The wonderful New Beverly Cinema here in Hollywood has been having in an IB Technicolor festival and the Sunday before last they offered the irresistible double feature of Billy Jack (1971) and Death Wish (1974), so Weird Movie Village took it on the road for an afternoon of viewing nostalgia.
I first saw Billy Jack at the Rialto Theater in Walkerton, Indiana, during its second theatrical release when it was picked up by Warner Bros. Husband-and-wife team Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor financed it (under the auspices of the National Student Film Company), also serving key creative roles and even trying to distribute it themselves before Warner parlayed it into a rather big hit in 1973. With its message of tolerance and emphasis on minority rights, it was a natural for wannabe hippie kids like me at the bitter end of the Woodstock generation. When you add the folky hit theme song, Coven's "One Tin Soldier," you've got the makings of a cult classic.
Alas, that hasn't really come to pass. Billy Jack's muddled messages and uneven pacing — not to mention tons of filler — just haven't aged well.
Even I am guilty of not preserving the film's memory, even though it played such a big part in my early teen years. I barely remembering watching it on CBS Late Movie airings or on early home video, even though I'm sure I did. Yet watching it flicker back to life on the Beverly's screen, I found myself feeling like I was being reunited with an old friend that I'd long ago betrayed. Well, until the heretofore-described problems set in.
As advertised, the color of the print was good, but it had been run through hundreds of projectors over the years and was pretty scratched, but that's why we love watching 35mm at the Beverly. Plenty o' scratches, missing frames and hissing, popping soundtracks take us back to the true essence of movie watching that today's digitally-projected, Dolby-filtered googolplexes have taken away from us.
A synopsis of the film sounds promising. Laughlin's hero is a half-Caucasian, half-Cherokee former Green Beret turned anti-war activist who lives in the hills high above a conservative Arizona town and serves as the guardian of the nearby Freedom School, a place for misfit and outcast kids, run by Jean Roberts (Taylor), whom he also loves. So far, so good.
But every time the kids from the school go into town to shop and do improv, they raise the ire of the resident rednecks, including Bernard Posner (David Roya), the spoiled son of the corrupt town boss (Bert Freed) who's so evil he rounds up wild horses to shoot them and sell their meat for dog food. After a soda jerk refuses to serve some of the students because of their race, Bernard intermediates by dumping flour on them and pronouncing, "Now they're all white." Billy Jack comes in, sees what's happened to the innocent kids, and his slow-to-burn fuse is lit. Soon, he's whomping on a bunch of Bernard's thugs in the park until they get the best of him and the deputy sheriff (Ken Tobey) has to break it up. But the battle has begun, and it's just not going to end well.
But here's the problem. A great deal of the film's 116-minute running time is taken up with the activities of the school, which includes textiles, singing bad folk songs and improv. WKRP in Cincinnati's Howard Hesseman plays the drama teacher who leads the exercises, which all seem to focus around getting stoned and rebelling against "the man."
There's a new arrival at the school, Barbara (Julie Webb), through whose eyes we witness the previously described activities and the enigma that is Billy Jack. Barbara is the deputy sheriff's daughter who'd been dragged back to town from Haight-Ashbury by her father's henchmen. Announcing that she's pregnant, has contracted hepatitis and had sex with so many men she doesn't know if the baby is going to be "white, Mexican or black," she drives Dad over the edge and he beats her severely. At the hospital where she's being treated for her injuries, the town's closet liberal doctor (Victor Izay) realizes that she's going to need to be sent to the Freedom School, far away from Daddio's fists of fury.
Again, this sounds like it should be high-tension drama, but there's an obnoxiously, allegedly adorable kid, Carol (Teresa Kelly), who sings about forty treacly songs, including one about her brother who'd just been killed in Vietnam, putting the brakes on the plot. And more encounters between the students and the locals result in a massive outbreak of role-playing for everyone.
Finally, there's some more action. Bernard kills Martin (Stan Rice), a student with a severe underbite that Barbara has developed a crush on, and then he rapes Jean (a disturbing scene for a multitude of reasons). Billy Jack shows up in the hotel room where Bernard is having sex with an underage girl and kills him, then holes up in an adobe fortress and refuses to surrender until the cops promise to leave the Freedom School untouched for at least ten years. The agreement is reached, and he's led off in handcuffs as seemingly everyone in town stands by the side of the road raising their fists in unity and "One Tin Soldier" chirps away on the soundtrack.
There's still some fun to be had with the film. The students all seem to be just one acid hit away from becoming the Manson Family (even sweet little Carol), and you can practically smell the body odor and patchouli wafting off of them. When Billy Jack goes "ber-SERK!", as he says, he uses slow-motion karate to get the best of his enemies. But the scenes between Jean and Billy when she tries to persuade him to stop his violent ways as they declare their love for each other are hilariously mawkish.
The film is quite modestly produced. Like the similarly-budgeted Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), it does the best it can with limited resources. Laughlin and Taylor's script rambles and Laughlin's direction (under a pseudonym) wanders. I think the central performances have held up pretty well, even though Taylor is still pretty wooden and always looks like she's been on a three-day drinking-and-crying jag.
The incidental music sounds like it's left over from that Brady Bunch two-parter when they go to Hawaii and run into Vincent Price. And how times have changed. This mostly innocent-minded PG-rated film has a rape, drug references, descriptions of unsavory acts, several exposed breasts and two fleeting glimpses of female frontal nudity (including that of an alleged 13-year-old). Maybe that's why it was such a hit with the under-18 crowd in 1973.
Billy Jack has been released in a special edition on Blu-Ray, but I don't know why anyone would want to see it that way. I'm sure watching the disc wouldn't engender the same sense of nostalgia I experienced when it unspooled at the Beverly. That's the way it should be seen — in a revival house with a much-abused print and two-dollar popcorn.