Viking Night: Billy Jack
By Bruce Hall
October 14, 2014
The 1960s were a turbulent time, and movie maverick Tom Laughlin saw America as a culture devoid of face-kicking folk heroes. So, he envisioned the character of Billy Jack as a cultural icon that the disenfranchised hippie generation could rally around. First introduced in the 1967 biker film The Born Losers, Billy sure looked cool with his black hat, blue jeans and ever-present Springfield rifle. And Laughlin’s portrayal of the character as an introverted, uncompromising anti-hero was in line with the same contemporary trends that had made Clint Eastwood and Marlon Brando very rich men.
It also didn’t hurt that Laughlin had a lot to say about the genocide of Native Americans, gun control, violence against women, corruption in government, political activism, tolerance, war, peace, racism and - reportedly - a partridge in a pear tree. So, what better vessel to encompass this cornucopia of ideas than a half white, half Indian Vietnam veteran karate kicking cowboy who’s turned his back on society, only to keep getting drawn back in? And where The Born Losers positioned Billy Jack as a generic metaphor for racism and intolerance, this time he’s a mythical hero who pops out of the bushes like magic whenever innocent people have a problem.
This time, instead of squaring off against outlaw bikers, Billy (Laughlin) has taken to living in seclusion on an Indian reservation, learning the mysteries of the universe from the tribe’s medicine man. There’s a small town near the reservation, and the Indians and townspeople share a tenuous, but largely peaceful coexistence. That doesn’t stop the town’s Mayor - let’s call him Boss Posner (Bert Freed) - and his goons from rustling mustangs off Indian land, slaughtering them and selling the meat for dog food. Billy rides up on the men one day and drives them off with his patented combination of badass marksmanship and fierce squinting. This doesn’t sit well with Posner or his right hand man, Deputy Mike (Ken Tobey).
In fact, Deputy Mike is in such a bad mood, things go pear shaped when he returns home to find his estranged daughter Barbara (Julie Webb) back from a summer in San Francisco, where her hippie “friends” passed her around until she became knocked up, and then sent her home. Deputy Mike bravely contains his outrage until she mentions the possibility of the baby being non-white, at which point he bravely beats her senseless. So, not only are the local police mean to animals, they also hate minorities and are not above bouncing a pregnant woman off the walls when she gets uppity. That’s your tax dollars at work, friends.
Somehow Barbara ends up on the reservation, where Billy takes her to the Freedom School - a home for wayward children run by his girlfriend Jean (Delores Taylor). The school is a casual, drug free environment where everyone is encouraged to contribute according to their gifts. Barbara quickly fits in but unfortunately, Deputy Mike wants his daughter back - presumably to finish beating the hell out of her.