om self-important start to self-important finish, this movie runs on all cylinders, managing to tackle every single social ill of the early 1970s that people pretended to care about.
Vietnam, women’s rights, Indian rights, environmentalism, alternative education, bigotry, and half-breed Green Berets that try to reconnect with their Indian heritage while practicing a unique mix of pacifism and whoop-ass are all represented.
Sure, you’ll cringe a bit when you hear Billy Jack talking about “checking your ego-trips” and his girlfriend Jane going on about “doing something creative that turns you on,” but most of the time you’ll sit there stunned that this movie about one man trying to come to terms with his past, his ancestors, the world that doesn’t want his kind, and the woman who can’t live without him isn’t recognized as one of the great films of the era.
The movie grabs you as soon as that protest classic “One Tin Soldier” fires up and plays in its entirety over the opening credits as we witness wild stallions being hunted down by the evil townspeople.
I knew we were in for about two hours of awesome symbolism and posturing when I saw this. Still, it was with great glee that we got our first look at Billy Jack when he comes riding up on his steed, his arrival preceded by a strange wind blowing. (Is that the winds of change I hear rustling?)
He has his confrontation with the evil boss of the town, Posner, and his henchmen, including Posner’s wussy son, Bernard. We know he’s a wuss because he’s too scared to shoot one of the stallions. The 70s though were all about personal growth so his character later develops the guts to rape Billy Jack’s girlfriend and to murder one of the students of the Freedom School.
Billy successfully runs off these thugs from the Indian lands, but prior to everyone’s favorite Coven song playing, we get introduced to one of the storylines that will drive most of the events of the movie.
One of the deputies has a rebellious daughter who keeps running away from home and ending up at Haight-Ashbury. The sheriff tells him that his daughter has been found is being brought back home and the deputy responds that he’ll try and make it back from the illegal mustang shoot before Barbara is brought back home. It’s probably that sort of “job comes first” mentality that caused her to runaway in the first place!
Once home, Barbara and her dad have a heart to heart talk that involves some give and take. She gives him that she’s got hepatitis and that she’s pregnant, but has no idea what color the father is. He takes his fist and punches her in the face.
Billy Jack finds her sleeping off her beating in the wilderness and takes her to a friendly doctor who fixes her up and everyone decides that it would be best if they hide her out at the Freedom School.
The school is run by Jean (Laughlin’s real-life wife Delores Taylor), a pacifist who talks in a really soothing voice and is all about getting everyone involved in doing their own thing. This involves a lot of bad paintings, singing bad folk songs while the rest of the school is trying to eat supper, and lots of bad role playing, sometimes featuring Dr. Johnny Fever himself, Howard Hessman.
The town doesn’t really appreciate all the great things the Freedom School is doing (like teaching hippies how to barrel race with horses) and this problem is only exacerbated by hiding Barbara there. Her father is mad that she has disappeared and sets out to try and track her down. Meanwhile Posner periodically gets into confrontations with Billy Jack and it is Posner’s son Bernard who is usually in the thick of things with his narrow-minded ways.
He tries to hit on one of the kids from the Freedom School, but she tells him that her name is Up Yours and it’s all down hill from there. He gets his revenge though in the classic ice cream shop scene. The owner of the ice cream shop refuses to serve the Indian kids because they aren’t white, so Bernard helps out by dumping flour on them and “making them white.” As he does this, you can see a jeep with Billy Jack pull up out in front of the store and you quickly realize that that big plate glass window in the ice cream parlor will be put to good use shortly.
Billy ultimately doles out the payback the smalltown bigots deserve and he ends up hiding out from the law. Jean shows up and sets him straight about love, hate, and that it’s easy to die, but harder to live and keep trying.
Billy recognizes that there’s at least two more sequels in this character and peacefully surrenders to the authorities. As he’s driven away, everyone gives him the black power salute.
Do I really need to comment on how important it is for you to see this movie? I mean, it covers more ground than about five different movies. Oh sure, you may quibble with Billy’s muddled message about non-violence through a serious ass whipping or that fact that Tom Laughlin comes from that school of acting where you squint, sweat and utter your lines in a monotone.
And you may be giggling when Billy is doing a rain dance in front of a rattlesnake during some idiotic ceremony where he sees if he can get bit a million times and survive thus making him a brother to the snake or something.
You also may very well guffaw when he tells Barbara that he gets his power from his medicine bag which has stuff in it like an owl’s feather, eye of newt, and his lucky troll doll.
You may find all these things amusing, but the movie succeeds because Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack is deadly serious about it all. Truly a monumental effort in hippie cinema that I’m sure Tom and Delores wouldn’t hesitate to tell you how monumental it was if you ever asked them.