Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

December 9, 2012

Kenneth Hart: '70s cinematic flashback a big letdown: 12/9/12

Kenneth Hart
The Independent

ASHLAND — This might be hard for anyone who isn’t my age or older to believe, but there used to be a time when the choice of what movie one was going to go see on Friday night was far more limited than what it was today, especially if you lived in a small town.

Or near a small town, as was my case. I grew up in rural Carter County. The closest theater was the University Cinema in Morehead.

And, that was it. One theater, one screen. If you didn’t care for what was playing, or, if you’d already seen it, you were out of luck.

I always hated it when a movie got “held over” for an extended period, because that meant I had to wait that much longer for something new to watch. (Remember, this was also during the pre-home video, so renting a movie wasn’t an option, either.)

During one memorable period — in 1974, I believe it was — a movie called “Billy Jack” played at the University for what seemed like an eternity. And people lined up literally for blocks to see it during the entire time it was there.

Anyone who came of age in ’70s is no doubt at least somewhat familiar with the film. It starred Tom Laughlin — also the film’s writer, director, producer and distributor — as the title character, a half-breed Native American, former Green Beret and martial arts master who preaches a gospel of nonviolence while subduing his enemies with a dazzling array of flying kicks. To this day, it ranks as one of the highest-grossing independent films of all time.

For reasons lost to the haze of time, I never saw “Billy Jack” when I was a kid. Maybe my parents thought I wasn’t old enough to see it. Or, maybe I just couldn’t find anyone to give me a ride to the theater. I honestly don’t recall. However, I do remember being upset about missing it because, with all those people flocking to see it, I naturally assumed it must be a great movie.

I did, at some point, manage to see “Born Losers,” the first film to feature the Billy Jack character, at the old Dixie Theater in Olive Hill and I remember thinking at the time that it was pretty silly.

Well, nearly 40 years later, I finally managed to see “Billy Jack.” The way I came to do so is kind of an interesting story in and of itself.

We were discussing movies in the newsroom one day, and my esteemed colleague, Tim Preston, happened to mention he owned a DVD boxed set containing all four of the Billy Jack movies. (Yes, there were two more after “Billy Jack” — more on those later.)

I told Tim about how I felt I’d been robbed of a ’70s rite of passage because I’d never seen “Billy Jack.” He agreed to loan me the boxed set on one condition — that I actually sit through all four of the movies.

Challenge accepted. Challenge failed.

I attempted to watch the films in chronological order, starting with “Born Losers.” I actually found it to be much better than I remembered. It’s a fairly typical late ’60s-early ’70s biker exploitation flick, the type of grindhouse fare that inspired filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Taken in that vein, it’s actually quite enjoyable. And, while Laughlin does make a few stabs at social commentary in the film, they’re nowhere near as heavy-handed as in the movies that would follow.

Then I viewed “Billy Jack.” And, all I could think as the credits rolled was: What sort of mind-altering substances were people on in the ’70s that actually made them think this was a good movie? 

Putting aside for the moment the fact it’s hopelessly dated. “Billy Jack” is atrocious — a preachy, pretentious, poorly written and poorly acted chunk of cinematic offal. How it gained such a following — and how and why its title character became such a pop-cultural icon — are mysteries I’ll never be able to figure out.

The thing that’s kind of sad, too, is that the concept behind the Billy Jack character — a mysterious loner who plays by his own rules and sticks up for the downtrodden — is a good one. Had the movie been a straightforward action/revenge flick without all the moralizing, it actually could have been quite good.

As for its two sequels, I only made it about a third of the way through “The Trial of Billy Jack.” Suffice it to say it’s an absolute horror show and it makes its predecessor seem positively restrained by comparison.

The fourth film in the series, “Billy Jack Goes to Washington,” never was widely released in theaters. I also couldn’t help but notice the copy in Tim’s DVD set was still in its shrink wrap.

 I expect I will be returning it to Tim in that same condition.

KENNETH HART can be reached at khart@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2654.