with a massacre that Billy Jack and Jean just barely survive. This nearly three-hour monolith concludes with a rousing rendition of “Give Peace A Chance.” Then the following words appear onscreen:
SOME MAY FEEL THIS PICTURE IS TOO VIOLENT…
but the real massacres which inspired this fictionalized version
were a thousand-fold more violent for those innocent people who were its victims.
Rather than direct anger at this re-creation…
please channel your energy toward those officials who either ordered, condoned, or failed to take action against these events, and perhaps towards ourselves for also turning our backs and letting such events occur unchallenged.
All we are saying is… give peace a chance.
The Trial Of Billy Jack ends by preemptively dismissing the legitimate criticism that this ode to non-violence is horrifically violent, then points an angry finger at phantom critics for not doing as much to fight oppression as the film’s fictional characters. It’s overwhelming and exhausting, and it leaves the series nowhere to go. But that didn’t keep Laughlin from making another Billy Jack movie, 1976’s Billy Jack Goes To Washington (a remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington), which never saw wide release, and marked the end of the Billy Jack saga. (Laughlin unsuccessfully tried to revive the franchise with 1986’s unfinished The Return Of Billy Jack, which was abandoned when Laughlin hurt himself performing a stunt, and then funding ran out.)
In the final decades of his life, Laughlin ran for president three times, twice as a Democrat and once as a Republican. As recently as the previous decade, Laughlin had plans to revive the franchise with a film he planned to call, among other names, Billy Jack’s Crusade To End the War And Restore America To Its Moral Purpose. (Laughlin was not a fan of the Iraq War, or George W. Bush.)
Laughlin died last year at 82. He accomplished so much over the course of his lifetime, yet he died broke and more or less forgotten. The website billyjack.com, where I long ago bought my first Billy Jack movie, is now pretty much dead, with only a still image and a link to an eBay estate sale for the entire contents of the house Laughlin left behind when he died. The opening bid was $2,500. There were no takers, but all money would have gone to fund Dolores Taylor’s Alzheimer’s treatment.
Laughlin changed the way movies were distributed and marketed, but his movement was mercurial and short-lived. He was not a savvy businessman with good preservation instincts like Perry: he was an arrogant, mercurial hothead who created a character the world loved, only to lose the empire he had created through hubris, shortsightedness, and a stubborn refusal to compromise or play the game. That’s what made him such a cultural force, but it also helps explain his demise.
One final twist regarding this singularly insane slice of Americana: Among its other claims to fame, Billy Jack birthed an anthemic single in “One Tin Soldier (The Legend Of Billy Jack),” an angrily delivered allegory about the evil of greed and short-sightedness that became a huge, huge hit for Coven, the band that recorded it. “One Tin Soldier” is an anthem of peace and brotherhood with a weird footnote: The members of Coven were practicing Satanists whose 1969 album Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls helped introduce now-ubiquitous Satanic tropes like inverted crosses and the phrase “Hail Satan” to heavy metal. Given the contradictory nature of Billy Jack, it seems both bitterly ironic and all too appropriate that the series’ ultimate anthem of hope and peace was popularized by people who worshipped Satan. In the too-strange-for-fiction world of Billy Jack, it seems, the devil really is in the details.