It’s strange that a film like Billy Jack would qualify for “I’d Love To Turn You On.” This is supposedly the highest grossing indie film of all time, not a well-kept secret. But even by the time I first saw it, in the mid-eighties, barely a dozen years after it came out, it had become an obscurity. I caught it after school one day when I was flipping through channels. The screen filled with wild horses galloping in slo-mo, desert dust all around, through it all a woman sang: “Go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend.” Not your usual daytime TV fare.
I set down the remote. The horses were fleeing white men who aimed to sell them for dog meat, six cents a pound. Among them, a lawman and an elected official, the boss of the town, the Establishment. They cornered the horses and raised their rifles. But before they could fire a wind blew through the brush, and from the brush a man emerged, in a black hat, sitting high on a white horse. Billy Jack.
Every time I’ve seen this film it’s been a different trip. I’ve laughed all the way through and I’ve written screeds in my head, like when Tom Laughlin, the guy who plays Billy Jack, who dreamed up this fading icon, says: “An Indian isn’t afraid to die; don’t ever expect a white man to understand that,” because Laughlin is Wisconsin-born white man, and that’s just plain wrong, isn’t it?
No, it’s not just wrong, it’s over-the-top wrong. In one scene Laughlin’s taking part in a completely fictitious snake ceremony, a tradition of a fake tribe called the “Nishnobie,” and as he emerges from his snake-venom daze he declares, “the whites do not know how to reach through that veil, they do not have the belief.” And in another he’s railing against his white-woman lover, telling her “your people” killed the Kennedys. It’s so wrong that it’s almost wonderful. And apparently I’m not alone in my esteem for Laughlin’s twisted character. “Back in the day, Indians worshiped Billy Jack,” Sherman Alexie has written about the 70s icon. “That Tom Laughlin may not be Indian, but he sure should be."
The first time I saw Billy Jack I thought it was badass. Cheesy, but badass. I was an aspiring punker and these were the Reagan years; I thought anything that showed America’s dark side was radical and cool. And there was plenty of that here: The little girl who sings a song she wrote about her brothers, “Going off to war tomorrow, going off to die tomorrow”; the corrupt officials and lawmen; white children holding up their fists in Black Power salutes; the improv theater scenes that devolve deep into the leftist muck; Billy Jack’s rants against the war and the Indian Bureau—it was all new and amazing to me.
When I watched it most recently, I was struck by the rage in it. Happy moments are few and far between, and it breeds a persistent sense that the world is evil and that those few who aren’t evil—the children, the hippies, the Indians—are all holding on by a thread. And what better platform for a hero like Billy Jack? A man who carries always a calm demeanor, with just a touch of fatalistic humor, perfectly collected in phony Native American pacifism, right up until the split second he lifts his leg and swings it around in a high hapkido kick to the side of a bad guy’s face and all kinds of martial arts ass kicking ensues. Billy Jack was a perfect icon for that time, and like the rebellious spirit that was still burning back then, his hold on the popular imagination has faded. Too bad. We could still use a man like that, in Washington, on Wall Street, anywhere the forces of injustice march on.
- Joe Miller