Like Billy Jack, Judge Victor Valdivia is a Latino DVD reviewer and computer programmer who uses capoeira to fight injustice.
Our review of The Ultimate Billy Jack Collection, published January 17th, 2006, is also available.
The most unusual box-office successes of all time.
In 1967, the acting/writing/producing/directing team of Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor released The Born Losers, a low-budget independently produced film that seemed to be little more than yet another cash-in on the wildly popular biker movie craze. The Born Losers, however, was actually a Trojan horse: the film wasn't so much about the bikers, but about the man who ultimately fought them, a mysterious Indian loner named Billy Jack. When The Born Losers proved to be cheap and popular enough to warrant a sequel, Laughlin and Taylor launched a series of films in the '70s that utilized a bizarre but undeniably original mixture of martial arts, Indian mysticism, Western vistas, and hippie topicality. The Billy Jack films would become wildly popular in the '70s, but they haven't aged well at all. The flaws that were so easy to overlook back then are now far too prominent to ignore for modern viewers. These may serve as notable anthropological cultural relics, but as films, they're way too painful to watch.
Facts of the Case
Here are the four films collected in this set:
• The Born Losers
• Billy Jack
• The Trial of Billy Jack
• Billy Jack Goes to Washington
Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor deserve a considerable amount of credit. Functioning as completely independent and autonomous filmmakers (and working under pseudonyms), they wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the Billy Jack films while insisting on complete creative control. This was not an idle threat; the couple had no qualms about fighting the Hollywood establishment with any means they could use. Seizing negatives, filing lawsuits, battling studio executives—Laughlin and Taylor fought hard to make their films their way, and, for better and for worse, no one could ever accuse them of selling out to the suits.
If only earnestness was enough. The Billy Jack films are completely auteur-driven vehicles for Laughlin's ideas, but maybe he should have taken some outside input, because they have not aged well at all. They're turgid, self-indulgent, ponderous, badly dated, and, on one or two occasions, unintentionally funny. Ironically enough, these films were dismissed as brain-dead action fodder back in their heyday, but today, the action scenes, as meager as they are, are actually the most entertaining. It's the ham-fisted moralizing, the sloppy plotting, the tin-eared dialogue, and the clumsy editing that make these films so painful to watch today.
Actually, by today's standards, the Billy Jack films barely qualify as action films; you'll be surprised at how little action they have. Billy Jack and Billy Jack Goes to Washington each have barely one martial-arts scene, and The Trial of Billy Jack has a grand total of two. They're well-choreographed and shot, making them the bright spots in the movies, and are both exciting to watch and easy to follow. If these films were simply about Billy Jack punching and kicking his way to acceptance for his peers, they would actually be more enjoyable. Unfortunately, Laughlin and Taylor had big ambitions to stuff as many topical references and debates as possible into each script, rather than relying solely on action.
It's these ambitions that increasingly undermine the series. The Billy Jack films could not, in any way, be considered examples of taut filmmaking. They meander painfully, wandering around interminable scenes that are drawn out twice as long as they need to be, incorporating subplots and characters that are created and then abandoned, and hammering home points over and over again, long after viewers have already gotten the idea. Billy Jack, for instance, wastes a lot of time setting up Posner as the evil capitalist kingpin of the town, a man so powerful that even the local sheriffs jump on his command. Endless scene after endless scene shows him controlling an army of townspeople with his wealth, making him an ideal villain for the '60s counterculture. It makes no sense, then, when he completely disappears from the film well before the end. He isn't killed or disarmed. He just…stops appearing. Similarly, how many scenes of small-town rednecks harassing, insulting, and tormenting the peaceable students of Billy Jack's school do we really need? How many times can Billy and Jean have the exact same argument about pacifism versus violence, especially since every film (except the last one) ends with Billy kicking everybody else's ass? The Trial of Billy Jack is the worst offender: it clocks in at an unendurable three hours for no good reason, since it's essentially a scene-by-scene retread of Billy Jack, only with more excruciatingly slow pacing. Both films clearly mean to depict the cultural clashes of the early-'70s; Trial even has a climax that's clearly inspired by the 1970 Kent State shootings. The clumsy writing and self-indulgent directing, however, make it hard to get whatever point Laughlin and Taylor are trying to make. Such amateurish self-indulgence could easily be forgiven in the '70s; youth audiences in particular were simply pleased that someone seemed to be on their side. Today, though, it's simply unwatchable.
The Born Losers and Billy Jack Goes to Washington tell different stories than the other two films. They don't, however, tell them particularly well. In addition to suffering from typically slow-as-molasses storytelling, both films are hopelessly silly. The Born Losers, for instance, pits Billy Jack against a biker gang that seems laughable even by 1960s standards. No matter how much they glower, it's hard to be too scared of bikers who talk way more than they fight and who wear cute little lapel buttons with the names of drugs (like LSD) on them. Billy Jack Goes to Washington is, as its title implies, a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Billy Jack as a Senator. Though there are a few trenchant insights about politics, they're mostly overshadowed by the utter ridiculousness of the plot. Given that the previous three films have established Billy Jack as someone considered such a threat to the establishment that he is constantly getting arrested and even imprisoned, why on earth does the governor think it's a good idea to appoint this radical loose cannon to the U.S. Senate? By this point, Laughlin and Taylor's insistence in shoehorning topicality in to the series demonstrates just how badly they misread why people actually responded to Billy Jack in the first place. He's a mysterious action hero, not a stand-in for everyman, and even fans who liked the first real Billy Jack film will likely find this one ludicrous.
Even if you do like these films, however, this box set is still not a good purchase. The whole series was issued in 2005 in a deluxe box set called The Ultimate Billy Jack Collection. That set contained four discs, one with each film, and a bonus fifth disc of additional extras. Each film also came with two commentary tracks, one recorded for the films' initial DVD release in 2000 with Laughlin and Taylor, and one recorded in 2005 with Laughlin, Taylor, and their son Frank as moderator. All this set does is reissue that earlier set, except without the fifth disc. The commentary tracks are worth hearing, even for non-fans, as they're packed with information and stories about the process of filmmaking. Without the fifth disc, though, this set is pointless, especially when Frank Laughlin repeatedly mentions some of the great extras he's included on it in the commentaries. The transfers for the films are also identical to that earlier release. All are anamorphic and most of them look quite stunning, with beautiful vivid colors and minimal grain that show off the shots of desert vistas beautifully. The one exception is The Born Losers, which shows its age—it's badly scratched-up and damaged. The films each come with both original mono mixes and 2005 Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mixes. The surround mixes are quite crisp and clear. They're not especially bass-heavy, since these films are more about dialogue than action (believe it or not) but they do make good use of the surrounds, especially in outdoor scenes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is a reason, apart from the brief glimpses of action, that these films were so successful with young audiences when they were released. These films were really amongst the few that addressed youth culture in a non-patronizing or dismissive way. Sure, it's possible to argue that Laughlin and Taylor were attempting to cash in on hippie culture, but judging by their comments on the commentary tracks, they really did believe in depicting young people as real characters. The excessively topical references (such as to Nixon and Wounded Knee) and hip slang make these films hopelessly dated, and the writing and directing are way too clumsy to really be compelling, but as relics of their time and place, these films do at least give more than lip service to the '60s counterculture, and are of some value to students of the era. Film students, on the other hand, probably don't need to see them.
There's absolutely no reason to buy this set. If you're actually a fan of these films, then you deserve the original 2005 set with the bonus disc, because this set is identical except without the bonus disc. Otherwise, you'd do better to preview Billy Jack, if only to get a feel for the zeitgeist of the era, before you decide to watch any of the others. The Billy Jack series has aged very badly and isn't even good for camp value—the films here are too sluggish and ponderous for that. Laughlin and Taylor deserve respect for their ambitions and earnestness, but their execution is sorely lacking.
Guilty of demonstrating how badly ambitious topicality can date when it's removed from its original context.
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Perp Profile, The Born Losers
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Scales of Justice, The Trial Of Billy Jack
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Scales of Justice, Billy Jack Goes To Washington
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