Billy Jack: Between Two Worlds

Warner Bros.

Billy Jack is the type of cultural artifact that’s so strange, and so precisely of its time, you would be justified if you finished reading this and decided the movie simply didn’t exist. Describing it inspires a self-canceling combination of genres: It’s a hippie action movie, a martial arts racial-reconciliation melodrama, and an improv comedy-western about the horrors of Manifest Destiny. Billy Jack baffles. Its sudden shifts between pro-peace speechifying and glory-making gunfights twist the viewer’s mind into a pretzel, and its teary sentimentality waters it to mush. Billy Jack grabs you by the collar simply to feel the fabric, then tosses you down only to offer a helping hand getting up. 

Even the movie’s very existence is a contradiction: Multiple studios dropped it or declined to widely distribute the finished work 1971. They didn’t know what to do with a movie that played like if Zabriskie Point were an episode of the Kung Fu TV show. But a self-financed re-release in 1973 made Billy Jack a hit;. a proto-blockbuster with a shoestring budget. This, however, is easy to explain. Because, for all its strangeness and inexplicability, Billy Jack is very real, and its confusion and missteps make it more than a snapshot of its era. It’s a self-portrait of a country during a strange time.  


Billy Jack can best be understood in the context of its time, place, and creators. Aspiring actor Tom Laughlin first had the idea for the movie in the early ’50s. He was visiting his girlfriend, Delores Taylor, in South Dakota and was enraged at how he saw white residents mistreating Native Americans. The nascent dream of making a film to expose the destructive legacy of racism and westward expansion remained unrealized for more than a decade. In 1967, Laughlin and Taylor produced The Born Losers, a motorcycle movie that Laughlin directed and starred in as Billy Jack. The reviews and returns were middling, but The Born Losers brought in the money and connections necessary to make a standalone Billy Jack story. 

Everything about Billy Jack screams passion project. Its chock-a-block script and whiplash-inducing shifts in tone are the hallmarks of a filmmaker who has a lot to say and worries they may never get another chance to speak. Every scene is action or ideology, and both the punches and the philosophy are delivered with heavy hands. 

In the first 10 minutes, we see the town sheriff (Clark Howat) driving to his deputy’s (Kenneth Tobey) house to tell him his daughter, Barbara (Julie Webb), has been found after running away from home. “Haight-Ashbury again?” the deputy asks. Instead of going to the airport to get Barbara, the deputy explains that he’s promised his day to local businessman Stuart Posner (Bert Freed), a good ole boy Boss Hogg precursor who plans to sneak onto the local reservation and illegally hunt horses to sell to a dog food factory. A long montage of hunters corralling horses follows, set to the song “One Tin Soldier,”which charted in 1971 and 1973, due largely to its use here. The song fades, the hunters close in for the kill, and we meet Billy, again played by Laughlin, and now fully realized as a reclusive half-Native American, half-white Green Beret Vietnam veteran who has mastered the Korean martial art hapkido. 

As his intrusion on the poachers escalates to an armed standoff, Billy glances to the deputy and deadpans his view of the world: “When policemen break the law, then there isn’t any law, just a fight for survival.” Hypocrisy is the movie’s villain, and, for the next hour-and-a-half, we see its ruinous effects as the characters are thrown into this fight for survival.

But Billy Jack doesn’t posit a world where the counterculture is good and the mainstream is bad, by default. Barbara, once eager to flee the suburban southwest for San Francisco, returns home stricken with hepatitis and several weeks pregnant. “I was passed around by so many of those phony Maharishi types who kept telling me love is beautiful and all that bullshit,” she explains. 

Deputy Dad offers little reason for Barbara to think things are better at home. He’s unconcerned with her health and more focused on whether the baby’s father is white (this is a man for whom six cents per pound of horseflesh is worth more than a daughter’s love, after all). He, too, beats and abandons her, and Barbara winds up hiding at the Freedom School on the reservation. Despite the name, it’s less a traditional school and more a commune where troubled kids do whatever they want (except take drugs) under the tutelage of the the horse-riding, pacifism-preaching Jean (played by Taylor) and a band of well-intentioned hippies. 

Barbara immediately softens upon seeing a world free of hypocrites. These folks are the real deal, not disciplinarian dads or dishonest longhairs out for a quick lay. The kids sing songs with lyrics like “why is there fighting and killing” and role play that Barbara will give birth to a new savior, whose symbol of unity will be a raised fist. It’s a true vision of peace—a happy oasis in a desert of creeps and corruption. Purity like this, in Billy Jack, has an uneasy existence. Posner’s cynicism toward the school’s philosophy poisons those around him. Taking a cue from his father, Posner’s psychopathic son Bernard (David Roya), who was previously too shy to shoot a horse, decides to act on his racist and sexually-violent impulses, setting off a series of encounters with Billy that carry the movie’s action and raise the philosophical tension. 

In one of Billy Jack’s more famous scenes, the younger Posner dumps flour on three kids, smarmily explaining that they’ll now be white enough to satisfy the segregationist owner of the local ice cream parlor. Upon seeing this, Billy slowly paces around the room, explaining that he tries to control his temper and follow Jean’s message of pacifism, but when he sees how racism and lawlessness create long-lasting trauma, “I just go berserk.” He ends his speech by giving Bernard the first of several swift chops to the chest before knocking a man known only as “Dinosaur” (John McClure) through the parlor window.

As he leaves, Billy finds himself surrounded by Posner’s goons (in a wonderful but brief high-angle shot, Billy and the circle of henchmen move in sync, their shadows shifting like seconds on a clock). Face-to-face with the elder Posner, Billy smirks and tells the old bigot that he’s going to “take this right foot here and wop you on that side of your face.” He does, knocking Posner to the ground and leading to a well-shot fight sequence in which townies are methodically beaten down by a guy wearing a jean jacket with blue jeans. 

In scenes like this, Billy Jack is a revenge fantasy with a global scale: The colonized take back power. We want to root every time we see Billy’s bare foot deviate a deserving septum. But deadly high kicks and hip-shots from pump actions are fine for Billy Jack, who lives in isolation and only shows up when someone needs him. Jean, meanwhile, has a school full of kids to care for and no martial arts training. For Jean, principles and responsibilities are all she has. She pleads with Billy to follow the law. Billy says he will only do so when the law is applied equally to everyone, including cops and wealthy businessmen. 

Jean believes in being a good example for those who might stray from the path of peace and love, while Billy believes in making an example out of anyone who does. Their dialogues touch on everything from gun control (Billy notes the wave of political assassinations carried out by civilians with firearms of the ’60s) to the limits of pacifism in the face of evil (Jean’s decision to stay silent after a horrifying rape scene needs an entire film’s worth of dialogue, or more, to unpack). Billy’s war hero past is unexplored but unmistakable here; as we can imagine he has seen enough violence to question whether there’s any other way to challenge state power than through the weapons the state uses to maintain it. 

As the balancing forces, the two play off each other well. (“Do they love each other?” Barbara asks a classmate. “No one knows” is the answer.) Taylor portrays Jean with the stoic maturity of an idealist who is used to seeing her beliefs tested. Laughlin plays Billy as a man who is waiting for an excuse to fight for what he knows to be right. 

The two stars and screenwriters are debating on screen what any number of Americans might have been debating at the dinner table. Is nonviolent resistance too passive? Is “by any means necessary” the right approach? What is justice, and how do we achieve it? 

Billy Jack tapped into the disagreements over counterculture and protests. It also tapped into a growing awareness among white Americans of the continued oppression of Native Americans. It was made just after the Occupation of Alcatraz, and Billy Jack’s re-release came the same year protesters with the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee. That year, Sacheen Littlefeather accepted the Academy Award for Marlon Brando (whose son attended a Montessori school Laughlin and Taylor founded in the ‘60s), as a protest over Native American representation in film.  

If Laughlin and Taylor came to a conclusion about any of the questions they raise, they didn’t show it in Billy Jack. Exuberance and passion are not always signs of certainty. As a movie, Billy Jack says a whole lot, and it says it very loudly, but almost every sentence ends in a question mark. The cathartic fight scenes side with Billy, as does the closing shot, in which a crowd of young people raise their fists in the air as Billy is taken to jail. The rest of the script sides with Jean. At the school, sketch comedy is enough to make lawmakers realize their hypocrisy and a song about love and multiculturalism can scare off cops trying to search without a warrant. The movie truly believes this. It believes in peace. It believes in spirituality and mysticism and brotherhood. But, as an action movie, Billy Jack also believes that roundhouse kicks to the face are cool to see when filmed in slow motion. 

Belief makes the movie work, through all its confusion and well-meaning but sometimes misguided moralizing. There’s not a trace of irony in Billy Jack. Sincerity and good faith hold this collage of ideas and actions together. Every argument has a counterpoint; every thrill comes with a lesson. In the opening titles, the film credits the Korean master who taught Laughlin hapkido and it acknowledges the Native Americans who supervised a ceremonial scene Billy participates in. This attribution at the start of the movie tells us that Laughlin and Taylor are filmmakers who think fight scenes and ceremonies with venomous snakes are interesting and harrowing to watch, but traditions and customs are important, and they must be treated with respect.

The scene in Billy Jack that says the most about the filmmakers’ vision isn’t one of the fight sequences or the philosophical debates: It’s a moment in which Jean and her students talk to the town council. The sequence seems largely improvised, with improv star Howard Hesseman taking a lead role (other members of his comedy troupe, The Committee, appear in the film, too, and present a few skits designed to show the squares the error of their ways). The council meeting is shot in a way that’s hard to read as anything other than a tribute to Pennebacker documentaries; the dialogue has the verite timbre of sound recorded from microphones that are a little too far away and the camera pans and shakes to follow the action. The hippies and the council square off. They trade jokes and insults. They try to make arguments and get shouted down. They talk over each other like an Altman ensemble (or like people at a real city council meeting). At one point, someone plays the “Star-Spangled Banner” on a saxophone. It’s a noisy, confusing circus and little is accomplished. The scene is a critique of government, made by someone who has been to their share of local government hearings, and who has watched documentaries about them with an artist’s eye. 

The movie’s message is buried in the cross-cuts of this sequence. The town fathers sit, elevated, sneering, criticizing. But their comfort is temporary. It’s not guns or fists that will win in Billy Jack; peace is a numbers game. The first step to get there is to get everybody, squares and hippies alike, talking, about everything, all at the same time. 

For all their willingness to consider opposing ideas, Taylor and Laughlin are not without their blind spots. At times, Billy Jack’s earnestness threatens to veer into white saviorism, though the filmmakers are clear in depicting how white supremacy, like day-to-day hypocrisies, warps its practitioners and twists its tentacles around every facet of life, to the point that our institutions are strangled into reinforcing it in ways that can be small and subtle, or broad and obvious. This is the only absolute the filmmakers deal in: bigotry, closed-mindedness, and systems of oppression are so awful that, despite Laughlin and Taylor’s pacifist tendencies, they can see how a swift kick is faster—or more satisfying to watch—than a lecture when it comes to dislodging hate from a human mind. 

The movie is so laden with conviction that it’s difficult to not let cynicism take over when watching Billy Jack today. Brad Pitt and Quentin Tarantino have said that Pitt’s character Cliff Booth in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood was inspired by Laughlin’s tough-fighting, denim-wrapped persona. This fits if we think about how Cliff Booth and OUATIH came nearly 50 years after Billy Jack. Hippies in the later film are dirty and dangerous. The movie wants us to root for Cliff. Whenever he lands a punch, it’s a victory for the rugged American individualist. When Billy lands a punch, though, it just puts Jean and her school deeper into trouble. Cliff Booth is Billy Jack without Jean’s influence, and after having absorbed a half-century of cynicism. To compare the two characters is to realize that Billy Jack is a product of that brief bubble where it seemed like the counterculture might just win the fight for America’s soul. 

A drop of irony would spoil Billy Jack. If Laughlin and Taylor gave any indication that they were in on a joke with Billy Jack, it would mean that the movie is a joke. A knowing wink would make Billy Jack a grindhouse snack, rather than a surprisingly radical counterculture essay. The messages of peace and acceptance, the loving shots of kids getting along through art and music, would all all for a laugh; just a goof on a utopian vision. If Laughlin and Taylor abandoned their sincerity, they would be no better in their own eyes than their movie’s villains. Billy Jack may be, at times, treacly, confused, misguided, or incomprehensible, but Laughlin and Taylor are thinking through something here. They don’t seem afraid to look silly or incoherent, because they don’t think about that. The movie’s bleeding heart is on its sleeve, and the filmmakers clearly believe it’s in the right place.