My Year Of Flops Case File #11: Billy Jack Goes To Washington
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Billy Jack creator Tom Laughlin embodies a peculiar specimen I like to call the Morning Paper Auteur. A Morning Paper Auteur like Laughlin picks up the paper each morning, grows indignant about everything on the front page, and says to his long-suffering spouse (in this case that would be Delores Taylor, who lent her unforgettably awkward, uncomfortable presence to many of Laughlin's films), "The world's a mess. Look at all these stories: nuclear power's out of control, political corruption's on the rise, re-districting is a disaster, the petroleum market is fluctuating wildly. I'm so upset I'm gonna make a movie about it."
Taylor would then meekly inquire "A movie about which issue?" to which Laughlin would retort "All of them. My movie will also reflect my obsession with Jungian psychology, Native American rights, alternative schooling, mysticism, and the enduring shame that is the Vietnam War. And it'll have kung fu and me pretending to be an Indian, too." For most people, that'd be pure crazy-talk, but Laughlin was genuinely crazy and inexplicably popular enough in the '70s to actually go out and make those kinds of kitchen-sink extravaganzas. Audiences in turn were crazy, stupid, or high enough to go out and see them in droves.
Like the strangely simpatico likes of Rudy Ray Moore and Tyler Perry, Laughlin became a left-field pop-culture sensation by creating a bizarre new subgenre that combined a clattering train wreck of clashing ideas, genres, and tones. Laughlin's Billy Jack movies are ostensibly action movies, but they're also message movies, melodramas, documentary-style exposes, comedies, dramas, semi-musicals, avant-garde experiments with pure abstraction, and just about everything else. Movies like Billy Jack and The Trial Of Billy Jack couldn't be accused of rolling lazily off the Hollywood assembly line. Heck, they didn't appear to be the work of non-insane professionals, let alone cynical Hollywood hacks. There's a queasy, quaking earnestness to Laughlin's films that audiences at the time responded to even if it meant Laughlin's entire oeuvre would age as gracefully as a Lambada musical.
In retrospect, it's clear that Laughlin's seemingly inexplicable popularity stemmed from his ability to appeal simultaneously to hippies and squares. The uptight citizen's brigade liked that Laughlin's Billy Jack was a tight-lipped, stoic loner who let his flying fists and feet of fury do his talking for him, just like Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson. Hippies, meanwhile, dug Billy Jack's commitment to alternative schooling, Native American rights, and fighting corrupt authority figures. Yes, Laughlin had something for just about everyone not looking for competent filmmaking or non-wooden performances.Laughlin also revolutionized film marketing and distribution by releasing Billy Jack in over a thousand theaters simultaneously instead of releasing it slowly on a city-by-city basis. Billy Jack was such a historic smash that not even a three-hour sequel (The Trial Of Billy Jack) loaded down with clumsy speeches, leaden exposition, and ham-fisted sermonizing could kill off the franchise.
No, it took Billy Jack Goes To Washington to finally deep-six Laughlin's signature character. Despite the stunning commercial success of its two predecessors, Billy Jack Goes To Washington never even received a theatrical release and went unseen until Laughlin put the Billy Jack series out on DVD. Laughlin's remake of Frank Capra's timeless classic (produced, sadly enough, by Frank Capra Jr.) retains many of the specifics of the beloved original while abandoning its tricky combination of patriotic sincerity and brassy screwball cynicism. Capra's original was light on its feet and bracingly funny. Laughlin's remake is thuddingly, painfully earnest.
This time around Laughlin was at least able to hire some ringers, most notably composer Elmer Bernstein and E.G Marshall in the Claude Rains role of the distinguished if morally compromised Senator who loses his soul then wins it back just in time for the big finale. Laughlin casts himself in the James Stewart role of a political neophyte who's appointed to Congress as a fluke and battles fat cats out to block a national camp project that'd interfere with their monetary interests.
As in every Billy Jack movie, Laughlin spends a lot of time having "rap sessions" with young people. If Laughlin is ever elected President (he's run twice, once as a Democrat and once as a Republican), you can be sure that massive nation-wide rap sessions where the youth of today can let it all hang out would replace voting and primaries as the cornerstone of American democracy.
Laughlin retains much of the plot of Capra's original, but inexplicably leaves out one of the film's funniest, most seemingly Billy Jack-friendly sequences: that giddy, delightful scene where Stewart goes around punching reporters who've done him wrong. Indeed the only time Laughlin opens a Texas-sized can of whoop-ass is when he bravely defends his terrified wife from being raped by African-Americans. Ever the progressive, Laughlin chastises the black youths for degrading the legacy of Kunte Kinte (can't go wrong with a timeless Roots reference) and doing "The Man"'s dirty work for him.
A Billy Jack movie with only one fight scene is like a Rocky movie where Philadelphia's finest spends most of his time arguing passionately for tort reform. Just about the only nice thing I can say Billy Jack Goes To Washington is that the climactic scene where the dry-mouthed, bruised and battered, but still defiant protagonist suffers like Christ on the cross for a cause he believes in retains a tiny fraction of the original's breath-taking power.
Otherwise Laughlin here achieves a distressing act of reverse alchemy by transforming cinematic gold into scrap metal. Billy Jack Goes To Washington is a humorless, ego-fueled abomination but I sincerely hope Laughlin gets to make Billy Jack's Moral Revolution, a threatened sequel about, well, you really need to head over to billyjack.com and read all about it yourself. My words simply cannot do it justice. In these homogenized times we need Laughlin's singular brand of crazy more than ever.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco