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THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK - Skull
Rated PG
Copyright 1974 Taylor-Laughlin Productions
Reviewed by Andrew Borntreger on 21 May 2005

The Characters:  

  • Billy Jack - When he takes his boots and socks off, it means that a member of The Establishment is going to get hurt.
  • Jean Roberts - She is why I say laissez-faire parenting is ineffective.
  • Carol - She is really some sort of singing demon that has taken the form of a teenage girl.
  • The Freedom School Kids - An entire campus full of hippies; pretty much my worst nightmare. Many become the victims of gunshot wounds.
  • Blue Elk - One of Billy's close friends among the Native Americans.
  • Wooly Woman - Egad, but this thing scares me.
  • Posner - Not the same one as last time, but a member of the same corrupt family. Throat crushed.
  • Danny - Posner's main heavy who looks vaguely like Burt Reynolds, if it is dark and you need glasses.

Buy It!

The Plot: 

This particular film is my own personal demon. Regardless of any suffering or insult that countless other movies have visited upon me, this is the one that stands out in my mind as the worst. Including the work on the review, I have watched it four times. That adds up to a bit less than twelve hours. Half of a day of my life is now gone. Wait, that would be an improvement. Rather, that time is associated with an unpleasant memory. The best analogy I can think of is watching a little girl beat a kitten against a stone wall, for three hours.

The film starts off with somber music, grand vistas, and solemn totals of the dead and wounded at the Kent State and Jackson State riots. I am going to talk about this later, but after you have a better understanding of how the movie approaches the issues. Then we see Mrs. Roberts in a hospital bed, crying her way through an interview with several reporters. It is obvious that the movie is going to be a flashback. Those work pretty well for episodes of "The Outer Limits," but not so well for most movies.

"Billy Jack" ended with the title hero being carted off to stand trial for killing Posner's (the other one, from the first movie) son. The actual trial, which the title should be in reference to, takes up about ten minutes. Billy is convicted of involuntary manslaughter, goes to jail for a few years, and returns to the Freedom School. You are now thirty minutes into the movie. There is still over two hours to go. How does it feel?

During the trial's course we also hear about what made Billy Jack so hateful of the government. Including the bombing at Mai Lai, he watched Vietnamese villagers herded into a newly dug ditch as the soldiers waited for orders. The ditch is ten feet deep, six feet wide, and about forty feet long. The villagers are all women and children. What do you think the soldiers were ordered to do? Shoot all of the crying women and children, of course (including one little boy who ran away and was shot in the back). Wow, damn. Remind me to never field a platoon Marines who are all Neutral Evil.

Anyway, the Freedom School is doing quite well. They start a newspaper, which exposes all kinds of fraud and corruption. With that doing so well, the kids (they are supposed to be mostly teenagers to early 20's, I think) create a television station. We are treated to a bull session where the kids discuss finding evidence that the White House and corrupt corporations created both the energy crisis and the Israeli War. Wow. Twenty upstart journalists, living in the desert, discovered something that established news organizations missed entirely. Of course, in this movie (if it were addressed), the New York Times would know about it, but the reporters would be part of the conspiracy to keep it secret.

In keeping with the "dangerous pursuit of the truth" motif, the Freedom School phones are bugged by the FBI, while agents start dropping in to visit the students. The kids are able to both detect and disable the phone taps. They also invent a magical contraption that, by analyzing a person's voice, identifies when someone is lying. In case you were wondering, the magic lie detector is effective for checking someone on the radio or television. These points are not important for the movie, indeed they are immediately discarded, but they are important as part of why the film is such a train wreck. You could write an entire script based around a super lie detector. A better script would do just that. Heck, a better script has been written about an inventor creating a fabric that totally repels dirt.

What is next on the list for such an amazing school? Well, they discover an effective treatment for abused children and their abusers. Jean hosts a conference on the subject of child abuse, eventually revealing that the solution is love and patience. Miraculous lie detectors, corrupt businessmen, the FBI attempting to cover-up a conspiracy, and love solving a blight of modern society - this movie is an all-out hippie wet dream! They never provide specific solutions, just generic doggerel. Hell, the viewer barely even understands the problem, because that is glossed over before the Freedom School throws a vague solution over it and the movie moves on. Gah!

Know what you get when everyone points out problems, but does nothing else? A bunch of people bitching about stuff that never gets fixed. If a single person makes an earnest effort to correct just one wrong, you are getting somewhere. Can you imagine a crowd of twenty hippies watching a little girl (what the heck, she is wearing National Guard uniform; it is that kind of movie) beat a kitten against a brick wall? They all complain about how wrong it is for children to beat kittens against solid objects, about how she needed more attention from her parents, and even about the evil company that built a brick wall on what used to be Indian land. Nobody stops the kid from killing the cat.

This movie is killing me.

Next up on the agenda is the Freedom School SAR team searching for some Native Americans who are lost in a blizzard, though the skies are remarkably clear during the search. You have to understand: nobody else will help, because they hate the Indians. The rescuers, which include Billy and Jean, find the party easily and bring them back to a hospital. Another showdown happens there when a doctor refuses to treat the Native Americans.

At this point we have moved into the section of the film that glosses over the failings of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in addition to various generic injustices visited on Native Americans. As luck would have it, the people caught in the blizzard were hunting deer out of season on Posner's land. They are convicted on charges of poaching and trespassing. The judge sentences them to ten days in jail. Not the best outcome, but lenient. The sentence causes some outcry, because the Native Americans were hunting to provide food for their starving family. At one point someone says, "We are not subject to your laws." or something to that effect. That is great. I am going to start using that excuse.

Okay, the big problem with the uproar over the conviction is that they were illegally hunting deer on Posner's property. Maybe it was tribal land, wrongfully transferred to the evil businessman, but the script never lays out that card. What it does do, later, is create a shady land grab that results in Posner taking control of a section of the reservation. He then proceeds to host a drunken party, complete with reckless firearm use, alcohol, prostitutes, and affiliated political cronies (including the Lieutenant Governor and local judge). Billy Jack promptly puts an end to that debacle; with the help of the tribe, he runs the scallywags off the reservation.

The movie is moving into the violent confrontations now. The television station is firebombed, which seems to go largely unnoticed. It is remarked upon by the students a few times, but it does not enjoin the movie to the level you would expect. Again, the events leading up to and following the firebombing of an activist television station would provide plenty for a movie. In this case, it is just another plot point to be visited, then bypassed.

In response to the bombing, the students all parade into town. This really does not do anything, besides provide a reason for the sheriff to mock the National Guard troops (who were summoned to guard the town). It also fails to assist the Native Americans. Posner's men have begun using overt violence against the tribe and the students. One bus, returning from the town, is tipped over and burned by Danny's group of toughs. Billy arrives and kicks their butts. Are you starting to see a pattern?

I can feel the surface of my brain sloughing off inside my skull.

To muddy the already cloudy waters, now we jump to Billy Jack's spiritual journey in search of the secrets inside himself. To achieve such a powerful vision, he paints himself red and descends into the cave of the dead. There he is menaced by a loud roaring, a plague of poisonous snakes, and Bizarro Billy Jack - who is painted blue. Confused? Yeah, but it gets worse. Suddenly, the apprentice medicine man finds himself in the desert, where a serene woman enlightens him on the different levels of self-control. The lesson is taught by Billy walking up to a randomly generated person and smacking them in the face. The first victim is a large man, who promptly returns the affection with a meaty fist. The second target is someone lecturing a group; the strike causes that dude to start screaming at Billy. The third person that Billy smacks is, from what I can tell, Christ.

Yes, I mean an actor dressed to look like Jesus Christ.

All of the previous visions were supposed to prepare Billy in some way. However, once Posner's goons start beating up people, you will note that the protagonist's primary means of conflict resolution (his bare feet) does not change. Especially true once Danny and company beat the bejeezus out of Blue Elk. Now, get this, the goons drag the comatose man onto the floor of a town dance. The judge is there, along with any number of other people. Nobody at the dance does anything to help Blue Elk, even when Posner's gang starts torturing him. How in the world is this supposed to look to the audience? I fail to believe that not one person would stand up for what was right.

When Billy Jack arrives, with a companion karate master in tow, Posner's evil posse takes a horrible thumping. Then the wretched bigwig draws a pistol and starts shooting (really, this is so skewed as to be a parody). Billy crushes Posner's throat with a flying kick, then retreats to the Freedom School as the National Guard surrounds the campus. They agree to leave, if the rebellious activist surrenders peacefully. Well, he does, but the National Guard stays and starts fortifying positions around the school. The standoff eventually culminates in a hail of rifle bullets cutting through the besieged students.

The corrupt officers who take Billy Jack into custody also try to play the old "set up his escape so we can shoot him" ploy. Everyone outside of the Freedom School family (Billy, Jean, kids, and the Native Americans) is corrupt. It is like watching "The Dark Crystal," just trade hippies for the Gelflings and Skeksis for any member of the establishment. I am surprised that the judge does not survive by draining the essence from blonde female teenagers. In other words, "Everyone who does not agree with us is evil. It is impossible for another person to be good and have opinions different from ours."

Arrrrggggghhhhh!

One of my biggest problems with this mess is the complete demonizing of the National Guardsmen. Heck, pretty much anyone who represents authority is almost a caricature of evil, but the National Guard could not be worse if you gave them tails and pitchforks. The entire standoff at the Freedom School is manufactured. The school is on Indian land and, when the troops arrive, the students are peaceful. Plus, the massacre is a hail of bullets delivered by every National Guardsman holding a rifle. The only attempt to convey any even-handedness is the one policeman (that or a fireman) who is hit in the face with a large rock. "Rules of Engagement" drove me up the wall, because it was horribly skewed in the exact opposite direction. The moment I saw the little girl firing, the safety circuit in my brain flipped off.

I will first say that what occurred at Kent State and Jackson State should never have happened. In case you are unaware, both involved protests that were out of hand, which ended with students killed by National Guard and police firing weapons into a mob. Dealing with a violent mob is one of the most difficult missions for any unit, whether it is military or civil authorities. Once a protest starts setting fires, throwing rocks, and tipping cars, it is not a protest. It is a mob and mobs are dangerous. They are mindless, violent, and create a situation where it is almost impossible to protect everyone involved. Any military leader confronting a mob is already in a horrible situation. Troops are going to be injured by rocks, bricks, and broken bottles, while riot batons are going to cause serious injuries in return. You cannot let a mob grow, nor back it into a corner. You have to push it apart, or into alleys, breaking it up. And, worst of all, the whole mess becomes really bloody the moment someone fires a shot. Whether it is an undisciplined member of the platoon, or one of the mob, that shot is the worst sound in the world.

My preaching could go on for a while, but this movie drives me nuts for being the 70's equivalent of a Cold War propaganda film. That is not the only reason it drives me nuts, but you get the idea.

Most of all, the film fails by trying to address too many issues. The plot attempts to encompass the killings at the universities, finding inner peace, government corruption, Indian rights, and bigotry. Any one of those would have provided plenty for a complete film. Trying to encompass all of them, in the manner it did, alienates anyone whose mind is not made up already (to agree) as well.

If any movie has ever kicked my ass, it was this one.

Banner

No way that I was going to try and tackle this monster of a film alone and there is only one man who I would ask to help - Ken Begg, the Jabootu master scribe himself. Click on the banner to read Ken's article (it is the movie review equivalent of "War and Peace").

Things I Learned From This Movie: 

  • Lawyers are pitiful creatures.
  • Once you can touch your chin to your anus, you shall truly know yourself.
  • Repossessing property that is not being paid for is evil.
  • Helpful spirits will flee if a woman comes near.
  • Some Indian rituals involve rappelling.
  • A guitar is not a mace.
  • Feed a fever and starve a cold, but buckshot must be sweated out.
  • Running directly at people who are indiscriminately firing into a crowd is the wrong choice.

Stuff To Watch For: 

  • 8 mins - Actually, I believe the problem is that the last movie ended with a few deaths.
  • 21 mins - The burning question: Where are her bottom teeth?
  • 39 mins - "This puff is for that tree. I always did like that tree."
  • 47 mins - They are building a fighting force of unusual magnitude.
  • 61 mins - This film was doing wretchedly enough, without Jean making jokes like that.
  • 82 mins - Where is that matte going?
  • 90 mins - "No rattlesnakes live in this country...Ouch!"
  • 110 mins - And nobody sees something wrong with this?
  • 141 mins - This movie is going nowhere, absolutely nowhere, and I AM GOING WITH IT! ARRGGGHHHH!
  • 161 mins - "The fourth level is being detached from reality on such a scale that sitting on a cactus is comfortable. You see, right now my brain is ignoring the burning agony originating at my buttocks..."

Quotes: 

  • Jean: "Billy, you heard what the sheriff said. You just can't keep doing this."
    Billy: "Well, what would you rather I did? Let 'em club him to death?"
  • National Guardsman #1: "Does he really expect us to shoot college kids?"
    National Guardsman #2: "You're damned right."

 Audio clips in wav formatSOUNDSStarving actors speak out 

FileDialog
Green Music Note trialbilly1.wav Reporter: "Mrs. Roberts, did it ever happen before that so many thousands of rounds of ammunition were fired into the dormitories in such a short period of time?" Jean: "It happened many times before here: Kent State, the Orangeburg Massacre - twenty-seven kids were shot at that one."
Green Music Note trialbilly2.wav Bad Guy: "Carl, on this bus we've got corporation presidents, Pentagon officials, Washington politicians, and even the Lieutenant Governor."
Green Music Note trialbilly3.wav Billy: "All we want to do is take our friend Blue Elk and quietly walk out of here."
Posner: "Not this time, Billy."
Jean: "Oh, Posner, for God's sake. There are witnesses, hundreds of them."
Posner: "He's not walking out of here."
Green Music Note trialbilly4.wav Blue Elk: "Under authority the treaty of 1868, I am arresting you for being illegally on Indian land. If you resist or you want to continue this senseless slaughter of these unarmed students, who are here under our protection, then you will have to shoot your way through us."
General: "This is a monumental step you're taking."
Blue Elk: "You give us no other choice."
Green Music NoteTheme Song Listen to a clip from the soundtrack.

 Click for a larger imageIMAGESScenes from the movie 

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 Watch a sceneVIDEOMPEG video files 

Video Cliptrialbilly1.mpg - 2.8m
The National Guard troops are confronted with the Freedom School's response to oppression: a "total person" competition. Oh, and belly dancers...

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Comments:Write CommentPages: 1 2 [3] 4
The Trial of Billy Jack
Reply #17. Posted on November 25, 2006, 04:10:12 PM by Ken Begg
I might push my ideology a bit (especially when reviewing a film like this), but I am generally at pains to point out instances where a sane liberal might actually have made a valid point, in contrast to Laughlin's admittedly fun nutbaggery.


I'm not offended, but I do think there's little that is "lacking in both Mr. Laughlin and Mr. Begg."  
In fact, much of my broader point in the review is that whatever side of the aisle one is on, one is probably aghast at incidents like Kent State, and also aghast at attempts to blow it further out of proportion in support of some rather dubious political assertions.
The Trial of Billy Jack
Reply #18. Posted on November 25, 2006, 04:09:49 PM by Wah?
I'm always amused when I read people making broad, bashing statements about liberals...or even conservatives, for that matter. Has it ever occured to anyone that, sometimes, liberals are correct, and sometimes conservatives are correct? The true wisdom (which would appear to be lacking in both Mr. Laughlin and Mr. Begg*) is in being able to discern the circumstanceds when one or the other stance should be supported.

I consider myself an 'open-minded' liberal. If I didn't know better, I'd almost think this movie was made by the so-called 'establishment' just to embarrass those who would disagree with them.

*I admit that I might be off-base here, as I don't really know much about the political or philosophical leanings of Mr. Begg (just what I read here), and I apologize in advance if I offend.
The Trial of Billy Jack
Reply #19. Posted on November 25, 2006, 04:09:49 PM by Barfing
Why is it that liberals are thoroughly bent on revising history?  Oh yeah, I forgot - the only thing that validates their way of thinking is fantasy.

What a blessing that more Billy Jerk movies didn't ooze out.
The Trial of Billy Jack
Reply #20. Posted on November 25, 2006, 04:09:03 PM by George
Ok I was still a bouncer at the drive in when this second one came out and unlike the first one which was just bad, but strange bad,

this sequel was so offensive I actually did my rounds, changed the sign out front, caught some guys coming in the exit, hung out at the popcorn stand, and even had to brandish my 6 D cell flash light club like, perhaps they had been offended by the film also, to get them to leave.

I recall nothing more than the film actually made me angry with the syrup like doctrines it was trying to sell.

Nausea, is my best recollection.  Once ok, a second round? Yuck!
Re: The Trial of Billy Jack
Reply #21. Posted on October 18, 2007, 12:46:48 AM by hanelpanel
"Feed a fever and starve a cold, but buckshot must be sweated out!!" Wow!

Hilarious, dude.
Re: The Trial of Billy Jack
Reply #22. Posted on October 20, 2007, 01:15:09 PM by Greenhornet
Kent State was not "a violent mob".  It was college students going between classes, being mistaken for a mob by panicky National Guardsmen (at least the ones who weren't looking for an excuse to take students down).
the National Guard had been called in because THE RIOTERS had lotted and vandalized the town. The Guardsmen had faced down THE MOB --many of whom had been brought in FROM OTHER STATES-- but were ordered to fall back. When the RIOTERS saw this, some of them started throwing rocks and a few of the solders turned and fired, starting the incident.

These COMMUNIST-BACKED rioters kept the Viet Nam war going for years, just like their sons and daughters are doing in THIS war!
Re: The Trial of Billy Jack
Reply #23. Posted on December 01, 2007, 11:18:01 PM by asimpson2006
Yea, I didn't care for it either.  I really don't like the government too much at all.  I'm more in the middle.
Re: The Trial of Billy Jack
Reply #24. Posted on December 11, 2007, 12:50:41 AM by Hally Luyah
This was a great read. I agrew with most of what he says, but disagree a little with the level of seriousness with which the movie is taken by both the reviewer and the commenters. Billy Jack and Trial of Billy Jack are camp classics, repeatedly unintentionally hilarious. Nothing more. They're politically weird to be sure, but so is just about any movie of its ilk from any era (whether it is conservative or liberal in tone) -- which is part of the fun.
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