Welcome to Flopcorn, where Reader writers and contributors pay tribute to our very favorite bad movies. In this installment, social media editor Brianna Wellen tries to find the appeal in her father's favorite series.
Just before the holidays I woke up to see that my dad had left me a voicemail at six in the morning. It's the kind of thing that would make most people freak out and assume someone was dead, but I know my father well enough to know that this means he had to tell me about something he had seen on TV. This time around? All four Billy Jack movies played in a row on Turner Classic Movies, and now he finally had the whole collection on his DVR.
Ever since I can remember, my father has begged me to watch these movies with him. In high school I finally sat down to watch Billy Jack (actually the second, not the first, in the series), and found joy in just how ridiculous it was. All the movies—Born Losers (1967), Billy Jack (1971), The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977)—are made by Tom Laughlin and his wife, and directed by T.C. Franks, which is the pseudonym Laughlin used to make it appear as if more than two people worked on the film series. The movies follow Billy Jack, a half Native American half white ex-Green Beret who has trained with karate and hapkido masters, as he defends the defenseless and tries to make the world a better place for other Native Americans, standing up for pacifists using lots and lots of violence, of course.
He must have been doing something right because Billy Jack was anything but a flop—as of 2007 it was the highest grossing independent film of all time. Billy Jack Goes to Washington, however, has a zero percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe it's that film's colossal failure that makes it so intriguing. That and the fact that it's essentially a reboot of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Billy Jack in the Jimmy Stewart role. My father, former aspiring park ranger and current high school biology teacher David Wellen, was delighted to show me this film along with Born Losers ("We should watch them all from the beginning," he suggested, causing me to wonder if I had just made the biggest mistake of my life.) and have a formal, sit-down discussion about the series he holds so dear.
Brianna Wellen: Why do you like the Billy Jack movies?
David Wellen: When I first watched them I was ten, so you can see where that character is bigger than life. But then as I got older, I appreciated the nuances of it, the sayings he uses. One of my favorite lines in any of the Billy Jack movies is when the bad guy's got the girl and he's holding a gun up to her head and he goes, "You're gonna kill her? Just like that?" And then Billy Jack goes, "No, you're gonna kill her, then I'm gonna kill you. Just. Like. That."
BW: Oh, I remember you always saying that one.
DW: I really like Born Losers because it's like a classic biker movie, and then you throw Billy Jack in there. So how can you go wrong?
BW: Ya know, when we watched Born Losers, I did feel like it was a real movie. It wasn't so much the so-bad-it's-good feeling that I got from Billy Jack. It was like, this is a film, they're really trying to do something here. And part of what I liked about both Born Losers and Billy Jack is the karate, the action.
DW: And that's what drew me to it obviously when I was young.
BW: And there is none of that in Billy Jack Goes to Washington. There was one scene of karate mixed in with basically an exact replication of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. They say in all the descriptions of this movie that I found online that it's "loosely inspired" by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But . . .
DW: [Laughter.] No it is not. It is exactly Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. That's the craziest part about it the first time I watched it, I was like, this is the exact same script. Because I love Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it's classic.
BW: Yeah! Everyone loves it! But this movie doesn't have what Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has, which is a very charming leading man.
DW: No, you don't get the this-kindhearted-guy-gets-hardcore view, you get this-hardcore-guy-gets-less-hardcore almost. You would expect Billy Jack to go in fighting from the very beginning.
BW: Which leads me to my first big problem with this movie [Billy Jack Goes to Washington]. In the opening scene—I mean, I have not seen The Trial of Billy Jack (the third movie in the series), you have told me not to watch it because it is so bad—I don't know what crimes he committed that he is suddenly on trial for.
DW: It's the crimes he committed in Billy Jack.
BW: Oh, OK, so then there's a whole movie just about the trial? That sounds so boring.
DW: It's a double trial. It's the trial, but then he's also going through a trial in his mind through the Native American lore where he has a goddess come talk to him. It's probably worth watching once, but I've only seen it twice. [Writer's note: my father watches every movie he doesn't think is terrible at least ten times, so seeing something twice rates very low on his scale of good movies.]
BW: So the driving force of Billy Jack Goes to Washington is that they need a new senator for a state that is never named, and they suggest Billy Jack. They pardon him of all of his crimes, which based on Born Losers and Billy Jack, and include murder, so that he can be the senator.
DW: Well, if you go back to the Billy Jack movies, one of the things is installing autonomy over the reservations to Native Americans. That's the other thing I always liked about Billy Jack. I've always been interested in Native American lore. I took college classes on literature and philosophies of Native Americans. So that's also part of what I like about the character.
BW: I feel like that was not a huge part of this movie, though. I will say the acting was not bad. There were some pretty good actors in this movie.
DW: Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack) seemed to get even better at acting in this one.
BW: My favorite was Lucie Arnaz, who plays Billy Jack's assistant once he's a senator. She felt like the same character from the 1940s, the way she acted was very much in that sort of His Girl Friday-style.
DW: Well, she actually had experience acting and was around actors her whole life. Not that Lucy and Desi were the greatest actors in the world, but they were good actors.
BW: So the first big thing that trips me up is when Billy Jack is pardoned of all his crimes and now can be a senator. And then we have this plot point where Lucie Arnaz's husband gets his hand on these top secret files that just say "TOP SECRET" in the biggest, boldest letters ever. And then underneath scribbled in handwriting it says, "For eyes only." So he has this information and Lucie knows about it. And while he has these papers Arnaz's husband gets stabbed to death and no one seems to care!
DW: His wife cares!
BW: She gets over it pretty quickly . . .
DW: She yells about it and leaves Washington. It's like what the original character did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, only she does it because she gets upset that Mr. Smith went out with that fancy girl instead of her.
BW: I really would have loved more fighting. Like if you're going to do this, let's go all the way, ya know?
DW: At the very least, once he kind of confronts Bailey [another senator from another state offering everyone bribes to vote against Billy Jack's bill], you think he'd send a couple of guys after him that he could have fought.
BW: Even the one scene where he does fight, the combat is pretty minimal. A group of five armed men, who all just happen to be black, surround Billy Jack's daughter while she is out late at night buying groceries. I suppose it was simply parental instinct that cause Billy and his wife to appear out of nowhere to defend their offspring and disarm all the men with a total of two measly kicks. I've seen more threatening moves in a children's ballet class.
DW: And that was very racist. In Tom Laughlin's mind—T.C. Frank's if you will—he wants to show how the black man is being used by the government. But it mostly just comes off as racist.
BW: For all the supposed racial statements he's trying to make and the mention of respecting the rights of Native Americans and all that, is Tom Laughlin Native American at all? Or did he just decide to be a karate, action-hero champion for all Native Americans in the late 60s? For this being the movie that is actually set in Washington, it feels the least political out of all the Billy Jack movies.
DW: Well it was really heavy on the nuclear power plants, which were big at the time. The thing I think he misses out on here and I think it's the thing he really wants to do most is sticking up for reservation rights. You know, if they were going to build this nuclear power plant in the reservation why wouldn't you get into burial rights and things like that.
BW: Well, they were using the original script from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or so it seemed, so they couldn't really get into that reading word for word. While I couldn't find anything confirming or denying they had the rights to use the actual script, Frank Capra, Jr. is a producer on Billy Jack Goes to Washington, and it's safe to say he knew a guy connected to the original film. In fact, according to the film's Wikipedia page, Jimmy Stewart was offered a prominent role in this film as well. He declined.
So obviously you've been trying to get me to watch these movies with you my entire life, but would you recommend these for an average movie watcher?
DW: I think it's a genre of film that you've got to check out. In the action genre of movies, I consider Billy Jack the first, and then you have Action Jackson, then you start to get into more traditional like Rambo or like Die Hard.
BW: So you're saying without Billy Jack we wouldn't have Die Hard?
DW: Eventually you might get something similar, but he was the first to get it going.
BW: In a 2005 interview with CNN, Laughlin blamed the failure of Billy Jack Goes to Washington on government interference, claiming that real Senate members were behind its distribution problems because they didn't want anyone to think the Senate could be bought by the nuclear power industry. Maybe that's why Laughlin felt compelled to work on one final movie, the unfinished project known as Billy Jack Returns then Billy Jack's Crusade to End the War in Iraq and Restore America to Its Moral Purpose then Billy Jack's Moral Revolution then Billy Jack For President then Billy Jack and Jean. Based on its ever-changing title it seems not even Tom Laughlin knew what it would be about. What do you think the plot of that movie would have been?
DW: It was being made in 1985, so I have to imagine it would be sociopolitical, so about global warming maybe or at that time actually there was a resurgence of tribal rights centered around hunting and fishing, maybe he'd do something on that. Or maybe he would have just taken the Die Hard movie and put himself in it.
BW: Tom Laughlin didn't die until 2013, so he had plenty of time to finish the film if he wanted to. But instead he ran for president three times, devoted pages of the Billy Jack website to a manifesto calling for the impeachment of George W. Bush, and made regular visits to his "dream secretary," who would write down Laughlin's recollections of his dreams and analyze them. In 1999 he wrote the book 9 Indispensable Ingredients That Are Always Present in Every Hit Film, instead of, ya know, actually writing a hit film. And yet the first time you watched Billy Jack on screen he became a part of our lives forever. Just. Like. That.