Billy Jack
directed by T.C. Frank
(National Student Film Corp., 1971)

The younger generation is likely unaware of the impact that Billy Jack, which was based upon the true-life events of Cherokee medicine man Rolling Thunder, had on America.

This film by a group of students shocked a nation into action. It focused attention on Native American issues, Vietnam veteran readjustment issues and the prejudice against both. It catapulted Wild Horse Annie into the spotlight as the person most responsible for trying to save the wild mustangs. And it made an entire nation learn to whistle, play or sing the theme song. Probably more people know "One Tin Soldier" than know the national anthem.

This low-budget film -- you will not see any cars wrecked or buildings blown up here -- also shocked the movie industry by becoming a runaway hit. Perhaps it can only be explained by the timing: it was released when the nation most needed to hear the message it contained.

For whatever reason, Billy Jack became America's hero and we had to know what happened to him. Billy Jack was followed by The Trial of Billy Jack, which did not do as well. Then we asked him to fix our national problems in Billy Jack Goes to Washington. Forty years later, Billy Jack is still a much-talked-about movie, especially among martial artists. You see it mentioned in some recent books by Native American authors, such as Lakota Woman.

Narrated from the viewpoint of Jean (Delores Taylor), this movie is a priceless documentation of the times and issues. If you are interested in the late 1960s and early '70s, especially the counterculture of the time, you need to get this film. While it was low budget, they aimed for accuracy and got technical assistance from proper authorities, such as going to the Shoshone Nation for recreation of the Snake Ceremony. They proved that low budget does not mean low quality.

Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin) is a Vietnam veteran who works as the reservation police and shuns society by living in some ancient ruins with a medicine man who is training him. He does battle with local rich man Stuart Posner (Bert Freed) and Deputy Mike (Kenneth Tobey) over the slaughter, on reservation land, of mustangs for selling at six-cents per pound for dog food.

Meanwhile, the deputy's daughter, Barbara (Julie Webb) comes home pregnant. He beats her and she runs away. Billy Jack finds her and the sheriff (Clark Howat) asks him to take her to the Freedom School, a progressive free school that admits troubled kids of any race, run by Jean. They are taught whatever is of interest to them and can stay as long as they like and leave when they are ready. There are only three rules: no drugs, they must carry their own weight and they must express themselves by creating something.

When the rich guy's bratty son (David Roya) learns Barbara is at the school and romancing a Native American boy, Martin (Stan Rice), he creates enough trouble to start a war that ends in rape, tragedy and a shootout between Billy Jack and the authorities.

Action, drama and enough suspense to rivet you in place -- that's Billy Jack. This movie offers something for everyone. It has one slow point, where the kids are performing in their school, when you might want to quickly get a cup of coffee. But it immediately swings back into high gear and stays there until the end.

I liked all the actors except Delores Taylor. I thought she was inconsistent, but obviously the public loved her because she came back for the sequels. Otherwise, everything about the movie was great. The fact that it is still topic for conversation after four decades should be proof enough that it is worth owning.

Billy Jack will always be considered the "American activism classic" movie. It is also the "cheap drama movie" that left egg on the faces of many Hollywood directors and media critics and changed an entire country with its message. If you do not own it, order a copy at the first possible moment. No movie collection is complete without this classic.

Check out the review for Rolling Thunder Speaks and meet the "real" Billy Jack.

review by
Alicia Karen Elkins

20 September 2008

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