Billy Jack: 35th Anniversary Ultimate Collection [DVD]
Director : Tom Loughlin
Screenplay : Tom Loughlin & Delores Taylor
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1977
Stars : Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack), Lucie Arnaz (Saunders McArthur), Peter Donat (Ralph Butler), Richard Gautier (Gov. Hubert Hopper), Michael Irving (McGhan), Teresa Laughlin (Carol), John Lawlor (Dan McArthur), E.G. Marshall (Sen. Joseph Paine), Pat O'Brien (Vice President), Suzanne Somers (Party Girl), Delores Taylor (Jean Roberts), Sam Wanamaker (Bailey)
Since the dawn of cinema there have been scores of hit movies, but few of them can be said to have become a genuine phenomenon. Gone With the Wind (1939) was a phenomenon. Jaws (1975) was a phenomenon. And Titanic (1997) was a phenomenon. Of course, those movies are linked by the fact that they were all big-budget Hollywood productions backed by a major studio (or, in the case of Gone With the Wind, A-list producer David O. Selznick) and given a sizable marketing push.
This is why Billy Jack stands alone. Independently produced by actor/writer/director Tom Loughlin and his actor/writer wife Delores Taylor, it was a labor of love Loughlin had been trying to make for nearly 20 years. Loughlin and Taylor made the film for $800,000, and even though Warner Bros. acquired the distribution rights to the film in 1971, it was virtually buried due to internal studio politics. But, even though it was dropped in a handful of theaters with no advertising, word of mouth spread and it quickly became a cult hit, drawing repeat viewers to the tune of $32 million, making it one of the most profiable independent films ever. Even then, Loughlin was not satisfied, and he took the bold step of suing Warner Bros. for the right to redistribute the film his way. He won the case, and in 1973, he re-released Billy Jack by four-walling theaters (meaning he rented entire theaters outright) and drew in another $30 million, a virtually unheard-of feat for a film that had already had a successful run two years earlier.
So, the question is, why Billy Jack? Or, as New York Times critic Vincent Canby put it in the headline of an article on March 11, 1973, “Why Has Billy Jack Made So Much Jack?” Canby was mostly at a loss to explain Billy Jack’s success, especially since he viewed the film as “a passionately muddle-minded contemporary Western.” At best, he recognized that it spoke to people in a way few other films did and that it was, above all, sincere.
The seeds of Billy Jack were planted in the 1950s when Loughlin witnessed the mistreatment of Native Americans in South Dakota and began to imagine a heroic character who might stand up for them, a modern protector who embodies both the best of human potential and its many flaws. The result was the character of Billy Jack, a consciously mythic construction whose popularity sustained him through four films of varying genres.
Billy Jack is a half-breed Indian and Green Beret Vietnam veteran who, along with Jean Roberts (Dolores Taylor), runs a “Freedom School” on an Arizona Indian reservation for runaways, abused, and otherwise disenfranchised adolescents. The Freedom School represents the pinnacle of ’60s thinking, where peace, love, and freedom to be oneself are cherished above all other values. Mostly, the kids engage in role-play and street theater as a way of addressing racism, classism, and any other -isms that create inequality in the world.
The basic narrative in Billy Jack involves a threat to the Freedom School by a bigoted businessman and his son from a nearby town, as well as a sheriff whose pregnant, runaway teenage daughter is hiding at the school to escape her father’s abuse. Jean argues for a pacifist solution, but Billy Jack tends to resort to violence. As a former Green Beret with karate training, he’s a weapon that is always primed to go off.
Thus, one of the unique aspects of Billy Jack is that it openly addresses its hero’s violent tendencies, portraying them as a war zone between his idealism and his human frailty. Billy Jack has a temper, something he openly admits, and he refuses to back down when engaged. His sense of righteousness compels him to protect what he loves and values, and he recognizes that sometimes violence must be met with violence, a stance Jean adamantly rejects. In this sense, though, the film comes dangerously close to completely subverting the idea that pacifism can be effective; because the film wants to have its cake and eat it to, it preaches one thing but enacts something else, hence Canby’s assessment that it’s “muddle minded.”
The character of Billy Jack was actually introduced not in the 1971 film that bears his name, but in a 1967 American International exploitation movie called The Born Losers. The title of that film is taken from the name of a Hell’s Angels-like motorcycle gang that terrorizes a small, Southern California beach town. Billy Jack (wearing a straw cowboy hat instead of the black, flat-brimmed hat with Indian beads that came to define his character in the later films) reluctantly becomes the town’s protector.
The Born Losers is an interesting exploitation film because it fulfills all the blunt points of the genre--surly villains, lots of young women in bikinis, plenty of fight scenes--yet the mark of Loughlin’s idealism and sense of social justice is built seamlessly into the plot. Much of the story hinges on a trio of college girls who are raped by the sadistic gang members, but then refuse to testify because the gang threatens them (this was apparently based on a real case that took place in Southern California in the mid-1960s). Loughlin focuses the story’s attention on Vicky Barrington (Elizabeth James), the most outspoken of the three girls. Billy Jack takes her under his wing and attempts to get her to testify, which not surprisingly means that he has to protect her from the threats of the Born Losers. So, even in this early film, we can see the rough balance Loughlin was trying to establish between social justice and necessary violence.
With the massive success of Billy Jack in 1971 and again in 1973, it was no surprise that Loughlin and Taylor would make another film, although it would be hard to imagine that anyone could have predicted their magnum opus The Trial of Billy Jack. Flush with cash that allowed them to shoot in anamorphic widescreen, have more helicopter shots, incorporate optical effects and big explosions, choreograph bigger fight scenes, and hire Oscar-winning composer Elmer Bernstein to punch up the music, Loughlin and Taylor took everything that was good and admirable in their previous two films and expanded it to the point of pretentious overindulgence. Clocking in at nearly three hours, The Trial of Billy Jack tells roughly the same story as its predecessor, but with more speechifying, more peace pandering, more dewy-eyed sentimentalism, and more of just about everything else that could turn a potentially effective story into a bloated mess.
Like the larger budget and fatter script, the stakes in The Trial of Billy Jack are higher. Rather than just fighting against bigoted local businessmen and cops, the Freedom School is faced by an enormous web of opposition that extends from the locals, to bankers, to state officials, and even the military and the C.I.A. The school begins an investigative journalism program and starts airing exposes on their local television station, which irks those whose corruption is being exposed. The film is awash with references to government dirty deeds, with several direct statements about Nixon and Watergate thrown in for good measure.
More specifically, it directly indicts governmental use of force against its own citizens. Opening with statistics about the numbers killed in various conflicts between National Guard troops and protesting college students, the film ends with a massacre at the Freedom School that is like all those conflicts rolled into one vicious bloodbath. Laughlin offers a bone in the form of one Guardsman who has a conscience, but the rest are portrayed as bloodthirsty rednecks just itchin’ to kill ’em some hippies. This, of course, is the primary flaw of the Billy Jack films: They take real-life issues and blow them up so large and exaggerated that it becomes easy to dismiss them as leftwing paranoia. The Trial of Billy Jack has important things to say about a litany of topics, but too much of it gets lost in all the hot air.
Three years later, Billy Jack returned in Billy Jack Goes to Washington, a perfect title for a parody if Loughlin weren’t so serious in the endeavor. A virtual scene-by-scene remake of Frank Capra’s 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the final Billy Jack film continues the crusade against corruption and intolerance, taking its hero all the way to the Capitol. As it turns out, Loughlin hit a little too close to home, and the film became such a hot potato that he was never able to distribute it theatrically.
In the film, Billy Jack is appointed to fill in for a senator who died of a heart attack. Those appointing him are not doing so because they think he will make a good senator, but rather because they hope to use him to court the youth and minority vote and because they assume he will be so simple and ignorant of how things work in the Washington that he won’t be accomplish anything. Of course, one of the most dangerous things to do is to underestimate Billy Jack, and it turns out that he is as effective with a filibuster on the Senate floor as he is hacking and chopping his way through an army of bad guys. Unfortunately, the film as a whole is slow and preachy, dug in too deep in its own sense of self-righteousness to see how genuinely silly the whole enterprise had become.
|Billy Jack 35th Anniversary Ultimate Collection 5-Disc DVD Box Set|
|The 35th Anniversary Ultimate DVD Box Set includes all four Billy Jack films and a bonus disc of supplements.|
|Aspect Ratio||1.85:1 (The Born Losers and Billy Jack) |
2.35:1 (The Trial of Billy Jack and Billy Jack Goes to Washington)
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (all films)|
Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural (all films)
|Release Date||September 27, 2005|
|All four of the Billy Jack movies have been previously available on DVD, but this new box set offers vastly improved remastered transfers in anamorphic widescreen. While the picture quality on these DVDs certainly betrays both the era in which films were made and their relatively low budgets, they are nonetheless quite impressive. Each film boasts a sharp, well-detailed image with rich, lifelike colors. Some of the black levels tend to be a bit grayish, particularly on the earlier films, but this is likely a reflection of the original cinematography. There is some sprinkling of scratches here and there that could have been improved with expensive digital restoration, but otherwise these transfers couldn’t look any better.|
|Each film offers its original monaural soundtrack, as well as a newly mixed Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. The new surround mixes are quite good, considering the elements with which the engineers were working. Most of the sound is still limited to the front soundstage, but the action sequences are nicely opened up in the surround speakers, as are the musical scores. There is some faint ambient hiss from time to time, but otherwise the soundtracks are very clean.|
|If anyone has the time and inclination, each film in this box set offers not one, but two audio commentaries. The first set of commentaries was recorded back in 2000 for the original DVD releases by Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor. The new commentaries feature Laughlin and Taylor again, except this time they are moderated by their son, Frank Laughlin, who produced the box set. From the bits that I sampled on each disc, the commentaries sound casual, but informative. So, all told, there is some 20 hours of commentary on the four movies, which should be more than enough to keep the most rabid Billy Jack fans engaged. |
All the other supplements in this box set are housed on a fifth disc. There is a cheeky 15-minute “mini-documentary” about the making of the Billy Jack films and how they revolutionized film distribution in the U.S. Also included are all the original TV ads Laughlin put together for Billy Jack’s 1973 re-release, as well as a gallery of production photos and other still images (unfortunately, it runs as an automated slide show, so you can’t control the pace). The other supplements are available only to those who have a DVD player in their computer. The first is a 39-page excerpt from The Untold Story Behind the Legend of Billy Jack by Jorge Casuso, available in PDF format. The final supplement is extremely cool: The disc includes all the available footage for the park fight scene in Billy Jack as .mov files that you can import into an editing software program like iMovie or Final Cut Pro and edit your own version of the fight. Previous laser discs and DVDs have had similar features, but they’ve always been limited by what the player can do. Here, assuming you have a computer and the right software, you have virtually the same control over shaping the scene as the original editor did.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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