Billy Jack vs Dirty Harry

I am teaching a class this semester on the New Hollywood (i.e. American filmmaking in the 1970s). Since the class is being conducted entirely online, I am posting my lectures on discussion boards for the students to read (and respond to). The first three films I have shown this semester are Taxi Driver, Dirty Harry, and Billy Jack. Here are my comments on the latter, with some comparisons to the previous two films.

Billy Jack makes for an interesting contrast with Dirty Harry. Both films were released in the same year, and both films deal with the theme of vigilanteism in the context of the political, social, and cultural divisions of the time — with regard to which they take opposite sides. Both films were wildly popular at the time. Billy Jack seems to have slightly edged out Dirty Harry at the box office (this is unclear; some sources I have found online say Dirty Harry earned more; but in any case, both films had high grosses, and it was very close). However, today Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character remains iconic and well known, even among people who have not seen the actual movies; whereas Billy Jack has been nearly forgotten (the few online sites I found that mentioned Billy Jack at all are mostly all about how awful, unintentionally funny, and incompetent the movie supposedly is). (Though Quentin Tarantino seems to like it).

While Dirty Harry is a mainstream Hollywood product, Billy Jack is an independent film all the way. Tom Laughlin and his wife Delores Taylor basically made the movie all by themselves. They self-financed it, they wrote the screenplay together, they starred in the movie (Laughlin as Billy Jack, and Talyor as Jean Roberts, the director of the school), and Laughlin directed and produced it — as well as taking personal charge of distributing the movie after the original distributor did a poor job. The film was an enormous hit, and its sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, 1974) also did extremely well at the box office. The figure of the character Billy Jack also expanded beyond the movies to become a popular culture hero.

There are certain aspects of Billy Jack that admittedly do not play well today. Most notably, Laughlin, who is white, plays a character who is supposed to be half-Native; and the film in other ways appropriates Native American culture. Nonetheless, the movie is one of the first American movies to acknowledge the injusices done by white settlers to Indigenous people. (Several revisionist Westerns of the 1970s did so as well; but Blly Jack is the only 1970s movie I know of to show this in the present, not just in the Old West). Billy Jack focuses on Native people much more than on Blacks and other minorities, but it clearly takes the side of the 1960s/1970s counterculture, and the anti-War and anti-racism movements of the period. (The American Indian Movement is not as well remembered today as, for instance, the Black Panther Party, but it was equally militant and active at the time the movie was made).

Billy Jack, like Dirty Harry — and for that matter, like Travis Bickle — is a Vietnam veteran turned avenger back home. (His backstory is fleshed out more in the sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack, where we learn he was a Green Beret who grew disgusted at American massacres of Vietnamese people). But Billy Jack is not a police officer, and his concern is not to clear the world of “scum” or “punks”. Rather, he seeks to protect his people and their land, and especially to protect the experimental Freedom School and its children. (Laughlin and Taylor actually ran a Montessori School in Los Angeles for a number of years, before making this movie). The portrayal of the police in Billy Jack is also interestingly ambiguous — the Sheriff seems to be a fairly decent guy, but his Deputy is a racist who also abuses his daughter and serves as a lackey of Posner, the rich man who runs the town. We first get to meet Billy Jack when he stops Posner and the deputy sheriff from killing wild horses in order to sell the meat for dogfood.

Billy Jack carries a rifle, in contrast to the .44 Magnum favored by both Dirty Harry and Travis Bickle. He seems equally at home on a horse and on a motorcycle. But Billy is also an expert in martial arts. Billy Jack is one of the first American films to feature Asian martial arts; this came several years after Bruce Lee displayed his martial arts skills in the late-1960s TV series The Green Hornet, but before Lee’s movies, made in Hong Kong, were shown in the US and really popularized martial arts. Billy Jack also precedes the popular American TV series Kung Fu, starring David Carradine (yet another white actor playing a non-white character), that also did a lot to popularize Asian martial arts in the US during the 1970s).

I am very interested in thinking about how the figure of Billy Jack became such a cultural icon in the 1970s (and also about why he was forgotten in subsequent decades). Laughlin’s Billy, like Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, is a sort of throwback, a figure of pre-1960s masculinity: strong and fairly silent, keeping his own counsel, utterly righteous (though the films have vastly different definitions of righteousness), entirely courageous, and unbending in his commitment to his goals, which involves serving and saving other people (the honest citizens menaced by punks for Harry, and the Indians and schoolkids for Billy). They are both tightly reined in, but they both seem to get off on their own violence when they have the occasion to exercise it. One might even compare Eastwood’s “feeling lucky” speech to Lauglin’s speech to Posner before attacking him (“I’m gonna take this right foot, and I’m gonna whop you on that side of your face. And you wanna know something? There’s not a damn thing you’re gonna be able to do about it”). But Harry and Billy nonetheless feel utterly different from one another in terms of their screen presence. How can we describe this difference?

Part of it has to do, of course, with the difference between the big-city environment of Dirty Harry (and also of Taxi Driver), and the largely rural environment of Billy Jack (which was shot in New Mexico and Arizona). (Though as a lifelong urban person, I myself tend to see big cities as places of multicultural vibrancy, rather than as places of danger and decay). But it also has to do with the ways the characters’ surroundings are depicted. In Dirty Harry’s San Francisco (and also in Travis Bickle’s Manhattan) there seems to be no sense of community or of interpersonal contact. Everybody is completely alone, or at most part of a couple (like Harry’s partner and his wife). Crowds of people go down the street with complete anonymity and no real interaction. At best, Harry knows the owner of the joint where he gets the exact same lunch every day, and the guy who lend him surveillance microphones. There’s also the liquor store owner who carries a gun because he has been robbed so many times; Scorpio pretends to be friendly and sympathetic, only to rob him yet again.

The situation in entirely different in Billy Jack. The school is an interdependent community; and the town seems to be so to some degree as well. Even the ugliest actions, like the way Bernard (the son of the rich guy who controls the town) abuses some of the kids from the school has much more of a social context than the interactions between total strangers in Dirty Harry. I think that this is emphasized by the activities engaged in by the students from the school. Even if you don’t enjoy their frequent forays into folk singing and improv theater, you have to accept that these are forms of engagement and interaction. They even include the Sheriff and the members of the city council in these activities; they are anxious to show the straight world that they are sincere and creative, and just want to live and let live. I read one online review that criticized the movie on the grounds that Jean’s “no drugs” policy at the school was completely unrealistic; but in fact this is addressed within the movie itself, when the students do a skit about dope smoking and parental disapproval of it, in which the young people take on the role of parents and cops, and city council members are inveigled into playing the disaffected, dope-smoking teens.

Also, the vigilanteism that is uncritically celebrated as necessary in Dirty Harry is itself overtly scrutinized in Billy Jack. There’s the time when Billy Jack is going to beat up Bernard, but Jean convinces him to just force Billy to drive his car into the lake instead. When Bernard abuses the non-white kids in the ice cream parlor, Billy Jack comes to their rescue, but he forces Bernard to back off without beating him up. We then have the martial arts set piece in the city park, where Billy Jack solo uses his martial arts skill to defeat close to a dozen of Bernard’s friends, before finally being overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. That seems a lot cooler to me than Harry’s .44 Magnum. It’s true that we root for Billy Jack when he finally kills Bernard — because Bernard has both raped Jean, and is having sex with an underage girl. But even this is not unambiguous, since Jean retains her pacifism and calls Billy to account for the killing.

A lot of critics, both when Billy Jack was originally released, and more recently, have criticized the movie for trying to have it both ways: giving us lectures about pacifism, yet at the same time giving us the gratification of seeing Billy beat up the bad guys. But this seems to me to be an unfair criticism, since again the movie explicitly sets up a kind of dialectic between pacifism (argued for mostly by Jean) and vigilante revenge (which motivates Billy). Billy keeps on saying that he is trying to be a pacifist, but not succeeding, and feeling guilty as a result. And then there is the moment during the siege of the building where Billy is making his last stand. Billy tells Jean that she has a peaceful soul, in contrast to his anguished and violent one. But Jean responds that this is a load of crap. She has no equanimity or acceptance of having been raped; she says that she has been fantasizing continually about making Bernard pay for what he did. But she held back, she says, because her taking revenge would ultimately harm the young people in the school, and their welfare is her biggest responsibility.

All this is exemplified by the movie’s ending. It isn’t what we expect from this genre of movie. Billy neither holds out singlehandedly against numerous assailants, nor goes out in a final blaze of glory. Instead, he surrenders, and allows himself to be taken away by the police, in return for promises that the government will continue to fund the school and leave Jean as its head. He mentions that the government has again and again broken all its promises to Native Americans, but hopes that this time it will be different. And as Billy is taken away, all the students from the school stand up and raise their fists in the Black Power salute (which was still a highly controversial gesture in the United States at this time). The movie leaves us with a grim but nonetheless hopeful assessment of what is to come, rather than indulging in myths of either redemption or destruction (myths which are invoked ad nauseam in American culture, and which are arguably fascistic in their implications).

Billy Jack is admittedly fairly pedestrian in its cinematography and editing; there is nothing here on the level on Don Siegel’s finely honed action editing in Dirty Harry, let alone the formal mastery of Scorsese in Taxi Driver. But there is still much to admire in Billy Jack, including its earnest vision of political hope, its rather dialectical approach to issues that are treated much more one-sidedly even in aesthetically more accomplished Hollywood films, and the way Laughlin’s Billy Jack functions as an iconic figure of masculinity (but in startling contrast to such contemporaneous figures as Eastwood’s Harry and to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle). As little tolerance as I have for improv theater, nonetheless I cannot regard Billy Jack as incoherently over the top, or as camp — which seems to be the main way it is regarded today, by the few people who remember it at all. Billy Jack deserves a far better place than it currently has within the history of American film; and I would even say that it is worthy of consideration, and indeed emulation, by those who are still thinking about the possibilities of making politically progressive art today.