Before Steven Seagal ever thought about making films that mixed martial arts with a social message, there were Billy Jack movies. Through four films, actor Tom Laughlin played Billy Jack, a half-Cherokee Green Beret Vietnam vet with a proficiency for gunplay and hand-to-hand combat. As he battled racists and corrupt politicians, Billy Jack always made his mission very clear: to protect the little man and stand up for what’s right.
The second film, Billy Jack, was a massive success upon its re-release, raking in over $40 million at the box office and becoming one of the most profitable independent films of all time. This allowed Laughlin to branch out into other fields, including running for President of the United States three times, writing books on Jungian psychology, and winning a battle with what was supposed to be inoperable cancer. Apparently, even cancer is vulnerable to a roundhouse kick to the face.
The following list includes all the Billy Jack movies, including information on a possible fifth film. If you’re tired of fatcats and crooks getting away with murder, pop in one of these politically charged films and let the social activism wash over you. Eat your heart out, Steven Seagal.
Born Losers (1967) – Ultimately preaching a message of peace and understanding, this biker film allows loner hero Billy Jack plenty of chances to kick ass. The biker gang known as the Born Losers are on a rampage in a small town, raping and beating anyone who crosses their paths (well, mostly raping just the women). The cops are ineffective and the locals are cowards, so it’s up to Billy Jack to enter the fray and do what’s right. Intended to cash in on the public’s fascination with biker films, Born Losers would allow Laughlin to raise enough money to take his character of Billy Jack in the direction he has always intended. This resulted in…
Billy Jack (1971) – The most successful film of the series, Billy Jack finds our hero coming to the aid of hippie and ethnic students in a small town. Billy promises one opponent that he’ll kick him in the side of the face, and then he proceeds to keep his word. Lesson: Never doubt the word of Billy Jack. The film bombed upon its 1971 release, but a 1973 re-release saw it clean up at the box office and transform Laughlin’s alter-ego into a counterculture hero. Many critics were disturbed, however, as the peace-preaching Billy Jack never failed to resort to violence to advance his message of love and tolerance.
The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) – Tried and imprisoned for events in the previous film, our black-hat-wearing hero spends the first half of the movie locked up. Meanwhile, the students he protected in Billy Jack start up their own TV station and newspaper, sticking it to the corrupt power structure and drawing the attention of the FBI. When Billy gets released from prison, he goes on a vision quest, gets involved with a group of Native American activists, and shows up to oppose the National Guard when a state of emergency is declared. Another commercial success, but the film was once again lambasted by critics.
Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977) – A loose remake of Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the fourth film in the series sees Billy Jack appointed to the United States Senate. The corrupt politicians hope he’ll tow the line and play the game, but they’ve obviously underestimated Billy Jack. The highlight of the film is the climax, where Billy takes to the floor of the Senate in an effort to filibuster. His passionate speech reduces many to tears, including his chief opponent (E.G. Marshall). The movie never received a wide release, and it brought the series to a close (at least for now).
Billy Jack & Jean (??) – A fifth film in the Billy Jack series has been in the works ever since 1986. At that time, the proposed film–The Return of Billy Jack–had our hero taking on child pornographers in New York City. But Laughlin suffered a neck injury and concussion while filming, and the production came to a halt. During a 1996 lawsuit, Laughlin mentioned that he was seeking funding for another Billy Jack film, and he also had plans to get a TV show off the ground. In 2004, the proposed title was changed to Billy Jack’s Crusade to End the War in Iraq and Restore America to Its Moral Purpose, but by 2006 it was shortened to Billy Jack’s Moral Revolution. Then in 2008, the title was changed to Billy Jack for President, while the most recent title is Billy Jack & Jean. According to Laughlin’s website, his goal is to “make the most powerful, explosive, and controversial political and social reform picture ever made.” There’s even been talk that Billy Jack would debate George W. Bush thanks to the miracles of technology. If you’d like to help with the film’s fundraising efforts, here’s what you’ll find at Tom Laughlin’s official website:
- $25 – Donate this amount and you’ll get a signed certificate saying that you’re an Associate Producer of the latest Billy Jack movie.
- $50 – You get the signed certificate, plus a T-shirt that marks you as an associate producer.
- $150 – You get the above items, plus two tickets to the world premiere in either New York, LA, or a city near you.
- $500 – For this level of donation, you’ll get all the items above plus a screen credit at the end of the film. If you’ve ever wanted to see your name on a movie screen, here’s your chance. Of course, that’s assuming the movie ever gets made.
So whether you enjoy socially conscious dialogue or crisp kicks to the head, be sure to check out this assortment of Billy Jack movies. Before you know it, you’ll be enrolling at the local martial arts academy and writing angry letters to politicians. A cool hat with a feather is optional.