By Richard Winters
My Rating: 6 out of 10
4-Word Review: That’s one mean kick.
Barbara (Julie Webb) is the daughter of Mike (Kenneth Tobey) who is the deputy sheriff of the nearby town. She comes home one day after having run away and advises him that she is now pregnant, but has no idea who the father is as she had taken part in a sex orgy at some hippie commune, which outrages her father so much he beats her severely. To escape she hides out at the nearby alternative Indian school run by Jean (Delores Taylor), but Mike tries to use his authority as an officer to force them to turn her over and it is up to half-breed Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin) to protect her and the rest of the school from the town’s vindictive force and prejudice.
Although this movie has justifiably been lambasted for years as being more political propaganda than an actual story it still has some surprisingly effective moments. One of the best is the fight scene that takes place in the middle of town where Billy fights off the bad guys by using a Hapkido fighting technique where he raises his leg and kicks his assailant in the face with his foot. Some of the skits done in the school by the students as well as other young performance artists are fun particularly the one where the parents and teens are forced to reverse roles and the majestic aerial photography of the rustic New Mexican landscape is breathtaking.
Writer/director Laughlin casts himself in the title role, which in some ways seems a little bit like a vanity project. The character is poorly defined and subsists too much on a mystique. Having him somehow survive being shot in the stomach is too extreme and Laughlin gives a very one-note performance and is able to show only one emotion, which is that of a brooding, constant anger.
Taylor, who was Laughlin’s real-life wife, comes off better. Her face is weathered and she is no beauty by the conventional standard, but she seems to genuinely exude the values of her character and the scenes showing her after she is raped as well as the one where she begs Billy Jack to surrender during a shootout are emotionally charged and well down.
The rest of the supporting cast is so-so with the adults coming off better. It’s a great chance to see young stars in the making including Howard Hesseman and Richard Stahl a comic actor whose deadpan delivery is second-to-none. Some of the young school girls are cute including Debbie Schock who at the time was Laughlin’s kid’s real-life babysitter. However, the teens acting is poor and they are given too much screen time without any ability to carry the film. The worst is Stan Rice who plays Martin and whose frozen facial expressions and monotone delivery makes him seem like he is a zombie.
David Roya as Bernard Posner the main antagonist in the film gives a decent performance, but the character’s motivations are confusing. He is aggressive with everyone and yet when Billy Jack appears he freezes up even though Billy is nothing more than a shrimp of a guy wearing a dorky looking hat. One scene in a café has Billy going on a long overly-dramatic rant and he turns his back to Bernard who remains frozen in terror even though he could’ve easily just whacked Billy in the back of his head and knocked him out. Another scene has Billy standing next to Bernard’s car who is in the driver’s seat and orders him to drive the vehicle into the lake, which he obediently does even though I thought he could’ve put the car into reverse and either run Billy over or forced him to jump into the lake instead.
The idea was to show that Bernard was a coward, but even a coward can act aggressively if given the upper-hand and by having him behave in such a strange way makes these scenes and the film as a whole seem very implausible and amateurish. Apparently actor Roya had these very same concerns and he argued with Laughling about them, which ended up creating a lifelong rift between the two.
The characterizations are broad, but on an emotional level it still works particularly the final scene where the students line-up and defiantly raise their fists into the air as Billy Jack is being driven away. The film’s pacifist stance while still delivering a high quota of violence has taken a beating by the critics through the years, but I saw it a little bit differently. I interpreted the message to be that pacifism is good in theory, but not always effective in execution.
My Rating: 6 out of 10
Released: May 1, 1971
Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes
Director: Tom Laughlin
Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix streaming