A Good Film And A Bad Film At The Exact Same Time
Do you remember The Film? The first one that felt like Art instead of commerce? The first Filmmaker that made you want to be a cineaste, a critic, a scholar, or a filmmaker? I wish my The Film was one of Ozu’s delicately-observed visions of generational disconnect or one of Powell and Pressburger’s glorious colour fantasias. But, embarrassing as it might be, I’m stuck with a movie about a half-breed Vietnam vet who uses hapkido to protect hippies at a “Freedom School” from bigoted townsfolk. That’s right. My The Film was Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack.
The story, such as it is, is full of weird out-of-left-field plot reversals, inconsistent characterizations, and contrivances. And it’s not just the concept or the plot of writer-director-star Tom Laughlin’s surprise blockbuster that leaves one wanting. To say that the film has some technical limitations is to be extremely kind. The blood dribbling out of Laughlin’s mouth after a pivotal fight scene is pink to the point of fluorescence. That same fight scene relies on the fancy-footwork of stunt double/hapkido expert Bong Soo Han, who, being thinner, shorter, and Korean, looks almost nothing like Laughlin.
And I’m not sure how much this has been fixed in the picture’s new restoration, but the audio mixing always seemed pretty poor. Witness the spiking when Bernard (David Roya) tells his father that he was scared or strain to hear what’s being said during the film’s many bits of improvised theater. During the song “When will Billy love me?”, two girls discuss the hero’s love life and it is clearly dubbed in after, not because it synchs poorly but because their lines have a very different and very loud room noise that comes blaring in during their lines and stops abruptly when they stop speaking. And that’s not the only scene where that happens.
Perversely, I’m kind of hoping that the restoration doesn’t fix those audio problems, as they were the things that first endeared me to Billy Jack. It’s the first film I can remember where I could see, or, in this case, hear, the seams. Savvy filmgoers talk about detecting a filmmaker’s touch in his or her films, but this was the first time I could see the filmmaker’s fingerprints, somewhat smudged, and the scotch tape, somewhat frayed, that was holding the film together.
The entire production feels cobbled together, a vibe that’s exemplified by the casual documentary-style footage that weaves its way throughout the picture and at times is directly at odds with the more formal if still unembellished dramatic scenes and the obviously staged action sequences (really, every member of the redneck mob found a tree to hide behind in broad daylight, really?). With apologies to the late George Harrison, it really feels like a hand-made film, like something you’d find at a craft show: rough but energetic, inelegant but highly personal.
That personal, idiosyncratic touch comes through in the structure. In most action films, plot is paramount. One tense or exciting sequence follows another, building to a climax. While some of the better action films give us a little more room to breathe and aren’t quite so mercenary about it, as a general rule they don’t stop the plot for five minutes of (admittedly amusing) street theater with Howard Hesseman and The Committee.
Such a scene takes place in Billy Jack. There are, in fact, several improv/theater scenes, scenes that weren’t merely improvised by the cast but are presented as deliberate performances. Watch as the kids at the Freedom School stage a nativity with a black Jesus and witness the Star-Spangled Banner skit that offers a pointed if obvious satirical skewering of mob mentality when a man refusing to sing along is beaten and spat upon by his fellow Americans as they sing of “the land of the free”.
The plot pauses to listen in on about a half-dozen songs, mostly of political-protest. Billy Jack’s central conflict over Barbara, a pregnant teenager who was hiding at the Freedom School from her abusive father (a deputy), takes a back seat for roughly ten minutes for a city council meeting free-for-all and role-playing exercises. When Billy Jack does return to the center of the picture, he’s in preparation for an ancient Indian ritual in which he is bitten repeatedly by a snake in order to induce a vision. Surviving the snake’s venom, he becomes a conduit for the shaman Wovoka, makes a long speech, and teaches the Freedom Schoolers a dance of peace.
And none of that, really, has anything to do with the plot. I would call it the most digressive action picture I’ve ever seen if not for its sequel, Trial of Billy Jack, which runs nearly three hours long and manages to squeeze a Viet Nam flashback, a few more folk songs, and a spiritual quest that culminates in Billy Jack punching Jesus in the face (!) into its politically-charged Kent State shooting conspiracy storyline. Trial of Billy Jack was actually the third film in a series that began with exploitation biker flick The Born Losers and ends (at the moment) with Billy Jack Goes to Washington, a Frank Capra revision that was produced by Frank Capra Jr. (who would later deny that the remake was ever made).
I bring up the other films in the series because it puts the digressive qualities of Billy Jack into some context. The Born Losers might have some loopy moments and dialogue, but its sordid plot of rape and retribution unfolds in a more-or-less straightforward fashion, proving that Laughlin was perfectly capable of writing and directing a film that played by the rules of the genre. The digression in Billy Jack then is not evidence of an inability to stick to a plot, but an unwillingness to do so, an unwillingness confirmed by the glorious mess of Trial of Billy Jack.
Instead of concentrating on the plot, then, Laughlin concentrates on the things that interest him: sketch comedy and street theater, Indian spirituality and Jungian psychology, politics and personalities. Billy Jack, then, is an extremely personal film, one that wears its maker’s obsessions and idiosyncrasies on its sleeve, the structure of which is dictated by his personality, the style of which by the same. If that’s not the definition of auteurist cinema, I don’t know what is.
There’s still the matter, however, of the loopy plot twists, the atrocious dialogue, and the schizoid characterizations. And yet…
And yet those plot twists aren’t quite so loopy, as they come out of the characters, possessing fluidity and a casualness that mimics life-as-we-know-it. Much of the plot twists come down to the indecision of Sheriff Cole. It is Cole who suggests that it’s best to hide the deputy’s daughter at the Freedom School and Cole who, when the deputy gets wind of it, presses schoolmaster Jean to turn the girl over. It’s Cole who impotently reminds his deputy that it’s illegal to hunt wild mustang. It’s Cole who doesn’t press any charges against Billy Jack’s redneck assailants, so in fear is he of The Richest Man In Town, Posner. When Posner and the deputy kidnap two of the students, there’s almost a feeling that Cole would let them get away with that as well; it’s only because one of those students, Martin, ends up murdered by Posner’s son Bernard that Cole threatens to actually do anything (and, since the movie is called Billy Jack and not Sheriff Cole, it’s no surprise that the former beats him to the punch—or, to be more accurate, the karate-chop-death-blow to the neck).
When I wrote above of “inconsistent characterizations” and “weird out-of-left-field plot reversals”, I was thinking mostly of this. But, if you stop and think about it, Cole’s characterization is not inconsistent so much as it is realistic and ambiguous: a portrait of a deeply conflicted and fundamentally weak person who morally see-saws between one indecisive position and another.
The film is equally ambiguous about Bernard Posner, the film’s true villain. The deputy and the elder Posner are really stock bogeymen, Evil Establishment Figures Who Kill Wild Mustangs and Tell Hippies To Get a Haircut. They don’t commit acts nearly as atrocious as Bernard, who murders Martin, pours flour on small Indian children to make them “white”, tries to rape one woman before succeeding with another, and, right before his demise, is in bed with a naked thirteen-year-old. He is truly a hateful, evil figure. And yet…
And yet, when his father wants him to take the first shot at those wild mustangs, he hides in the car. When a gun is put in his hand, he refuses. Talking with one of his buddies, the perhaps aptly named Dinosaur, he ponders why someone who hates his old man as much as he does wants to do the one thing that will impress him. Confronted by Billy Jack and Jean in the midst of his attempted rape, he’s sufficiently frightened that he drives his new sports car into the lake. In the scene following, as his father demands to know why he’d do something so stupid, take a look at the mixture of fear, shame, and anger on display.
You can’t help but hate Bernard for what he does, yet you can’t help but sympathize with the conflicted emotions broiling inside him. We feel sorry for him even as he transforms in front of our eyes into a bigger and bigger bastard. A neat trick, that.
It’s also one that Laughlin pulled off before, in The Born Losers. The villains, particularly the gang’s leader, are given complexity and are treated with sympathy, if not affection. As their actions become more terrible, we are almost shocked by their capacity for evil and almost dismayed the justice Billy Jack dishes out (even as we recognize the necessity for it). Laughlin has us rooting for both sides at once.
If this effect is more psychologically disturbing in The Born Losers and more dramatically effecting in Billy Jack, it is actually in the latter that it proves perhaps a bit more problematic. That scene that ends with Bernard driving his car into the lake begins with said car at the lakeside with Bernard and a Freedom School student known as Miss False Eye-Lashes seated inside. Trying to browbeat information out of her as to the whereabouts of Barbara, Bernard pulls out a knife and forces her to remove her blouse. He then cuts off her brassiere with the knife and proceeds to grope her breasts before Billy Jack and Jean arrive on the scene.
Now, dear reader, what do you think, even in the perhaps less enlightened seventies, the reaction of Billy Jack and Jean will be to this horrific tableau? Mouths aghast in sorrow and pity, or perhaps brows furrowed and teeth gritted in anger? Well, you’d be wrong. Horribly, terribly wrong.
Instead, they laugh about it, as does the film. “You know what he reminds me of?” asks Billy Jack. “A little monkey. Posner’s little monkey, trying to get his hands into all the pies.” That’s right: silly attempted rapist! What a maroon! The would-be victim is also treated with humor and derision. Told to get out of the car and grab her clothes, she asks if Billy Jack is “going to look” at her nude bosom. He rolls his eyes: “Probably.”
Like the street theater and folk songs, it can be politely said that this scene hasn’t aged particularly well. And yet, in a strange way, it’s also greatly responsible for the horror Bernard elicits from us when he later rapes Jean and kills Martin. The scene invites us to laugh at him, just as it invites us to identify with the fear and indecision that compels him to drive his car into the lake, just as the film has asked us to understand him when he blusters his way into bigotry and sympathize with him as he’s bullied by his father.
David Roya’s performance as Bernard is easily the most interesting and compelling in Billy Jack, but it’s not the best or the most convincing: that honor would have to go to Delores Taylor as Jean. Taylor also served as the co-writer and producer of the Billy Jack films, which should come as no surprise since she is Laughlin’s wife, his partner in both life and art. (As I’m also part of a husband-and-wife filmmaking team, this might serve as another point of inspiration and personal identification for me.)
The love story between Billy Jack and Jean does not unfold or develop in romantic idylls or snappy patter but simply is; we’re watching two people who love each other as they argue, worry, joke, and stand next to one another. The fact that Laughlin and Taylor are married in real-life is not incidental to the picture and the lead performances within it but rather it is essential. Even those scenes in which Jean appears and Billy Jack does not are still marked by their marriage; the camera often holds on Taylor’s face. It’s clear from her every close-up that the director is madly in love with her, spellbound by her beauty.
It must be said though that hers is a lovely and ordinary kind of beauty, somewhat masculine; her face is not smooth but weathered. Devoid of glamour, stripped of coquettishness: she would be an unlikely pin-up, to be sure. But she is beautiful all the same. I would not say that Laughlin makes her so but rather that he allows us to see it, that he invites us to really pay attention to her, to see the kindness in her eyes, the sadness in her smile, the way she stands, at once terribly shy and yet tough-as-all-get-out.
It’s this attention to Taylor, this fact that the camera is absolutely captivated by her the way Von Sternberg’s was by Dietrich, which allows us to really listen to her voice and really look at her face. At a first, dismissive glance, Taylor’s delivery is too flat, her body language too stiff. But if we really listen, what seemed flat is now distinctive, unmannered, unaffected: it’s genuine and real. If we really look, she’s not stiff but rock-solid, completely comfortable in her body, comfortable enough that she doesn’t feel the need to flail around for emphasis.
She doesn’t have a bag of actorly tricks to reach into; instead, she reaches into herself. When the script requires her to react when her character has been raped, she doesn’t have any way to hide from us, to mask the emotion or fake it. Instead, what we get is raw, unyielding emotion, as earnest and painful as anything in real life. It’s a striking and remarkable bit of screen acting, one that I dare say has not been matched in any of the narrative cinema that has followed.
There’s a moment later in the film in which Jean explains that, despite the fact that she’s a dedicated pacifist, she can and does hate. When she was assaulted, she says, “I hated more than anybody on this earth has ever hated. And every time that picture replays in my mind— Ooh! I’ve never hated so much in my life.”
That “Ooh!” to me is astonishing. I can’t remember ever hearing another “Ooh!” like that in the history of film, certainly not in such a serious context. If I was an actor and I was given that “Ooh!”, I would have asked for a rewrite; I think any actor or actress worth their salt would do the same. That single syllable runs the risk of completely ruining the scene, of taking you completely out of the film and the characters and the situation. But it doesn’t. God bless Delores Taylor, it doesn’t. It doesn’t sound like bad dialogue or a Nicholas Cage-esque “interesting” acting choice, but rather like a real person dealing with her real emotions. It fits perfectly with the character and the tone of the scene.
There’s a lot of dialogue, like that “Ooh!”, that might not have made it past the first-draft stage with a more polished screenwriter. And, to be sure, some of the actors and actresses in the film aren’t as good or watchable as Taylor. Early on, Barbara tells her father that she doesn’t know who the father of her baby is. What does that mean, he queries. Her answer:
It means, concerned father, that I was passed around by so many of those phony maharishi types, who told me that love was beautiful and all that bullshit— it means, concerned father, I got balled by so many guys I don’t know if the father’s white, Indian, Mexican, or black.
It’s a little too florid, isn’t it? A little too stagey, perhaps, too much like Movie Speak and not enough like reality. And yet…
And yet, I know people who talk like this. It bugs the shit out of me, but I know them and I’ve heard it. When Martin describes what an “anybodies” is or when Billy Jack defines “mental toughness”, they sound like the weird little pet phrases that people carry around inside them as a sort of verbal shorthand that, far from making conversations easier, usually make them more obtuse. This is the way people actually talk.
So, does that make it good dialogue (because it’s realistic) or bad dialogue (because it’s mildly irritating)? Hey, either way, it’s certainly more interesting than “Like, um, you know, and stuff.” But let’s look at the larger question: is Billy Jack a good film or a bad one?
Well, that’s just the thing about it—it’s both, at the same time, and for the same reasons. It’s a film whose greatest strengths are its most glaring weaknesses, a personal idiosyncratic hand-made film about which there can be no final determinations. It can only be seen, and grappled with, on its own terms. It is, in the end, a singular work of art, a film in a class all by itself. There is nothing quite like Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack.
— Tom Russell