Cast and Crew: Coven (Theme Song “One Tin Soldier”); Kenneth Tobey
What It’s About: Wandering ex-Green Beret, half-Native American Hapkido expert Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin) finds himself in Arizona, where he faces off against the local racists, cops, and well-off ranchers in his defense of Native Americans, wild horses, and a local progressive school, the Freedom School. When all the protests, sit-ins and role-playing exercises the Freedom School can muster can not stop its opponents in town, Billy Jack is finally provoked to turning his martial arts and Green Beret training not just for defense, but on the offense.
Why Watch it Today?: Tom Laughlin, who starred, directed, wrote, produced, and promoted today’s film, died one year ago today. Laughlin was a minor actor who moved into directing his own films in the early 60s, then dropped out of the business to run a Montessori with his wife and co-writer Delores Taylor, who appears in Billy Jack as, you guessed it, the head of the Freedom School. Laughlin returned to directing in 1967 (after the school went bankrupt) with The Born Losers, which featured Billy Jack fighting bikers. After other projects fell through, Laughlin went back to the Billy Jack well again with today’s movie, and, after wrangling with first AIP and then WB over the release of the film, re-released it himself. Billy Jack struck a chord with Drive-In audiences and the film was a massive hit, making $98 million dollars ($282 million adjusted for inflation) on an $800,000 (about $4.7 million adjusted for inflation) budget over the course of its lifetime. Unfortunately for Laughlin, he followed up this success with The Trial of Billy Jack, a famously long, action free courtroom drama and was never able to replicate the success of today’s film. Laughlin assumed what the public loved was his character, and not the very timely combination of a Western updated to “now” with then novel martial arts and a counter-culture buzzword spouting hero. Viewed today, Billy Jack is a sluggish but interesting curiosity piece, not always successfully melding the “martial artist pushed too far by rednecks handily beats them senseless” story beats (a well gone back to time and again in American martial arts movies) to historically interesting but unsubtle scenes laying out Laughlin and Taylor’s left-wing beliefs and education techniques.
Other Choices: Laughlin has a small part in South Pacific.