Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Trial Of Billy Jack

Only in the 1970s could THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK have been made, and only then could this pretentious, windy three-hour chore have been an enormous hit.

According to the film’s late producer, director, and star, Tom Laughlin, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 82, TRIAL earned $30 million at the box office in just its first thirty days of national release, which would have made it easily the most successful film ever at that time. It isn’t a good film, but it’s certainly unforgettably unique with its occasional bursts of violence, strident yet sincere left-
wing politics, and frequent unintentional hilarity that you may at first believe to be parody until you realize Laughlin has no sense of humor.

Really, this is one of the craziest movies I’ve ever seen. Kung fu Vietnam vet Billy Jack (Laughlin’s third time out after THE BORN LOSERS and BILLY JACK) is serving a four-year prison stint for the events of BILLY JACK, and the pacifist Freedom School run by his platonic friend Jean (Delores Taylor, Laughlin’s real-life wife) is shot up by the National Guard! Most of the film is told by Jean in flashback form from her hospital bed, and Laughlin’s grisly staging of innocent children being slaughtered by Guardsman would never occur in a film today and certainly not with a PG rating!

Laughlin and Taylor have a lot of bones to pick, and they pick them all. Child abuse (a student plays guitar with a hook after an abusive parent cut his hand off in a fit of rage), government corruption, racists, the rights of Indians, police brutality—all are countered with folk singing and lots and lots of preaching. Upon Billy’s release, he explores his Native American half by experiencing hallucinations during a drug trip; slaps a construction worker, a hippie protestor, and Jesus Christ (!); and encounters his mystical, blue-painted double in the “Cave of the Dead.”

A virtually plotless film, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK jumps from one social issue to the next, which means a potentially exciting subplot about Jean and Billy Jack organizing a search party into snowy mountains to rescue stranded Indians, who then go untreated at a “white” hospital, is truncated into five or six minutes. The acting is quite bad, though its natural amateurishness sometimes works in its favor (Laughlin leaves in a part where Teda Bracci blows a line, laughs it off, and repeats it correctly). Balancing the clumsy performances are technical values that are impressive for an independent vanity picture, such as Jack Marta’s overwhelming widescreen nature cinematography and Elmer Bernstein’s score.

Laughlin dishes out a little of Billy Jack’s backstory, including an arresting flashback in which he witnesses a massacre of Vietnamese women and children by American soldiers, in this bizarre mixture of peacenik sincerity and exploitation. Billy returned one last time in BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON, which barely played theaters. CBS aired TRIAL in a three-hour prime-time slot in 1980 and again on THE CBS LATE MOVIE in 1984.

1 comment:

wayne d. dundee said...

This is a truly bad film --- a classic case of power gained from previous success (in this case THE BORN LOSERS and BILLY JACK) going subsequently unchallenged and unchecked and thereby yielding dismal results. It only got worse with BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON and THE MASTER GUNFIGHTER ... In my humble opinion, BORN LOSERS was the best of Tom Lughlin's films because it was approached as a straight action piece with only minimal "preachiness". BILLY JACK still holds up relatively well, especially for those of us who saw it at a special point in time when it first came out. After that, Laughlin was simply out of control ... I still have great admiration for him, however, due to the depth of his passions and his fierce commitment to doing things his way. Ironically, these traits - with no one able to hold them in balance - also severely limited what might have been a much larger and more powerful output.