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  Trial of Billy Jack, The A Box Of Issues
Year: 1974
Director: Tom Laughlin
Stars: Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, Victor Izay, Teresa Kelly, Sara Lane, Geo Anne Sosa, Lynn Baker, Riley Hill, Sparky Watt, Gus Greymountain, Sacheen Littlefeather, Michael Bolland, Jack Stanley, Bong Soo Han, Rolling Thunder, William Wellman Jr
Genre: Drama, Action, Adventure, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  3 (from 1 vote)
Review: Four years ago, the half-Indian freedom fighter Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin) was put on trial for his role in the events at the Freedom School, a commune which had raised the ire of the locals with its endorsement of equality and opposition to prejudice. This had led to a standoff between the authorities on one side and the staff and students on the other, which resulted in many injuries and three dead when the cops opened fire; Billy Jack retaliated and in protecting one student managed to shoot a policeman, which is why he was in prison though as the leader of the school and his lover Jean Roberts (Delores Taylor) relates to a reporter from her hospital bed, the trouble was not over...

When Billy Jack had been a surprise runaway success back in 1971 for the Laughlin family, the obvious next course of action was to follow that up, and The Trial... was the sequel. It also did great business, as the star had tapped into a counterculture, anti-establishment appeal which brought in all sorts of audiences for whom the concept of a right-on defender of society's disadvantaged was the sort of action hero they wanted to see. Not that he was an original idea, since countless Westerns saw white-hatted heroes carrying out the same improving tasks, but the politics were something novel, and my didn't they pack a lot of those into this effort, with a new issue brought up every five minutes.

It was as of Laughlin and company recognised they had a platform for their views which millions were going to listen to, and there was no way they were going to allow this opportunity to pass them by, so every hot button topic they could conceive of was going to get an airing, from the student protests which ended in violence (the film begins with statistics of the Kent State tragedy and the like) to government corruption (Nixon is invoked as a bogeyman) to child battery (some poor kid with one hand is introduced as this part's poster child), to American Indian injustices (Marlon Brando's Oscar collector Sacheen Littlefeather was in the cast) and so on, packing in the benefits of marching bands and parades as well as, naturally, Billy Jack's favoured method of personal defence, booting aggressors in the head with a roundhouse kick.

Of course, the irony that all this expounding of peaceful protest would be led by a man of violence was not lost on everybody, yet that was the big draw for much of the audience who took some of the message-making to heart, but really wanted to watch Billy Jack beat up the pigs. Therefore it was debatable how much of this was getting through, though the actual action sequences took up a relatively small part of the running time which lasted a punishing three hours. That Laughlin managed to get so many of the public to listen to him was an achievement in itself, mainly thanks to a method of releasing The Trial of Billy Jack which saw it appear nationwide across America simultaneously, something we take for granted now, but a clever idea for back then, coupled with advertising saturation which trumpeted this as the must-see experience of the year.

As to what those paying customers got for their cash, the answer was a lot of speechifying and didacticism while waiting for the hero to get to the martial arts, much of which had the cultural commentators of the era foaming at the mouth as to how shoddy and laboured it all was, but ver kids lapped it up anyway. It's not as if Laughlin didn't make valid points, there certainly was government corruption and police brutality in the America of the seventies, for example, but to portray them with such a heavy hand created what could best be described as an endurance test, especially now so long after the fact. By the point we're having the umpteenth folky singalong on guitar you may be wishing for a John Belushi in Animal House moment, and Billy Jack's vision quest which sees him painted not only bright red but bright blue as well is more laughable than insightful; that said, all credit for the film to actually take on board the criticism of spouting peace while using violence. It's just that this painful sincerity and hamfisted manipulation was hard to take. Music by Elmer Bernstein (!).
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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