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The Gratuitous B-Movie Column Special Edition: The Legacy of Billy Jack

May 13, 2019 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
Billy Jack

The Gratuitous B-Movie Column Special Edition: The Legacy of Billy Jack

Hello, everyone, and welcome to a special edition of the internets movie review column that, just for the hell of it, is going to take its right foot and wop you on that side of your face, and you want to know something, there’s not a damn thing you’re going to be able to do about it, The Gratuitous B-Movie Column, and I am your host Bryan Kristopowitz. In this special edition, I take a look at the legacy of Billy Jack, the ex-Green Beret/sort of hippie/half-Indian/hapkido master played by/inhabited by star Tom Laughlin, that first appeared in the low budget biker movie The Born Losers back in 1967.

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Over the span of about a decade, Laughlin made four Billy Jack movies that showcased, for better or for worse, what star and director Laughlin, along with screenwriters Elizabeth James (she wrote the screenplay for The Born Losers and co-starred in the movie as Vicky Barrington) and Delores Taylor (she co-wrote Billy Jack, The Trial of Billy Jack, and Billy Jack Goes to Washington and co-starred as Jean Roberts, Billy Jack’s lover), thought about the world at that time. The movies were youth oriented, against the establishment, and very much “of their time” (one common thing you will find if you read about Laughlin or Billy Jack is the “older generation” not really caring for the movie but “youth audiences” showing up in droves for it and responding to it). Three of them also made a good amount of money, especially the second movie, Billy Jack. At some point in the mid-1970s, it was safe to say that Billy Jack was a sort of cultural phenomenon. And then the phenomenon sort of stopped after The Trial of Billy Jack came out. There was one more movie to go, in 1977, but that movie, as far as I can tell, was either not actually released or was given such a small release that no one noticed it when it came out. About ten years after it started, the “Billy Jack thing” was essentially over.

BillyJackBornLosers

Well, it’s 2019 right now, over four decades later, and Billy Jack hasn’t had a pop culture resurgence. Despite the seemingly endless nostalgia for what used to be popular decades ago/what people assume was popular way back when, Billy Jack has not benefited from any of that. Billy Jack is still a bit of an anachronism of the 1970s. Yes, every so often, when someone on the internets decides to look at the Billy Jack movies and they start to notice things about the Bill Jack movies, the character, and how they may have influenced future movies, we hear about how Billy Jack was the prototype for the modern action star. For instance, lots of people like to bring up John Rambo in First Blood as a sort of copy/character influenced by Billy Jack. It’s bullshit, but people keep bringing it up. The only parallels that really exist between Rambo and Billy Jack are they’re both Green Berets, they both have Indian ancestry, and they’re not really interested in authority. Rambo doesn’t really become “Billy Jack like” until the fourth Rambo movie, Rambo, and even then they’re not all that similar. Rambo doesn’t have a cause to fight for in First Blood beyond self-preservation. In First Blood Part II, Rambo is on a government mission, then he’s on a revenge mission when the woman he loves is killed and he rescues American POW’s. In Rambo III Rambo helps rescue his friend and mentor Colonel Trautman and kills some Soviets. In part four, Rambo, Rambo rescues some aid workers captured by psychotic Burmese soldiers (he also gives a pretty impassioned speech about living for something). Billy Jack was never exactly about self-preservation. He always fought for the downtrodden, the Indians, or the kids at the Freedom School and he did it willingly. Would he rather have been left alone? Yeah, probably. But when the shit went down, Billy Jack was always there, either in body or spirit. When was Rambo there, willingly?

He wasn’t. Really ever. It took him a little while to figure out what he wanted to fight for. Billy Jack never had that problem. Billy Jack always knew what he was fighting for.

OnDeadlyGround

And when you take into account the fact that star Tom Laughlin also co-wrote the screenplay for most of his movies and directed all of them, the closest thing we have to an action star also directing a movie that he or she really believes in is Steven Seagal and his 1994 movie On Deadly Ground. That movie, the only movie Seagal has, so far, directed, is filled with all sorts of moments that scream “this guy watched all of the Billy Jack movies and is copying them right now.” On Deadly Ground isn’t an exact copy of the Billy Jack movies, but when you look at how the movie sticks up for Indians, there’s all sorts of mystical Indian hooha in it, the movie attacks big business (the villain is an oil company executive), and the main character uses martial arts to take out the bad guys, I’m surprised Seagal’s Forest Taft character isn’t naked Forrest Jack or something like that. I mean, the big environmental speech that Taft gives at the very end of the movie is something that could have appeared in a Billy Jack movie.

Now, really, how often do we see action stars make movies about what things they believe in/issues they want to talk about? It just doesn’t happen all that often. Hell, even Seagal has stopped making movies about issues he wants to talk about (he’s still out there making movies that are clearly Steven Seagal movies but, at the same time, Seagal has altered his cinematic persona so much in the last decade or so that it’s hard to believe that he was ever the guy he was back in the late 1980’s/1990’s. The Seagal we have no would be the villain in an old Seagal movie). Dolph Lundgren produced a movie about human trafficking, Skin Trade, that came out in 2015, a topic he cares about deeply. That was the last action movie I remember being about something (that was why it existed in the first place).

So why don’t we see more of Billy Jack in the action genre?

The Legacy of Billy Jack

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It almost seems like the action movie world took a look at what the Billy Jack movies did, both in terms of story and how the movies were presented to the public, and decided to do the exact opposite. Outside of standing up for what’s good and right and taking out the bad guys, most action heroes don’t stand for anything beyond the generic. Very few heroes are fighting for an idea bigger than themselves or a social movement. And most heroes don’t fight for anyone more than, maybe, one person. Now, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing as tons of great action movies have been made over the years using that plot/story scheme. But when you look at Billy Jack you see a guy who is always fighting for something else or someone else. He isn’t being selfless as he’s also a part of the movement he’s fighting for, but you never get the sense that he’s going into business for himself. Billy Jack is a bit of a loner and he rarely ever fights with a partner, but he isn’t fighting to feel good about himself. If he’s looking for revenge he’s doing it for himself and everyone else in the movement. Billy Jack is a revolutionary, in a way. Billy Jack wants to change the world. How many action heroes can you say that about now?

Billy Jack also isn’t a reluctant hero. He’s a good guy through and through. In that sense, Billy Jack resembles an old western hero more than a modern action hero. Billy Jack has flaws (Jean points them out to him all of the time), but he’s always fighting for good. You can’t question Billy Jack’s motives or his ultimate goal. Again, he’s always fighting for the right things. I think it’s interesting how Billy Jack came about right after the Sergio Leone/Man With No Name spaghetti westerns were a big deal and altered the western hero myth. Billy Jack is the antithesis of Eastwood’s anti-hero character in those movies.

Now, it’s also interesting how Billy Jack, resembling an old western hero, is also an Indian, often the enemy of the old cowboy (at least in the popular mind). Even when it looks like he’s different than the old idea of the hero, he’s actually the same. That reality makes Billy Jack a better example of the heroic ideal than the alleged ideal.

Of course, the world Billy Jack inhabits is different than the world now. Back in the late 1960’s and through the 1970’s large segments of the world were in the midst of massive social upheaval. The old guard, the establishment, was doing everything it could to maintain the status quo. That kind of thing is still sort of happening, but it isn’t as front and center in the public conscious now like it was then. Maybe that’s why today’s action heroes don’t fight for a larger social purpose?

Again, it isn’t a bad thing that today’s heroes don’t fight for a larger purpose. You don’t need to do that to tell a good story or make a good movie. But you would think that more action stars/heroes would try to “do a little more” every so often. Tom Laughlin and Billy Jack showed everyone how to do it so it’s not like there aren’t examples out there to riff off of so what’s the hold up? Action movie makers may be reluctant to “put more” into the movie because they don’t want to alienate the audience, but I think it’s something they should try to do more often. It might help the movie in question stand out from the rest of the pack, and that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

Why I reviewed the Billy Jack movies in the first place

BillyJackCollectionDVD

I didn’t review the Billy Jack movies because I was a long-time fan of the series and the character and Tom Laughlin and wanted to talk about them. Before doing the “Billy Jack Marathon,” I had only seen one of the movies, Billy Jack, once, a long time ago when it was on cable. I seem to remember watching the movie on TNT and it was hosted by Joe Bob Briggs. After that, I was aware of the Billy Jack character and the other movies with the character, but I never sought them out. Then, one day, while perusing the home video section at my local Walmart, I saw the The Complete Billy Jack Collection DVD set put out by Shout! Factory for ten bucks (the store also had the Walking Tall trilogy set from Shout!, too). I picked up the Billy Jack set, saw that it had four movies on it, and decided to buy it because I figured I could “do a month of reviews” using the set.

So, in short, there was no higher purpose for reviewing the movies other than I could do a themed month using the DVD set. How very un-Billy Jack of me, right?

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The Return of Billy Jack: Unfinished

ReturnofBillyJack

There was going to be a fifth movie in the franchise, The Return of Billy Jack. It was set to have Billy Jack in New York City, fighting child pornographers and the mafia. Laughlin, set to both direct and star, had begun production on the movie in late 1985, filming in both New York City and Toronto. In early 1986, according to Wikipedia, Laughlin was injured while filming, production went on hiatus as Laughlin recovered, and when he was ready to come back one of the movie’s top financial backers pulled out, leaving the movie sans the necessary funds to finish.

Over the years, Laughlin tried to find money to complete the movie, but he was unable to. Laughlin also apparently tried to repurpose the footage he had in the can (allegedly about an hour of the potential movie was complete) and create some other kind of movie with it. That plan, too, never worked out. At some point in 2009, Laughlin put two completed scenes from the movie on his website, but they’re no longer there (Laughlin died in 2013 but his kids now run the website and own the Billy Jack character and franchise). I did find one of those scenes on YouTube and to say that it’s awesome would be a serious understatement.

See what I mean? The scene is less than two minutes and it’s infinitely better than tons of action movies that actually came out in the 1980’s. What else did Laughlin have in store for this movie? I mean, my God, Billy Jack has a machine gun in this scene. A machine gun! And check out the leather jacket and the steely resolve in his voice when he says “Go ahead. Pull it.” The world really missed out on something special here. The world needs to see what was shot of The Return of Billy Jack. It really does.

So, will we ever actually get to see the full hour or so of completed footage for The Return of Billy Jack? Doubtful. Unless Laughlin’s kids decide to put that footage out in some form, that YouTube clip is all we’re likely to see (unless that other scene pops up one day). On one hand, that’s a shame because what Billy Jack fan wouldn’t want to see more of what a fifth Billy Jack adventure could have been like? On the other hand, it might be best to just leave it alone and let it be an interesting “What if?” discussion for movie nerds. The movie isn’t finished, and it’s possible that because it isn’t finished Laughlin didn’t want anyone to see what he shot without further context. If that’s the case, we have to respect the artist Laughlin’s wishes.

Of course, in the event that the Billy Jack character sees a sudden resurgence in modern day popularity for some reason, there’s always a chance that, one day, what was shot of The Return of Billy Jack gets released. For instance, what if the Criterion Collection decides to release Billy Jack in some mega Blu-ray with tons of special features one day and, in the course of putting those special features together, the company strikes a deal with Laughlin’s heirs and The Return of Billy Jack ends up as a special feature. It could happen, right? I mean, it’s possible. Maybe. Criterion did a great job with its release of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Why couldn’t the company do the same for Billy Jack?

I will say that I’m surprised someone hasn’t found a way to bootleg more of the footage. I have no idea how someone would do it, but then look at all of the stuff that’s out there in the bootleg world now. How the hell did most of that stuff show up? Someone found it/discovered it/whatever, and now it’s out there in the world. Why not The Return of Billy Jack?

Man, what could have been. What should have been. The Return of Billy Jack would have been awesome.

But why couldn’t Laughlin find money to finish his movie later on? Did potential moneymen decide not to back Laughlin and The Return of Billy Jack because Laughlin hadn’t been in a movie in almost a decade and his last two movies were huge flops? Were potential backers afraid of Laughlin’s politics? Did backers want more control than Laughlin was willing to give up to finish it?

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Why isn’t Tom Laughlin a bigger deal in the indie movie world?

TheTrialofBillyJackEagleHawk

I don’t quite understand why Laughlin isn’t a bigger deal in the indie movie world. He was a trailblazing auteur who made four movies he wanted to make (five if you count The Master Gunfighter, which I haven’t seen). He revolutionized the way movies are distributed (he pioneered the “release the movie all over the country on the same day” thing) and went up against a major studio, Warner Bros., and won. Laughlin also went broke trying to get his vision out to the world. Isn’t all of that the epitome of what an indie movie director is supposed to be/do? Shouldn’t the Independent Spirit Awards be called the Laughlins?

The horror movie wing of the indie movie world reveres, as they should, directors like George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, and John Carpenter. Books and movies have been made about their cinematic works and they are still seen, to this day, as trailblazers. Quentin Tarantino is still the face of the hip and edgy indie movie world, a prime example of what all indie directors hope to achieve (enduring pop culture relevance, the ear of the mainstream despite not being mainstream, the necessary money to make the movies he wants to make). And the nerd world continues to adore Kevin Smith for whatever reason. Why isn’t Tom Laughlin’s name said amongst them? Again, I don’t get it.

Is it because Laughlin mostly worked in the action genre and the action genre doesn’t necessarily “love” its directors like the horror genre or other genres? Is it because not enough people consider Laughlin’s movies “good?” If that’s the case, how the hell do you explain the endless love for Ed Wood? Laughlin is a million times better moviemaker than Wood. Did Laughlin take himself too seriously and that’s just a turn off for the indie world? I’ve said it twice already and I’ll say it again; I don’t get it.

Books about Laughlin’s life and career are basically non-existent. There is a book written by Jorge Caruso that was put out by Laughlin’s company Billy Jack Enterprises that shows up on amazon but it’s so out of print it might as well not even exist. Where the heck is the book about Laughlin and Billy Jack by Bear Manor Media? You’d think that would have happened by now. And where are the documentaries about Laughlin and the Billy Jack movies? The only thing I found anywhere was an episode of E! The True Hollywood Story on YouTube that looked at Laughlin’s career and the Billy Jack movies. That just makes no sense to me.

Tom Laughlin should be a bigger deal. He really should be.

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Who Should Play Billy Jack in a Franchise Reboot

Apparently, a Billy Jack remake/reboot has been discussed at various times over the last decade or so. If you do some internets digging both Keanu Reeves and Mark Wahlberg have been involved in a potential reboot, with Wahlberg being the last big name attached back in 2011 (check out that indo here). I like the Reeves casting, but Mark Wahlberg as Billy Jack just doesn’t sound appealing. I’d suspect that a Wahlberg Billy Jack would have the same feel as his horrendous Mile 22 movie, all slick and Hollywood, and that would likely be awful. Or maybe not? Who knows?

Anyway, I’ve picked five actors who, I think, would kick ass as Billy Jack in a franchise reboot.

KeanuReevesJohnWick2

Keanu Reeves: At the moment, Reeves would seem to be the obvious choice for a Billy Jack reboot. He’s become a modern action star via the John Wick movies, and he would bring instant credibility to the movie in terms of mainstream recognition. I wouldn’t expect Reeves to direct the movie, but he has directed a movie, Man of Tai Chi, a full on martial arts flick so if Reeves had to direct he could. Reeves would also likely keep the hippie sensibility of the original, which, I think, is important.

RobertDowneyJrIronMan

Robert Downey, Jr.: Another big time mainstream pick, Downey, Jr. would no doubt make a Billy Jack reboot a full on event movie. RDJ is also a martial artist of sorts (he’s been training in the martial art known as Wing Chun for several years and, according to this article, used it to help beat addiction), so it wouldn’t be ridiculous seeing him kick a guy in the face and take on multiple bad guys at the same time. RDJ also has the ability to be incredibly glib, something that Billy Jack excelled at. Can you imagine Downey, Jr. doing the “wop you on that side of your face” scene?

He doesn’t have to be Iron Man anymore. This could work.

CMPunk1

CM Punk: Well, why not CM Punk? He’s an ex-pro wrestler turned UFC fighter turned movie actor. Yes, pro wrestling is “fixed” and Punk got his ass kicked twice in the UFC, but all of that experience would be a definite plus for him if ever donned the hat and denim outfit and whatnot. Wrestling fans know that he can talk and “cut a promo” like a champ. Punk is also a guy who clearly fights for what he believes in and has a political mind (check out his Twitter. You’ll see it). And Punk has been acting (he’s the lead in the new horror flick Girl on the Third Floor and he’s in the Rabid remake by the Soska Sisters). Punk could do this and, maybe, do a good job at it.

MichaelJaiWhiteFlaconRising

Michael Jai White: Michael Jai White is the total package when it comes to a Billy Jack remake. He’s a damn good actor, he’s a real deal martial artist, he’s directed two movies, and he’s been in at least one “political movie” (he was in the terrific TV movie about the civil rights movement Freedom Song). MJW would kick so much ass in this role. Of course, MJW always kicks ass in everything he does, but not enough people know that. I would love to see this happen.

EricJacobusBlindsided

Eric Jacobus: Jacobus is a martial artist, stunt performer, actor, and director who has made several awesome short films (the Rope a Dope shorts are amazing) and one great full length movie, Death Grip (check out my review of that movie here). Jacobus is also the star of the blind baker martial artist flick Blindsided: The Game, which you can watch for free on YouTube here). Jacobus would likely bring a sense of humor to the part, but he wouldn’t make it ridiculous. Will Ferrell would make it ridiculous. Jacobus would definitely make the part his own.

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Conclusion

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At the moment, Tom Laughlin and his Billy Jack creation can best be described as a thing of the past, something some people might remember but are not necessarily relevant to the modern movie watcher, and that’s a damn shame. Laughlin’s creation is exactly what the indie movie world claims to aspire to, and Billy Jack is the action hero that should inspire more movies and characters. Hopefully, one day, the world wakes up and figures out that what Laughlin and his collaborators did was important. How many true blue good guys are there in the world anymore? Not many. The world has become so insanely cynical that doing what Billy Jack did through four completed movies is a ridiculous anachronism. Fight the good fight because it needs to be fought? Who does that now?

Not enough people, unfortunately. But it could happen one day. Maybe. People might figure it out.

If you haven’t experienced the Billy Jack franchise, do yourself a favor and track it down and check it out. If you give all four flicks a chance your life will change for the better. I know mine did.

Experience Billy Jack. Experience it, experience it, experience it.

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Check out my Billy Jack reviews below:

The Born Losers

Billy Jack

The Trial of Billy Jack

Billy Jack Goes to Washington

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https://billyjack.com/

http://www.billyjackrights.com/about/

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Next Issue: Zombie 3!

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Well, I think that’ll be about it for now. Don’t forget to sign up with disqus if you want to comment on this article and any other 411 article. You know you want to, so just go do it.

B-movies rule. Always remember that.