February 22, 2015

One Tin Soldier


This one’s from the “Why Do I Do This to Myself?” file. Maybe it hints at a subconscious masochistic tendency I’d rather not know about.

            Not long after he got his driver’s license around 1980 or thereabouts, my friend Rob, his younger brother Tim and I went to the Starlite Drive-in in Green Bay to catch a double bill of Firecracker, a Kung fu sexploitation number with lots of boobs in it, and The Born Losers, a biker gang film from 1967 best known for being the film in which the character of Billy Jack was first introduced to American audiences. I recall liking The Born Losers a whole bunch (though as usual I was rooting for the bikers and not the sniveling townsfolk), but mostly I was looking forward to Firecracker. Although a few scenes from The Born Losers would stick with me all those years that followed, I never bothered seeing it again. Just never felt the inclination.

            This past January, roughly two years after the death of actor-producer-writer-activist-presidential hopeful-New Age health food guru-all-around nutjob Tom Laughlin, I got it in my head to sit down and watch Billy Jack (1971), the film that made him famous. Not just Billy Jack, but all four films that comprise the Billy Jack series. In order, one after another, beginning with The Born Losers. Every once in awhile I’ll feel compelled to sit through a run like that (all the Planet of the Apes films, or Dirty Harry films, or everything Kubrick ever made) even if I don’t particularly like the movies in question.

            I guess I felt I had a couple of accidental connections and allegiances with Laughlin. He shared a birthday with my dad, and both were men of very strong (if diametrically opposed) beliefs. Plus he’s another Wisconsinite, raised in Milwaukee. There’s an odd but unshakable allegiance between former Wisconsinites, even if one of them is from Milwaukee. He was pissed Wisconsin wouldn’t include his name on the primary ballot first time he ran for president in 1992, but he was still a Wisconsinite in my mind. Wisconsin’s produced more than it’s share of actors and directors, all of them independent, iconoclastic or just a little off-kilter somehow (Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray, Bert I. Gordon, Bill Rebane, Gene Wilder), so an indie filmmaker like Laughlin fits right in.

            Fellow Wisconsinite or not, the problem with this latest marathon I was getting under way is that I wasn’t a big Billy Jack fan. No, it’s not simply an issue of my “not liking” the Billy Jack movies. I HATE the Billy Jack movies. Every time I try to watch them I find myself burning with an inexplicable, uncontrollable rage, screaming at the TV, cackling sardonically at inappropriate moments, and stomping out of the room before I have an aneurysm. It’s all quite ridiculous, and absolutely pointless.

            For those who haven’t been subjected to them yet, Laughlin wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the ongoing saga of Billy Jack, an ex-Green Beret half-breed with some anger issues of his own. We learn in the third film, The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), that he’d been in Vietnam but was court-martialed for trying to press charges against his commanding officers after his company was involved in a My Lai-type massacre. Now he lives in the California desert and learns the secret ways of his tribe.

            He also spends an awful lot of time hanging around The Freedom School, located on the outskirts of the reservation. The school is an enclave for New Age hippie nonsense where students of all races learn very little about non-essentials like “math,” “science,” and “history,” but sing a lot of folk songs, engage in a lot of psychodrama exercises, and yak a lot about their “feelings.” Then they sing some more folk songs. They’re all quite sincere and earnest and can’t understand why people hate them, lacking the simple insight to consider it might be because they’re a bunch of dirty, insufferable, do-nothing whiners. Whenever they run into trouble with the racist and evil local townsfolk (or bikers, or government agents, depending on the film), Billy Jack has a way of magically appearing like a superhero and kicking the shit out of the rednecks. When not beating people all to hell, he’s a stony-faced man of mystery who speaks almost exclusively in phrases plundered from popular self-help books of the day cleverly disguised as ancient Indian wisdom. Because of this he is worshipped like a god by the students and school administrators alike. In short, The Freedom School is just this side of the Spahn Ranch, with Billy Jack in the Charles Manson role (only much more annoying). Yet somehow thanks (I’m guessing) to all those ass-kicking scenes, the second film, Billy Jack, went on to become one of the most successful independent films ever made, and Billy Jack-Laughlin became a kind of folk hero. Just like Manson.

            (Hmm. The more I think about it, the Billy Jack-Manson connection is worth looking into, but not right now.)

            When it was first released, critic Roger Ebert called Billy Jack a fascist film. Critics were calling lots of things fascist films in those days, because there were a lot of films about renegades and vigilantes of one kind or another who went outside the bounds of the law to mete out their own simple justice.

            That wasn’t my problem. For me, it’s that the films are humorless, paranoid, self-righteous fantasy cartoons. Bloated, smug, pretentious piles of crap full of long important speeches about “self-exploration,” “self-understanding,” and other such meaningless narcissistic gibberish, lots of white people talking about Indian mysticism, and plentiful references to questionable conspiracy theories. And my god how these hippies are so very desperate to believe they’re being personally persecuted by The Government for their beliefs (and not just because they’re insufferable). It all feeds into the culture of victimhood, and that’s why at the end of The Trial of Billy Jack, the National guard shows up and shoots the hell out of the Freedom School (a ham-fisted nod to Kent State and My Lai both, and a scene that always makes me hoot with delight). See? The evil government troops are shooting at all those defenseless hippie children! It just proves the hippies were right all along! Well, on the bright side at least they can die in the mud with a smug little smile of satisfaction. Christ, it all makes me think Laughlin was lying about his Milwaukee roots—these pictures come from deep in the mind of a certified Madisonian.

            And on top of it all, the films are all three hours long! Who the hell wants to be preached at for three hours just to see twenty seconds of ass-whipping? What the fuck did Laughlin think we were—Krishnas?

            Gah, and then there’s “One Tin Soldier,” the appropriately righteously angry hit theme song which doesn’t make a whole lotta sense in philosophical or even simple narrative terms if you take it apart carefully, but who has time to do that? At least it only appeared in two of the films (Billy Jack and 1977’s Billy Jack Goes to Washington, where an upbeat cover version plays over the closing credits). My god I hate that fucking song.

            So okay then, the question becomes why do it? Why sit through twelve hours worth of movies I hate? Why risk a stroke for something so utterly useless? Why not shut them the hell off after realizing I don’t even like The Born Losers anymore? And more fundamentally still, why do I even own the fucking things? The simple answer is, because sometimes I like to be reminded that I can still hate this much for no good reason.


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