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Case Number 08389

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The Ultimate Billy Jack Collection

The Born Losers
1967 // 113 Minutes // Rated PG
Billy Jack
1971 // 114 Minutes // Rated PG
The Trial Of Billy Jack
1974 // 170 Minutes // Rated PG
Billy Jack Goes To Washington
1977 // 155 Minutes // Rated PG
Released by Ventura Distribution
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // January 17th, 2006

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All Rise...

When Judge Bill Gibron sees a DVD box set like this, highlighting the amazing motion picture peculiarities of Tom Laughlin and his Billy Jack character, he just goes BER-SERK!

Editor's Note

Our review of The Complete Billy Jack Collection, published August 28th, 2009, is also available.

The Charge

On the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away.

Opening Statement

You don't really see it much anymore—movies made out of personal conviction and individual ideology. Sure, some may argue that documentarians like Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore do nothing but craft their cinema on strong principles and unabashed jingoism. And certain fiction filmmakers also wear their politics and points of view right out on their sleeves for all to see—be it George Clooney or Sidney Lumet. But none of these motion picture producers can hold a crazed candle to Tom Laughlin and his lover, life partner, and wife Delores Taylor. After meeting in college, the two headed out to California where they hoped to make a movie about small-town injustice against human beings—specifically, Native Americans.

A dozen years later, Tom was adrift in episodic television and an array of bit parts while Delores was caring for their kids. A lucky break and a burgeoning genre market allowed Laughlin his first chance at championing his causes. The result was an amazing run of four films—The Born Losers, Billy Jack, The Trial of Billy Jack, and Billy Jack Goes to Washington—that redefined the independent movie in ways still felt today. Previously available in a less-than-stellar box set, we now get a double dip featuring fresh transfers, a wealth of added content, and newly remixed 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. But the best aspect of this new collection is a chance to see Laughlin's work. The Billy Jack films are the very essence of outsider cinema, startling examples of the meeting between message and old-fashioned filmmaking.

Facts of the Case

Over the course of his career, Tom Laughlin has directed over a dozen films. Many of them dealt with simmering social issues like juvenile delinquency, illicit love, and social disorder. But it wasn't until he hit on the idea of mixing political philosophy with a standard black hat/white hat western ethos that he became a kind of angry auteur legend. Like the half-breed character he created, Laughlin found himself split in two—one portion was a hyper-successful box-office giant (the Billy Jack movies paved the way for the blockbusters to come), the other a sensitive, complicated man of many interests and ideas. Eventually, he would leave the film business when his methodology of marketing and media manipulation became the standard. No longer tip-top dog, Laughlin looked to go out on top, while maintaining the Billy Jack mythos.

The box set offered here is a reconfiguration of a previously available collection. The main differences are the new transfers and new commentaries. The movies remain the same. The plots are as follows:

The Born Losers (1967)
When a California coastal town is overrun by a murderous, mayhem-happy motorcycle gang, the citizenry turn to the police for protection. Sadly, the ineffectual cops want nothing to do with this bunch of bullies. Of course, this gives the goons free reign and they end up raping several young girls, including a society swell named Vicky Barrington. Intimidating their victims into not testifying, the gang goes gonzo and the locals are livid, demanding retribution. Their only hope? An ex-Green Beret Marine who's part-Native American named Billy Jack. With his message of peace and his hands (and feet) of steel, this martial arts master will clean up the town—one grimy biker at a time.

Billy Jack (1971)
Over at the Freedom School, headmistress Jean Roberts has been accomplishing marvelous things. In this progressive educational environment, tolerance and love are stressed, and the children begin to believe in a world free of bias or injustice. Naturally, the local town is a corrupt haven of redneck bigots and graft-groping fat cats, none worse than Mr. Posner and his rape-happy son Bernard. When he's not desecrating the school's Native American students, Bernie is violating as many gals as he can. Of course, Jean needs a champion and her half-breed, ex-Marine boyfriend Billy Jack is just the answer. He uses his feet to literally kick ass, and his wits to beat Posner and his felonious son once and for all.

The Trial of Billy Jack (1974)
Told in flashback, an injured Jean Roberts relates the story of how the Freedom School became another Kent State. While Billy Jack was in the Big House, the unorthodox learning center underwent tremendous growth. It even got into the business of muckraking journalism. When Mr. Posner, the big banker with substantial mining interests on the Indian Reservation starts putting pressure on the Natives to give up their claims, Jean and her crew go to bat for them. This gets the "Freedom" fighters labeled "subversives" by none other than the U.S. government, and soon, martial law is declared. It is up to that pissed-off pacifist Billy Jack to step in and set things right—before everyone dies.

Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977)
When a senior Senator from his district is struck down by a heart attack, our Native American martial arts expert Billy Jack soon finds himself in the oddest of places—the U.S. Congress. As part of a diabolical plan to get a questionable nuclear power plant built near a nasty fault line, the Governor and a powerful political boss named Bailey decide to dupe this honest man into taking the dead man's place. It is only for a couple of months and lifelong friend Senator Paine will be along to help. No sooner does he arrive in Washington, however, than Billy finds himself the center of controversy. He dares speak out about the proposed plant and, when he won't back down, he is framed for ethics violations. His only hope? Filibuster the Senate floor until a secret report on the dastardly deal can be revealed.

The Evidence

God bless Tom Laughlin. Seriously, has there ever been another before or since him? This independent iconoclast, a man who carved his own cinematic legend out of a wounded heart and an open mind, literally changed the way movies were made, marketed, and merchandised before a certain Mr. Spielberg and an equally cunning Mr. Lucas discovered that, they too, could share in this mass distribution strategy. The '70s certainly begat the blockbuster, the multi-million-dollar movie that broke records with multiple return trips to the theater. But it wasn't Jaws or Star Wars that started the trend. With Billy Jack (released twice, in 1971 and 1973) and its sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), Laughlin showed that word of mouth and clever commercials were all a movie needed to get noticed. It helped if the film was actually good as well and, while no one would mistake them for masterpieces (well, maybe one of them), the Billy Jack films were perfectly-pitched crowd pleasers, a return to the silent days of easily recognizable villains and heart-hardy champions, with just a little political pandering thrown in to make the whole mess meaningful.

The result is a trio of completely original and novel films (The Born Losers is more AIP than antiestablishment). Individual causes are easily recognizable (the plight of Native Americans in Billy Jack, the campus killings of Trial, and the government corruption and nuclear menace of Washington) and artistic goals are realized in greater aesthetic leaps along the way. Like a pointed pilgrim's progress, personal perspective soon comes before anything else in Laughlin's cinematic lexicon. By the time his character—and his films—get to D.C., the Billy Jack oeuvre is awash in more liberal lamenting and conspiracy theorizing than all of Oliver Stone's output combined. Heck, The Trial of Billy Jack makes JFK look like an Agatha Christie mystery. Indeed, almost every Laughlin film interchanges assertions with exposition so frequently that we don't know if the movie's messages center on environmentalism, anti-war sentiments, consciousness raising as a social tool, or experimental education, government corruption, shady land deals, nuclear non-safety, or irrational race baiting—or all of them at once.

The best way to approach these films then is from initial offering to final flailing attempt at relevance. In between, we will see the making of a myth and the deconstruction of the audience-friendly revenge picture. It is safe to say that the genre would never be the same once Laughlin and Taylor tackled it. Let's begin with:

The Born Losers

It's telling that the first film featuring Billy Jack does not bear his name. Knowing that biker pictures were hot drive-in fodder, Laughlin saw his chance to introduce the noble Native American and earn a few brownie points toward getting his real obsession, Billy Jack, made. He kept the story simple—motorcycle maniacs terrorize town, Billy braves their wrath to restore order—and thus began the process of peppering his screenplays with all manner of personal protest. Though the agenda is harder to see in Losers than in other Laughlin laments, it's there: in the ineffectual police work of the Sheriff; the by-the-book bullspit of the District Attorney; the "danger is cool" delirium of the local youth, and the unaware cluelessness of the perplexed parents. One of the secrets to the success of Laughlin's movies is that they become a mirror of sorts, a chance for the director to replicate the evils of society back at us and ask if we see ourselves in the reflection. Billy Jack is not as pronounced here as he is in other films. Indeed, Laughlin doesn't even let him kick ass as much as raise a rifle and read people the riot act. In essence, this is exploitation stripped of its gratuity and made more socially aware. As with all the Billy Jack films, the story here is not just about our champion. It's really about the people he interacts with.

If Losers does then belong to anyone, it is to two other performers—Elizabeth James as headed-for-trouble Vicky Barrington and Jeremy Slate as bike gang leader Danny. Each offers a multidimensional element to what are otherwise stock characters. Slate is supposed to be slimy evil incarnate, a soulless thug running ramshackle over a scared California town, but he does have a heart, believes in a kind of backward sense of loyalty, and loses his way when his sainted brother becomes a pawn in a pathetic game of egos. Vicky is pretty poison indeed. With a body that makes men drop their drawers (Laughlin kindly keeps her is a scant string bikini throughout most of the film's first half) and a sarcastic mouth that allows her to hold her own with the circling criminals, she shows a dualism that is part of Laughlin's metaphysical design. As he will explore later in his other films, there are two aspects to every individual—and every circumstance. Call it yin and yang, or positive and negative, but the Billy Jack oeuvre will come to represent the human condition in all its scattered, distinct mannerisms. Our hero may take a backseat here, but his creator's concepts are moving front and center.

Billy Jack

Billy Jack is a movie born out of prejudice, pure and simple. It sets up a clear distinction between a heartless town filled with unbridled bigots, and a hopeful hippie movement (the Freedom School is like a commune with improv comedy) that doesn't differentiate between skin color or class. Then add in the growing Native American revolution taking place across the country, a completely gratuitous rape, and lots of repeatable dialogue, and you've got a crowd-pleaser that works as a thought provoker as well. Part of the power in Billy Jack's design is that it doesn't offer easy answers. When Billy beats up the spoiled Posner boy for picking on a couple of kids in an ice cream shop, he doesn't save the day and get away scot-free. Instead, he pays a price, as do all who stand up in the name of justice and tolerance. It's this notion of reciprocity, the concept that no good deed goes unpunished—and conversely, no bad deed lands without some begrudging benefit—that makes this film an exercise in intellectual as well as physical payback.

Certainly, the scenes of Billy standing up for the citizenry resonate the loudest. There is also some incredibly dated material here (San Francisco comedy troupe The Committee—featuring a very young Howard Hesseman—does its social satire shtick) and there are times when the film purposefully veers off into ancillary subplot nonsense that really doesn't do anything to advance the narrative. Still, this is the movie that begat the icon, that created the true Billy Jack ideal of the black-hatted, headstrong ex-Marine with a mind made hard by a world indifferent to the pains of its most passive members. Unlike the vigilante of Born Losers, or the future fussbudget of Washington, this is the bold, bravado-filled Billy, a man willing to risk it all to stand on principle and protect the innocent. During the film's third act, when Billy is out to save a young girl from her abusive, prejudiced papa (who just so happens to be a police officer), you can see the urgency in Laughlin's performance. Billy Jack is not really a character for him, but a frame of mind. Yet, when confronted with an organized attempt to capture—or kill—his hero, Laughlin lets the layers develop. Along with his turn in Trial, this writer/director proves that it's his performance chops, as well as his political ideologies, that make these movies so memorable.

The Trial of Billy Jack

If there is a misguided masterpiece in this set, it is the stellar, insane The Trial of Billy Jack. With the capital to realize his most extreme vision, and a hot-button storyline that suggests as much as it outright says, Laughlin turned the Vietnam War and its country-dividing contradictions into a passive-aggressive paean to the power of protest and the Establishment's determination to silence it. Making this a personal as well as pragmatic journey—Billy Jack is freed from prison and goes on a spiritual quest to meld his violent and peace-loving personalities—there is a great deal of mysticism in this film. Perhaps one of the reasons why this movie went on to gross over $50 million during its initial run is because it spoke to a young populace still reeling from the discovery that institutions like the Presidency (Watergate), the military (Vietnam), and their local officials (Kent State) were flawed…sometimes fatally. With its advice toward inner acceptance and its outward exposés of injustice and social sin, The Trial of Billy Jack practically tapped into the subconscious of its audience and visualized its most prevalent fears—and its most determined set of responses.

That doesn't mean that today, 30 years later, it says the same thing. Now, it's like a diatribe designed by David Lynch, an all-out surreal sensation with elements so outlandish you can't imagine how anyone thought of them. Any movie that would feature police officers patting down (and feeling up) a bus full of school children, an abused boy with only one hand who comes out of his shell and learns to play the guitar, a recreation of the My Lai massacre, and a bizarre marching band concert, not to mention a trip into the cave of the dead, is bucking for guilty-pleasure greatness. Trial also has some of the best Billy Jack butt-kicking of the four films. There is one scene where our hero takes on two dozen men (he has an Asian jujitsu instructor as a sidekick) and its pre-wire fu at its most mesmerizing, with lots of kicks to the head and flying formations. When our town tycoon tyrant whips out a gun and starts shooting, you want to cry foul. After all, it was just fun fisticuffs up to that point. But the power of the bullet is at the center of this story and it creates an ending that's both outrageous and ominous. As the standoff at the Freedom School escalates, you just know ammunition is going to fly. It's the why, the how, and who gets hurt that sends this film into the stratosphere. As iconic as any other masterful movie from the '70s, The Trial of Billy Jack is a lost classic that should be experienced at least once in every film fan's life.

Billy Jack Goes to Washington

It's not a bad idea, really. Take the ultimate cinematic statement about the little guy taking on the definitive city hall—i.e., the Federal Government—and cast the legendary Billy Jack as your naive young knave in the wicked woods and you should have a stellar celebration of power to the people, right? Well, not quite. Maybe it's the new target of Laughlin's growing obsessions (the "promise" of nuclear power) or the desire to follow the original Frank Capra film's formula right down to the finale filibuster, but something about Billy Jack Goes to Washington is not quite right. Sure, it's got ass kicking (Billy takes on a bevy of black "agents" sent to rape his woman and her female friend) and the typical scenes of Billy going ballistic over obvious injustices right under his nose (Mr. Jack is one of the few people to still be shocked that dirty dealing goes on behind the closed doors of the Congress!). It has headstrong female leads (Delores Taylor and her Jean character kind of take a backseat to Lucie Arnaz's senatorial assistant with some secret information) and an ending full of piss, vinegar, and all manner of anti-establishment vitriol.

Somewhere along the line, this movie gets muddled. It wanders away from a great deal of what made Billy Jack and especially Trial such outstanding and original treats. Since the Native American aspect is underplayed to the point where it's practically non-existent, all of the psychedelic peace-pipe parameters are gone. Also, the villains are indeed vile, but they are just white-collar wicked, hurting Billy and his bunch with smear campaigns, trumped-up ethics charges, and drawn-out subcommittee hearings. While the current corrupt clime within Capital Hill more than warrants this film's timely tenets, Billy Jack Goes to Washington still feels like a toothless take on graft and corporate dishonesty. Call it All The President's Medicine Men or Nag the Dog, but it still boils down to a political outsider unable to truly buck the beleaguered system. If you can get behind Billy's attempt to turn the tide of power-broking back toward the citizenry, then you will thoroughly enjoy this journey into the heart of Washington darkness, but others may be wondering what happened to the Billy Jack they've come to know and adore.

In retrospect, the Billy Jack movies are unlike anything made in today's modern moviemaking dialectics. As stated before, it is hard to imagine another fiction filmmaker that puts so much of himself and his own idiosyncratic ideology into his work. And the funny thing is that Laughlin doesn't go for the direct hit. He doesn't make legitimate dramas about the events at Wounded Knee, nor does he purposefully recreate something like Kent State. Instead, he goes behind the events to find the root causes and unseen sins, and then uses those as the foundation for his missives. That is why prejudice is given a face, not just a facet. That is why hate has a heart as well as a monstrous mindset. Though current crowds might look at these movies and wonder what the hell Laughlin and his good lady wife were thinking when they came up with the Freedom School concept, or why Billy Jack's spirit quest looks like outtakes from some kind of counterculture spelunking, they still speak to a generation awash in the post-'60s fallout. And if you avoid the dated dimensions and simply listen to what Laughlin and Taylor really have to say, you may actually learn something important along the way. Billy Jack was once sold with the tagline that said it had to be "experienced," it couldn't just be explained. The same can be said for the many amazing moments in this box set.

One of the key selling points for this determined double dip is the magnificent new transfers given to each film. Previous DVD incarnations contained old, defective prints and, on occasion, full-frame frauds that destroyed the original aspect ratios, but these new versions will definitely change all that. Born Losers and Billy Jack are presented in pristine 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers, while the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen images for The Trial of Billy Jack and Billy Jack Goes to Washington are equally flawless. The colors are crisp, the details dynamic, and the depth so magnificent that you'll actually get vertigo watching Laughlin's patented helicopter shots (the man loves to show the lay of the land from the air). There is still some dirt, an occasional editing error, and an aged look to the production, but these new discs are head and shoulders above what was previously available.

On the sound side, the new 5.1 soundtracks are a mixed blessing. They do nothing to help the dialogue (more on this later), and only enhance the folly of some of the musical numbers. There is a directional and near-immersive quality to the aural elements, but there is really no way to correct badly-recorded original material. The conversations occasionally get lost in spatial echoes and distortion drives many an action scene. Of the four, Trial sounds the best, with Billy Jack, Born Losers, and Goes to Washington pulling up the rear. Again, they are only as good as the substandard stock will allow.

As for the promised extras, each disc is laden with two commentaries. One comes from the original DVD release and features Laughlin and Taylor. The second, recorded in 2005, features the duo again with their son Frank as moderator/mediator. A lot of the same information is offered on both tracks, with the former being far more genial than the latter. Here's a warning—Laughlin hates George W. Bush and takes every opportunity he can to criticize him. Since each film is loaded with political propositions, this gives Laughlin plenty of chances to chastise "W." He is very open and honest about what it took to make these movies, and has a few insightful anecdotes to add. Delores is along to receive praise (her husband loves everything and anything she does) and includes her own recollections about certain scenes. Overall, the discussion is brisk, brave, and laced with self-serving bravado. Laughlin is damn proud of these films (and the country that let him make them) and he is out to vigorously defend and dissect them.

The fifth DVD in this plastic Digistack collectors case is a bonus disc of added features. The best is a 14-minute "mini-documentary" on Tom and Delores's life and career. Told via animation and archival snapshots (not interviews, sadly), it is a wonderfully weird and informative piece. Some of the creative TV ads used for the release of Billy Jack are included, as are a series of photos. Using the DVD-Rom aspect, you can view storyboards, script pages, and even cut some fight footage into your own ass-kicking action scene. All in all, this non-inclusive collection of supplements merely whets our appetite for more Laughlin goodness. Luckily, the man has a massive Web site (linked in the Accomplices) where more personal information can be gleaned.

Closing Statement

Believe it or not, Laughlin is planning another Billy Jack film. Well into his 70s, he says it will feature himself and Taylor as "spirit guides" for a younger Billy and Jean to learn from and emulate. Then this new couple will take on several of today's most controversial issues, including the War on Terror and the declining morals of modern teenagers. It will even use Forrest Gump-style special effects to place the older version of the dynamic duo into modern footage and vice versa. Leave it to this media mixer to lose none of his social steam even after several years outside the legitimate limelight. Whatever the fate of his new Jack joint, the original films still stand as a testament to one man's temerity and tenacity. All marketing and distribution innovations aside, the Billy Jack movies are a collection of quasi-classics which will continue to be looked at in the years to come. No other movies so perfectly capture their era, as well as the mindset of those who made them, than this quartet of pointed political commentaries. Just like his creation, one tin soldier still rides after all other social scoundrels have faded away. His name is Tom Laughlin, and his movies are a primer in personal conviction and passion. So tune in, turn on, and then go out and do something about the world around us. Billy and his benefactor wouldn't want it any other way.

The Verdict

Not guilty. Billy Jack and his primary patron, Tom Laughlin, are free to go.

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Scales of Justice, The Born Losers

Video: 90
Audio: 88
Extras: 85
Acting: 89
Story: 85
Judgment: 88

Perp Profile, The Born Losers

Studio: Ventura Distribution
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1967
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Distinguishing Marks, The Born Losers

• Commentary Track Featuring Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor
• Commentary Track Featuring Frank Laughlin, Tom Laughlin, and Delores Taylor

Scales of Justice, Billy Jack

Video: 92
Audio: 88
Extras: 85
Acting: 92
Story: 88
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile, Billy Jack

Studio: Ventura Distribution
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Distinguishing Marks, Billy Jack

• Commentary Track Featuring Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor
• Commentary Track Featuring Frank Laughlin, Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor

Scales of Justice, The Trial Of Billy Jack

Video: 95
Audio: 90
Extras: 85
Acting: 95
Story: 95
Judgment: 95

Perp Profile, The Trial Of Billy Jack

Studio: Ventura Distribution
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 170 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Distinguishing Marks, The Trial Of Billy Jack

• Commentary Track Featuring Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor
• Commentary Track Featuring Frank Laughlin, Tom Laughlin, and Delores Taylor

Scales of Justice, Billy Jack Goes To Washington

Video: 85
Audio: 80
Extras: 85
Acting: 88
Story: 80
Judgment: 84

Perp Profile, Billy Jack Goes To Washington

Studio: Ventura Distribution
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 155 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Distinguishing Marks, Billy Jack Goes To Washington

• Commentary Track Featuring Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor
• Commentary Track Featuring Frank Laughlin, Tom Laughlin, and Delores Taylor
• "Making Of" Mini-Documentary
• Billy Jack Trivia Game
• Television Spots
• Gallery of Production Stills
• Cut-Your-Own-Version Fight Scene Footage
• Script Elements
• Storyboards

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