Billy Jack (1971): Second Film in Laughlin’s Series

Billy Jack, the second film in the series that began with “Born Loser,cast Laughlin’s wife Delores as the main character of Jean Roberts, replacing Elizabeth James.

A pacifist-humanist teacher, Jean runs a progressive school on Billy Jack’s Indian reservation.  But figures of the establishment hate the Indians and harass them.  In voice-over narration, she describes the school’s three rules: No drugs, everybody must carry his/her own weight, and everybody must do something creative.

The student body consists of hippies, runaways, and disturbed kids. The pregnant daughter of town’s deputy sheriff runs away to school, as a refuge from her brutal father.

At one point, Billy proclaims: “Being an Indian isn’t a matter of blood, but a way of life,” which translates into bogus mysticism and the notion that everything is allowed.  The movie propagates a naïve, even childish view of interracial harmony and the American Indian’s way of life.  Thus, the Native Americans stand for Nature, Wild Mustangs, Ecology, and Pacifism, and as such are posited against the redneck residents, who hunt the wild stallions on the Indian land, and bully the students.

What made the movie so popular?

As a protagonist, Billy Jack was a new type of (anti) hero, a half-white, half-Indian karate expert who protects a free school built on principles of pacifism by fighting rednecks. The difference and tension between Billy Jack’s aggressive way of doing things and the school’s founder’s pacifist philosophy are not really explored.

The movie contains graphic depiction of nasty violence (murders, rapes, beatings), but also counter culture (street theatre, psychodrama, interracial romance, quasi-civil rights demonstration)

“Billy Jack” was one of the first films to suggest in the depiction of rage, disillusion and disenchantment that all hadn’t gone well in Vietnam. Instead of coming home as a hero, the veteran returns alienated, angry, unsettled, and unable to adjust to civilian life.  But somehow, Billy Jack converts rage and anger into positive activism and commitment to social causes.

Self-righteous to a fault, “Billy Jack” is a messy, crude, brutal movie that’s essentially exploitation fare.  In its ideology, “Billy Jack” belongs to the same cycle of right-wing revenge movies, such as Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry,” which was released in the same year, and the Charles Bronson series “Death Wish,” which followed a few years later.