Mondo Culto: Billy Jack (1971)

Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack, the be-denimed half-breed Indian Green Beret, first appeared in 1967's The Born Losers, a by-the-numbers exploitation flick about bikers terrorizing a California beach town. Laughlin had conceived of the character years earlier, but couldn't get funding for Billy Jack, which he wanted to be a serious film about discrimination, so he wrote, directed, and starred in Losers first. It made enough money to let Laughlin film his dream movie, which ended up a hippie revenge fantasy that somehow became a cultural moment, one of the biggest surprise successes of the seventies.

The movie opens with aerial footage of wild mustangs stampeding along a ravine to the tune of summer camp folk anthem "One Tin Soldier." Posner, the town's big cheese, and the deputy sheriff are hunting down the horses to kill them for dog food (because rich people are always looking for a way to make a quick 23 cents a pound). Posner wants his spoiled, cowardly son Bernard to take the first shot, but Billy Jack lopes into frame, a particularly Caucasian-looking guy on a horse wearing a big Geronimo hat, and scares them off. This is the formula for the rest of the movie: the rednecks mess with somebody, preferably in a cartoonish, over-the-top way, and Billy Jack luckily happens along just in time to beat them up.

The targets of choice are the students of the Freedom School, an awe-inspiring mishmash of hippie clichés run by Jean Roberts (Delores Taylor, Laughlin's wife). There are only three rules, her self-righteous voiceover intones: no drugs, everyone carries their own weight, and "Everyone had to get turned on by creating something . . . preferably something that made one proud of one's own heritage and past." Other school-sanctioned turn-ons: yoga, "psychodrama," and street theater. (What is this, Brown?)

When the Freedom Schoolers go into town, Bernard and his yokels ridicule the kids and, in the best action of the movie, Billy Jack throws a guy through an ice cream shop window, then takes off his shoes and socks to fight hapkido-style in the town square. (Fortunately, they're good enough to wait patiently to get their asses kicked one at a time.)

To add to the tension with the school, it's also hiding the deputy's daughter, pregnant after running away to San Francisco. Things escalate predictably, with Billy Jack humiliating Bernard until he shoots the Indian student who's dating the deputy's daughter, and rapes Jean. (Jean preaches pacifism, but Billy Jack kills him anyway.)

The film's climax has Billy Jack holed up in a church with a gun and the deputy's daughter, who doesn't want to go back to her abusive dad. After a shootout with the state troopers, Jean brokers a deal with the governor: if Billy Jack gives up, the school will be allowed to run unmolested for ten years. Cuffed and bowed, he walks out of the church -- and through a twin column of Freedom School kids, fists held high in the black power salute. Aaand scene.

The whole spectacle trades in a specific set of clichés: the fetishized wisdom of Native Americans (there's a lengthy scene where Billy Jack becomes a "brother of the snake"); the belief that street theater can change society; Howard Hesseman (that's Dr. Johnny Fever) rocking a priceless mullet 'n' moustache combo. And it tries to have it both ways: righteously pro-peace and against the Man, yes, but still able to unload some whoopass on the bigots. Dirty Harry in a kaftan.

But even though the platitudes are thick on the ground and the acting is terrible, it became a bona fide hit. When Billy Jack first hit theaters in 1971, it flopped, which Laughlin blamed on the marketing. He sued to get control of his movie back and released it himself in 1973, bypassing the standard distribution method and booking it himself in theaters across the country. The gamble worked and Billy Jack, produced for just $800,000, made $65 million. Laughlin's follow-up, 1974's The Trial of Billy Jack made more than $80 million, despite being light on action and heavy on testimony.

But by the end of the seventies, Laughlin's bombast and karate had finally passed out of fashion. In 1977, Billy Jack Goes to Washington bombed, and a fifth Billy Jack movie -- variously titled Billy Jack's Moral Crusade, Billy Jack for President, and currently Billy Jack and Jean -- seems to have been in the works more or less ever since. Laughlin did on two occasions take his politics to the people, running for president as a Democrat in 1992, then as a Republican in 2004 (he got 154 votes).

Billy Jack reverses the usual cult movie rule; it was a huge hit when it came out, then drifted off into history with hardly a fan site or a Family Guy reference in its wake. But it's a spot-on time capsule, and anyone who lived through the seventies will find the sing-alongs and crocheted belts painfully familiar. And for you whippersnappers who want to see what we keep complaining about, just try watching it.