50 Movies for 50 States: Week Three – Arizona, Film – Billy Jack

The United States has been well represented in the world of cinema. Still, while most people are familiar with Woody Allen’s New York, Tarantino’s Los Angeles or John Water’s Baltimore, Maryland, what about the not-so-familiar cracks and corners of the country?  Why can’t we have a crime thriller set in Amish country, a steamy psychological drama take place in Baton Rouge or a gross-out comedy with Rhode Island as its backdrop?

Well, we can. To prove it, I’m going from Alabama to Wyoming — each week choosing one film to represent each of the 50 U.S. states. The only criteria is that each movie is something I’ve never seen before. That should eliminate some of the more obvious choices, good films as they may be, allowing me to bring to the forefront some more obscure choices, oddities and forgotten classics alike.

Time for a road trip across the good ol’ U.S.A., one movie at a time.

Week Three — Arizona

Billy Jack, 1971, director Tom Laughlin (as T.C. Frank), writers Tom Laughlin (as Frank Christina), Delores Taylor (as Theresa Christina), with Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor

The 1970s was a special time for film geeks. It was a time during which many heroes emerged — Copolla, Scorcese, Altman — the rise of the auteur. It was also a decade that marked the birth of the summer blockbuster, while at the same time leaving a seedier legacy in the grind-houses of Times Square.

In many ways, Arizona’s entry into my 50 Movies for 50 States list was way ahead of its time.

It was the top box-office grossing movie of 1971. It’s not The Godfather. It’s not Love Story or Rosemarys Baby or The Exorcist.

It’s a little independent film called Billy Jack. A little independent film that made Warner Brothers some big money in the early 1970s. A film whose titular peace-loving but macho hero has more in common with Rambo than his hippie contemporaries.

Billy Jack is the story of Billy Jack, an average Joe sent over to fight in Vietnam, who came back filled to the brim of his beaded, wide-brimmed hat with rage and piss and blood and mud — not unlike Stallone’s misunderstood Vietnam vet. The half-Indian, half-Caucasian B.J. spends his days roaming the deserts of Arizona outside of Phoenix. When he’s not protecting the wild horses there, with his excellent karate skills, he keeps guard over the hippie-dippie Freedom School, an arts school located on an Indian reservation which serves the tribe by teaching youth the essentials of life through copious amounts of improvisational theater. Shunned by racist townsfolk, especially local law enforcement, Billy Jack keeps the peace and protects the disenfranchised using his fists and a vicious roundhouse kick.

The title character is played by Tom Laughlin, who directed and wrote the movie. It’s the second of several films he made starring the character Billy Jack, beginning with 1967’s The Born Losers. The success of that movie, an acclaimed biker film, allowed Laughlin the funding to bring Billy Jack to the screen.

Billy Jack opens up with narration by the Freedom School’s organizer Jean Roberts, played by Laughlin’s wife Delores Taylor, who — without the courtesy of a spoiler alert — tells us her relationship with Billy Jack will end in bloodshed. We’re introduced to the town sheriff, who learns from his deputy that his teenage daughter has been located after she had been caught running away to San Francisco to join the hippie scene for the umpteenth time.

The deputy then goes off to shoot some horses, which he and his gang plan to sell to dog food companies, at which time we are presented with the movie’s rip-roaring opening credits, which follows the horse poachers through the Arizona desert set to the music of 1970’s one-hit wonder Coven’s “One Tin Soldier.”

At last we meet Billy Jack, who confronts the poachers before they can gun down the stallions.

Next is an unintentionally hilarious scene with the sheriff and his daughter where she informs him that she has Hepatitis and is pregnant. When the sheriff asks his daughter who the father is, she says she has no idea since she had sex with so many men — white, Mexican and black — that it would be impossible to know. At the word “black,” Daddy’s little girl gets backhanded, which results in her running away — not to San Francisco — but to the Freedom School where she’s given asylum.

From there, the students of the Freedom School take a trip into town  — but before that, we get the first and worst of several improvised drama skits and not one, but two musical numbers. This hippie shit may have still been all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s, but comes across today as dated as all hell. Later diversions are even more extraneous to the plot. Is Laughlin just trying to kill time with this stuff and if so, why? The movie is 114 minutes long! Surely, some of this garbage could have been taken out of the movie to move the plot along a little faster.

So, as expected, the Freedom School kids get harassed by the townsfolk when Billy Jack shows up, busts out his martial arts skills and puts one of the bullies through a plate glass window. Awesome and one of a handful of great scenes that makes it difficult to outright hate this movie.

As a result of his actions, Billy Jack’s now a wanted man. He disappears for a long while and we get some more pointless music and skits. At last we return to some resemblance of a plot when the head of the Freedom School, Jean Roberts, is raped in an ugly nasty scene which seems totally out-of-place in a PG-rated movie. Billy Jack eventually finds out about the rape and gets revenge by murdering the rapist.

The finale of the movie finds Billy Jack holed up in the Freedom School in a stand-off with law enforcement. Does he survive? There’s two more Billy Jack movies (There would have been more, had Laughlin procured the funding) so I’ll let you figure that one out.

In defense of Billy Jack, it’s never boring — even if it’s more of a train wreck than last week’s pick for the state of Alaska. While the film starts out strong, it quickly gets off-track with these extended scenes of music and skits that have nothing to do with the story. Laughlin really could have used an editor. Although Billy Jack is not unusual in its unconventional free-form method of storytelling — I’ve seen other movies from this time period that also buck traditional storytelling techniques — it’s just a jumbled mess.

I’m also confused by the message of the movie. Is Laughlin’s tale trying to show us the necessity of violence? That maybe the hippies had it wrong? That love and understanding was not enough? If so, Billy Jack is a pretty subversive way of getting that point across.

With Billy Jack, Laughlin introduced us to a new kind of hero — a post-hippie, post-Vietnam warrior. He’s fighting for the rights of the underprivileged, the abused and neglected. Not just talking the talk but duking it out, Wild West- style.

In the next few decades, our country would go through a war on drugs and a war on terror. Billy Jack was fighting a war on racism, using the tools endowed to him by the federal government.

Honorable mentions this week include the Coen Brother’s Raising Arizona, probably the duo’s funniest movie, starring Nicholas Cage, Holly Hunter and John Goodman. An ex-con and his wife steal a baby after they are unable to conceive a child on their own. Much madcap antics ensue.

Also of note is Fire in the Sky, a 1993 film based on a true story of an alleged alien abduction. Damn creepy and probably the best alien abduction movie ever. The main downside is its TV-quality, which leads me to the opinion that the film is well overdue for a remake, as long as they give Henry Thomas (E.T.‘s Elliot) another cameo.

Next week’s pick for Arkansas will be an early, lesser-known film from an Academy-award winning director. See you then.

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