Monday, November 26, 2012

Billy Jack Goes to Washington

Train Wreck Cinema

By David Skolnick

Billy Jack Goes to Washington (Taylor-Laughlin, 1977) – Director: Tom Laughlin. Starring Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, E.G. Marshall, Teresa Laughlin, and Pat O’Brien.

The back of this film’s DVD case, from 2000, calls it: “The Most Dangerous Billy Jack of All!!”

It goes on to contend: “Even though it was made during our nation’s bicentennial, it’s as if the story was ripped from today’s headlines. Corruption, scandal, intrigue, murder…they’re all in this explosive expose Washington found so dangerous it didn’t want the movie released. And it never has been…until now!”

It also states: “Like Billy Jack, this film has survived the powers fighting to destroy it and is finally being released to expose the truth and win America back!”

OK, let’s pause a moment. This film, the fourth and definitely the worst of the Billy Jack movies, finished production in 1976, and played in very few theaters in 1977. But I doubt the limited release had much to do with Washington finding it “so dangerous.” The likely reason is it is unbelievably bad.

The mid-1970s gave us many excellent government corruption/conspiracy films such as The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, The Day of the Jackal and All the President’s MenThe key difference between those films and Billy Jack Goes to Washington is the latter is awful.

As he did with Billy Jack (1971) and The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), Laughlin had to work out distribution deals for this movie with studios and theater owners, and he never endeared himself to the Hollywood establishment.

When he peddled this terrible film, which originally ran for 2 hours and 35 minutes, no one in their right mind wanted to show a dialogue-heavy Billy Jack movie without the franchise’s main redeeming value – the fight scenes. This film has one, and it is ridiculous. (I’ll make fun of it later.)

Laughlin also had to borrow money to finish the film, and when he tried to distribute it, his creditors, business associates and others filed lawsuits, making it a greater challenge to have it shown, according to "The Golden Turkey Awards" book. The book selected this movie as "The Worst Film You Never Saw."

Billy Jack Goes to Washington is largely a remake of the 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur. Both are about a little guy somehow getting appointed to a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate for a short period of time, with political bosses not expecting them to make any waves. Of course both end up exposing government corruption.

One difference between the two films is Laughlin and his wife, Taylor, aren’t Stewart and Arthur. Frank Capra Jr., a producer of Billy Jack Goes to Washington, had the film rights to his father’s classic and for some reason thought Laughlin would do it justice. Junior certainly didn’t have the same eye for talent as his dad.

The DVD version eliminates about 40 minutes from the original, cut by Laughlin, who owns the film’s rights. Even he can’t stand the full-length original version.

None of the Billy Jack films – the first was The Born Losers (1967) – will ever be mistaken for cinematic classics. But the first two and The Trial to a much lesser extent (primarily because the latter is 2-hours-and-50-minutes long) are enjoyable to watch for the action and fight scenes.

In the first three Billy Jack films, the “half-breed” Indian/former Green Beret/martial-art master who wears an awesome-looking black hat (he didn't wear "The Hat" in The Born Losers) stands up for the little guy while kicking the butts of motorcycle gang members, bigots, racists and generally bad people by himself. He usually does this after he takes off his cowboy boots so he can beat them up barefoot style. This is all done in the names of peace and justice.

In the fourth Billy Jack movie, we’re told a U.S. senator from an unnamed state with top-secret information and apparently more power than federal agencies in charge of such things has given the “green light” to the increased development and production of nuclear weapons and power. He then drops dead. The junior senator (played by Marshall) from the same unnamed state is just as evil as the dead guy and is finalizing a big deal to build a nuclear power plant in said unnamed state.

The governor of the unnamed state has to quickly replace the dead U.S. senator. He needs to find someone naïve about government and this evil nuclear scheme who can easily be controlled. Sen. John Paine (Marshall) and a nuclear power plant lobbyist recommend a candidate. But the governor decides it should be Billy Jack much to chagrin of the senator and the lobbyist. Yeah, it’s not a logical choice. Jack has spent three movies fighting The Man, including spending time in prison for murder. But the gov gives Jack a pardon and says what harm can he do in the U.S. Senate for a couple of months as a temporary replacement?

After talking it over with his Indian grandfather, Jack accepts the position. He has no idea what to do in the Senate. With the help of girlfriend Jean Roberts (played by Taylor), a D.C. secretary (Lucie Arnaz in her first film) and some hippie/left-wing Freedom School students, they decide to introduce a bill to create a National Children’s Camp on the exact site as the secret nuclear power plant.

(There’s a subplot with a greedy Washington staffer who has information on the top-secret nuclear power plant getting murdered when trying to shakedown various political big-wigs. He is Arnaz’s boyfriend, and after he’s killed, she wants to get out of town - fast. Don’t worry, she returns to help Billy.)

With Billy unwilling to play ball on the nuclear bill, it’s time to take care of him. We get the one fight scene in the movie. Carol, a girl from the Freedom School (played by Teresa Laughlin, the real-life daughter of Laughlin and Taylor), is followed by a black guy with bad intentions. Roberts finds out and so does Jack. Roberts, a pacifist in two other Billy Jack films, suddenly turns ninja and she and Jack beat up a group of black guys carrying switchblades. Even though they’re black, Billy lets us know they must be working for The Man and he’s sorry he has to beat them up. He actually says, “Kunta Kinte would turn over in his grave if he saw you hired out to The Man like this.

After the beat-down, we later get Laughlin doing his Mr. Smith filibuster scene with Pat O’Brien in one of his last film roles as the Senate president. Jack collapses and Paine, who earlier in the film calls for Billy’s expulsion from the Senate, finally confesses to his evil deeds.

Cue the happy ending and Teresa Laughlin does her version of “One Tin Soldier” over the credits.

Laughlin, who also wrote the film, gets to play hero again and show how one man can change the system. Despite the fight scene, Jack is praised by Roberts for beating the corrupt politicians with his words and not his fists and feet. “You did it. No matter what anybody says about you now, you did it. And you didn’t have to even once take off your boots,” she proudly tells Jack.

If you’re a Billy Jack fan and have only heard of this film, you should see it just to say, “Wow, I can’t believe that’s an actual film.” If you’ve never heard of Billy Jack, see the 1971 film and if you're feeling adventurous, watch all of them. You can get the four films on one DVD.

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