Cast & Crew
While Billy Jack is waiting for his murder trial to start, Jean Roberts continues running the "Freedom School" on an Indian reservation where the student-operated television station has gotten in trouble for airing a series of political exposés. Attempts to quiet the students and get Billy Jack out of town lead to a confrontation that turns deadly.
David Scott Clark
Bong Soo Han
Michael J Shigezane
William Wellman Jr.
Thomas J Connors
Jack A Marta
Jack N Reddish
The Trial of Billy Jack
The credits for this picture would lead one to believe this was a family affair. Laughlin and Taylor's daughter Teresa is in the cast, and their 19-year-old son Frank is credited as the director, but it is generally acknowledged that this was just a pseudonym for Tom Laughlin. On the two previous films in the series and the one to follow this, the elder Laughlin used the name T.C. Frank for directing credit. Only the final (unfinished) film of the series bears his real name in references, most likely because its lack of a theatrical release forestalled the use of a pseudonym.
This third installment offered more of the same from the critically drubbed but commercially winning previous picture, with loner do-gooder Billy Jack once again wreaking vengeance on the evil forces of authority and white privilege. Taylor returns as the director of the Freedom School, a leftist utopian training ground for "yoga sports" and muckraking journalism. After four years in prison (because of his actions in the previous film) and following a vision quest, Billy Jack comes to the defense of the school and its neighboring Native American village when the intolerant townsfolk threaten and abuse them. The pre-credits opening sequence citing statistics about anti-student and anti-activist violence in America point to the plot as a likely response to the Kent State shootings of 1970.
Laughlin and Taylor, who wrote the screenplay as "Frank and Teresa Christina," obviously had the best liberal intentions, but the stories they are couched in drew strong criticism from critics. Vincent Canby in the New York Times described this film as "part pageant, part kung fu action film, part Western, part earnest civics lesson, part Show Boat melodrama, part recollection of the various horrors of the late 1960 and early 1970s"; and The New Yorker's Pauline Kael pegged it as a "big Pentecostal tub-thumping show [that] brings together the worst of mass culture and the worst of the counter-culture." Writing in New York magazine, Judith Crist said that despite the leftist underpinnings, the reaction from audiences felt more appropriate to a screening of Leni Riefenstahl's glorification of Nazism, Triumph of the Will (1935). Crist claimed a fight broke out during the screening she attended when one audience member pummeled another who dared to chuckle during the over-the-top finale featuring the cast singing "Give Peace a Chance."
Laughlin and Taylor's John and Yoko pretensions may have aroused considerable snark from reviewers, especially since the solution offered to intolerance in this series tends to be anything but peaceful, but the picture did healthy business. It came in as 1974's third highest-grossing release with $89 million, behind Mel Brooks' #1 Blazing Saddles and the disaster flick The Towering Inferno and just ahead of Brooks' Young Frankenstein and the disaster flick Earthquake.
The cast included a number of Native Americans, including Sacheen Littlefeather, famous as the actress who in 1973 stood in for Marlon Brando at the Academy Awards ceremony, refusing his statue for The Godfather (1972) as a protest for Hollywood's depiction of Native Americans. Most of these actors contributed their own words and thoughts to the unscripted Indian Rights symposium in the film.
Also in the cast is William Wellman Jr., son of the veteran Hollywood director (A Star Is Born, 1937; Story of G.I. Joe, 1945). Wellman Jr. appeared in four of the five Billy Jack pictures as well as Laughlin's directorial debut, Like Father, Like Son (1961). The two likely met as actors in Wellman Sr.'s war film Lafayette Escadrille (1958).
The Trial of Billy Jack was filmed on location in Arizona, New Mexico and the iconic Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border, familiar from a number of John Ford Westerns.
This episode in the saga of Billy Jack has a place in movie history as the first film to be launched in the wide release method frequently used today. It debuted in more than 1,000 theaters, which were booked by the producers (Laughlin and Taylor, natch, again eschewing on-screen credit) as a "four-waller," meaning they rented the theater and kept control of ticket receipts.
It also has the distinction of being included by authors Harry and Michael Medved and Randy Dreyfuss in their 1978 book The 50 Worst Films of All Time. It was in good company, however, with D.W. Griffith's Abraham Lincoln (1930), Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944), Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970).
Director: Frank Laughlin (Tom Laughlin)
Producers: Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor (uncredited), Joe Cramer
Screenplay: Frank Christina, Teresa Christina (Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor)
Cinematography: Jack A. Marta
Editing: Michael Economou, George Grenville, Michael Karr, Jules Nayfack, Tom Rolf
Art Direction: George W. Troast
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack), Delores Taylor (Jean Roberts), Victor Izay (Doc), Teresa Laughlin (Carol), Lynn Baker (Lynn), Geo Anne Sosa (Joanne)
By Rob Nixon
The Trial of Billy Jack
The Complete Billy Jack Collection - A Tom Laughlin Overdose on DVD
Tom Laughlin's wildly popular Billy Jack character is an equally exploitative concept. An American Indian ex- Green Beret, Billy Jack battles motorcycle gangs and land barons like a re-born Lone Ranger. Laughlin's ambition to become a film producer paid off in 1967 with the first Billy Jack film, The Born Losers. A moderately competent actor partial to imitating the mannerisms of Marlon Brando, Laughlin fought hard to retain control of his work. He and his wife, writer/actor/producing partner Delores Taylor used fabricated credits to make their films seem less like family productions.
Image Entertainment's The Complete Billy Jack Collection DVD set begins with The Born Losers, an update of Marlon Brando's motorcycle gang classic The Wild One. A renegade biker club terrorizes a California beach city, beating up innocent motorists and gang-raping foolish young girls. The devilish gang leader Danny (Jeremy Slate) kidnaps and threatens co-ed heiress Vicky Barrington (Elizabeth James). She escapes after witnessing the rape of two other young local girls, who are too frightened to testify in court. Laconic horse trainer Billy Jack (Laughlin) enters the fray to protect Vicky from more brutality.
A western with jeeps and motorcycles instead of horses, the crude but effective The Born Losers exploits its rape scenes while claiming outrage for the traumatized victims. To the film's credit, the girls admit that they were indeed looking for kicks; one teen intent on escaping parental control shouts that she liked being gang-raped. Guest star Jane Russell overacts as a cocktail waitress (or prostitute?) tearfully shielding her daughter. The girl practices striptease dancing in her spare time, eager to follow her mother's example.
The townspeople and their sheriff are craven cowards easily intimidated by bikers with comical names like Gangrene and Speechless. William Wellman Jr. is a biker called Child and the popular Robert Tessier debuts as the formidable Cueball. The usual swastikas and iron crosses are featured, although Danny wears rather silly-looking plastic sunglasses.
The direction and acting are wildly uneven. Star Elizabeth James is quite natural in some scenes but contributes her fair share of groan-inducing line readings. Repetitive standoffs and hostage negotiations slow the story to a crawl. We're quite happy when the amiably violent Billy Jack commences killing the bad guys, just to stop the endless talk. At 113 minutes the film is at least a half-hour too long.
As "T.C. Frank", director Tom Laughlin gives himself plenty of adoring close-ups. His camera blocking reveals a fondness for images borrowed from Sergio Leone (some in-depth compositions) and Howard Hawks (the bikers' war-whoop). The editing is particularly chaotic, as seen in a final escape scene. Vicky bolts from the biker's lair. Six or seven long cuts later, when Vicki should already be halfway to town, she's still exiting the house. The movie begins and ends with slow zooms to the setting sun, perhaps foreshadowing Laughlin's later affectation with spiritual themes.
Released by American-International, The Born Losers earned sleeper hit status. Laughlin and Delores Taylor redoubled their efforts on 1971's Billy Jack, which became a major phenomenon. The noble loner hero has moved to Arizona to defend Indian rights and liberal values against a rural county run as a racist fiefdom. Local big shot Stuart Posner (Bert Freed) steals horses from Indian land to be sold for dog food, and browbeats his son Bernard (David Roya) into criminal acts against the Freedom School on the reservation. The federal school's curriculum consists of horse riding, spiritual enlightenment, political songwriting and improv theater. One of the drama teachers is played by Don Sturdy, a.k.a. popular actor-comic Howard Hesseman.
Troubled teen Barbara (Julie Webb) returns from Haight-Ashbury defiantly pregnant, prompting a beating from her father, bigoted deputy Mike (red-haired Ken Tobey). Freedom School director Jean Roberts (Delores Taylor) takes Barbara in, and the teen soon warms to the pacifist communal atmosphere. Native American spirituality figures heavily in the school's counterculture philosophy. Whiny folk songs and weak improv comedy routines pad the film's running time out shamelessly.
The slow talking, fast kicking Billy Jack hovers over the school like a protective Shane, forcibly ejecting Posner and his crooked deputies from Indian lands and fighting back against town bullies taunting the Indian children. Laughlin's well-choreographed Hapkido moves were considered a sensation in the film's one major fight set piece; Billy Jack preceded the 70s wave of martial arts epics. In his broad brimmed black hat and bare feet, Billy Jack became an instant icon.
The plot mechanics soon boil down to more hostage-taking and ugly rape scenes. Billy Jack retreats into noble posturing, mumbling about the spirit power he derives from a ceremony in which he subjects himself to several rattlesnake bites. Second lead Delores Taylor is particularly weak in scenes that require her to cry over the threat to "the children". She suffers a rape in silence, so Billy Jack won't run wild to avenge her. The movie adds up as a particularly flaky stacked deck of hippie philosophy, Native American Pride and bitter distrust of governmental institutions.
Billy Jack followed a crooked path to success. Abandoned by two studios during production and denied satisfactory distribution by Warners, Tom Laughlin successfully took back control of his film and reissued it in 1973. Instead of hiring a distributor to contract with theater chains, the Laughlins took their show directly to theaters, renting facilities for a flat fee and handling ticket sales on their own. The much-publicized technique came to be known as "four-walling". Billy Jack broke independent box office records everywhere. Taking control of the "first coin" directly from the box office yielded a far higher return for the filmmakers, and gave credence to the notion that distributors and exhibitors routinely cheated film producers.
The finale of Billy Jack saw our hero a Christ figure in chains, unjustly charged with murder. 1974's The Trial of Billy Jack is a wildly overwritten and overwrought direct sequel. Stepping onto a cinematic soap box, Laughlin's confused harangue wrings emotional clichés from twenty hot-button political topics yet refuses to truly deal with any of them. Billy Jack and Jean continue their struggle against the corrupt system. The movie wants to be sincere but comes off as ludicrous. Some subplots, such as an abused, crippled child with a pet bunny, make us think we're being kidded, as in the spoof Airplane!.
The frankly irresponsible message is that the government is too corrupt to function and must be resisted at all costs. Supposedly a liberal cry of outrage against right-wing attacks on college campuses (Kent State is evoked several times), The Trial of Billy Jack is more likely to inspire political extremists on the right. The finale, a massacre of innocent kids by mindless National Guardsmen and State Police, is compared via flashback to a My Lai- like Vietnam atrocity. Infantryman Billy Jack refused to participate, thus forming his identity as an anti-establishment rebel.
While Billy Jack serves four years in prison, Jean Taylor develops the Freedom School into a self-governing Utopian commune. Freed from the presumed oppression of state schools, Jean's self-taught students make breakthroughs in the rehabilitation of abused children. They also "dig for the facts" to expose governmental corruption, especially on the issue of Indian land management. The school spreads its findings via its own television station, a gambit that provokes the wrath of powerful interests.
Once freed, Billy witnesses more injustices to his Native American tribe and expels a camping party of fat cat politicians and their prostitutes illegally poaching Indian game. The "liars and thieves" in Washington have been stealing large parcels of reservation property. Billy goes on an elaborate spiritual quest for the next level of enlightenment. He's forced to defend the Freedom School students from redneck vigilantes, knowing that powerful interests are looking for an opportunity to have him killed.
The Trial of Billy Jack benefits from Panavision and a score by Elmer Bernstein. Key scenes are played out against the backdrop of Monument Valley, just for postcard appeal. But in expanding his franchise Laughlin has lost all narrative sensibility. At three hours the show lacks forward momentum and soon breaks down into a series of position speeches and lectures. A narrator rattles off a laundry list of flaky buzzword activities at the Freedom School: bio-feedback, anybody? We never learn how the students ferret out secret political conspiracies in Washington; they simply report their shocking findings as absolute proven fact.
The acting is worse than ever, with Delores Taylor spending at least half of her scenes weeping with a runny nose. Daughter Teresa Laughlin (Kelly) offers more ear-grating folk songs. Billy Jack is either off painting himself red to meditate or engaging in irrelevant Hapkido fights against various redneck goons. Positively nothing happens that's not preceded by a long speech, or three. Laughlin's staging of a Vietnam War atrocity is offensive in too many ways to list, as is the inflammatory massacre of scores of unarmed kids at the finish. The parallels with the notorious Waco, Texas standoff twenty years later are disturbingly prophetic. The paranoid hysteria of The Trial of Billy Jack has since been co-opted by radicals at the other end of the political spectrum.
1977's Billy Jack Goes to Washington is a full-on remake of the 1939 Frank Capra film. Taking up the Jimmy Stewart role of a gee-whiz junior congressman, Billy Jack brings his kickboxing skills to the Beltway. Produced by Frank Capra Jr. but rewritten by Laughlin and Taylor, the film adds a disturbingly cynical twist to the original: it maintains that all business in the Federal Government is done at the behest of lobbyists for major corporations. They control not only our elected officials, but the media and the intelligence agencies as well. The once all-wise Billy Jack has been re-imagined as a naïve outsider, achingly reverent of Jefferson and Lincoln and shocked to discover that our government is a complete fraud.
A senior Senator dies unexpectedly, and a crooked governor appoints the newly pardoned Billy Jack to fill the vacant seat. As in the Capra original, Billy Jack only slowly learns that he's the dupe of grafters pushing through a bill to build a nuclear plant. When Billy objects, the full weight of Washington corruption comes down on his head, with falsified charges accusing Billy of profiting from a land scheme. New sub-plots portray Washington D.C. as a Sodom and Gomorrah of political corruption. An ambitious lobbyist is murdered for trying to blackmail his way into a cushy White House job. The paranoia meter hits the ceiling when black hoodlums threaten Billy's young associates: they turn out to be F.B.I. or C.I.A. agents working for evil lobbyist power brokers.
Production values are reasonably high, and with good actors assaying roles firmly associated with the likes of Claude Rains and Jean Arthur, most of the dramatics are at least competent. Sam Wanamaker, Pat O'Brien, E.G. Marshall and Lucie Arnaz are at least watchable. Delores Taylor returns to contribute a weeping scene or two. The film never received a general release and for video was cut by at least half an hour, minimizing or eliminating familiar faces from the earlier films. Suzanne Somers appears in the cast list but seems to have been dropped as well. The editorial cut-down must have happened in 1979 after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, as Billy Jack's filibuster speech has been amended with new dialogue referring to the partial meltdown.
The film reaches a high level of demagoguery when an uproar from the Senate gallery interrupts government business. Billy Jack preaches that "the people" need to retake control of their own Government, and it is presumed that all Real Americans support him. It's also disturbing to see Billy Jack, formerly a monastic loner distrustful of all social interaction outside of tribal matters, now quoting Jefferson and imbued with a righteous spirit of democracy. When it comes time to replay the original film's filibuster scene, Tom Laughlin drops some of his Brando mannerisms in favor of the halting speech patterns of Jimmy Stewart and does reasonably well. "One Tin Soldier" plays again over the end credits, but the franchise's emotional call for revolution is as irrational as ever.
Image's four-disc DVD set of The Complete Billy Jack Collection uses good enhanced transfers with a decent level of encoding. Born Losers (incorrectly dated 1969) looks far better than old A.I.P. television prints. All of the films come with two sets of audio commentaries, a 2001 track with Delores Taylor and Tom Laughlin and a newer one that adds son Frank Laughlin to the mix. I audited the tracks only briefly; near the end of Billy Jack Goes to Washington Tom Laughlin expresses his belief that American democracy is irreparably broken. Although Laughlin's ambitions were to make the Billy Jack character a political symbol, most of his fans were more interested in the escapist action thrills of his first two features, and deserted the franchise when it took itself too seriously.
For more information about The Complete Billy Jack Collection, visit Image Entertainment. To order The Complete Billy Jack Collection, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
The Complete Billy Jack Collection - A Tom Laughlin Overdose on DVD
Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004)
Elmer Bernstein, who was not related to Leonard Bernstein, was born on August 4, 1922, in New York City. He displayed a talent in music at a very young age, and was given a scholarship to study piano at Juilliard when he was only 12. He entered New York University in 1939, where he majored in music education. After graduating in 1942, he joined the Army Air Corps, where he remained throughout World War II, mostly working on scores for propaganda films. It was around this time he became interested in film scoring when he went to see William Dieterle's The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), a film whose score was composed by Bernard Herrmann, a man Bernstein idolized as the ideal film composer.
Bernstein, who originally intended to be a concert pianist and gave several performances in New York after being discharged from military service, decided to relocate to Hollywood in 1950. He did his first score for the football film Saturday's Hero (1950), and then proved his worth with his trenchant, moody music for the Joan Crawford vehicle Sudden Fear (1952). Rumors of his "communist" leanings came to surface at this time, and, feeling the effects of the blacklist, he found himself scoring such cheesy fare as Robot Monster; Cat Women of the Moon (both 1953); and Miss Robin Caruso (1954).
Despite his politics, Otto Preminger hired him to do the music for The Man With the Golden Arm, (1955) in which Frank Sinatra played a heroin-addicted jazz musician. Fittingly, Bernstein used some memorable jazz motifs for the film and his fine scoring put him back on the map. It prompted the attention of Cecil B. De Mille, who had Bernstein replace the ailing Victor Young on The Ten Commandments (1956). His thundering, heavily orchestrated score perfectly suite the bombastic epic, and he promptly earned his first Oscar® nod for music.
After The Ten Commandments (1956), Bernstein continued to distinguish himself in a row of fine films: The Rainmaker (1956), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Some Came Running (1958), The Magnificent Seven (a most memorable galloping march, 1960); To Kill a Mockingbird (unique in its use of single piano notes and haunting use of a flute, 1962); Hud (1963); earned a deserved Academy Award for the delightful, "flapper" music for the Julie Andrews period comedy Thoroughly Modern Mille (1967), and True Grit (1969).
His career faltered by the '80s though, as he did some routine Bill Murray comedies: Meatballs (1980) and Stripes (1981). But then director John Landis had Bernstein write the sumptuous score for his comedy Trading Places (1983), and Bernstein soon found himself back in the game. He then graced the silver screen for a few more years composing some terrific pieces for such popular commercial hits as My Left Foot (1989), A River Runs Through It (1992) and The Age of Innocence (1993). Far From Heaven, his final feature film score, received an Oscar® nomination for Best Score in 2002. He is survived by his wife, Eve; sons Peter and Gregory; daughters Emilie and Elizabeth; and five grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004)
Released in United States 1974
The sequel to "Billy Jack" (1971).
Released in United States 1974