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August 19, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 33
A vision of American multiplicity
By Stuart Byron
One feels that de Tocqueville, or Frederick Jackson Turner, or Vernon Parrington would understand “BILLY JACK” far better than have the New York critics who so roundly condemned it. Perhaps film is reduced, as a British reviewer of Phil Hardy’s book on Samuel Fuller recently complained, when it is considered as a branch of “American Studies.” Yet much as the aesthetic strict constructionism and New Critical purity of the early “auteur” critics was once welcome, it did lead to the blindness of Truffaut and colleagues to such jugglers of American myth and symbols as John Ford. A popular line on “Billy Jack” is that it preaches pacifism while displaying violence, whereas, to me, its purpose is to try to understand and reconcile these contrasting forces in American life.
Ford, Fuller, and Delmer Daves are the directors who come to mind; and T.C. Frank (whose previous “Born Losers,” which I haven’t seen, has developed a cult as the best of the motorcycle pictures) would seem a logical successor to them, if only by dint of his recognition of America’s complexities: The country that is the most violent but which has the only viable pacifist tradition, that is at once the most individualistic and the most communal, that has had to assimilate influences native, European, and even Asian.
The spirit animating the film seems to be a sort of Pentacostal Catholicism with strong Franciscan overtones, the saint himself being quoted at one point to the effect that we must have the courage to change what we can and to accept what we cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference. It sees a connection between the closeness to Christ achieved by the early Christians and the spiritual rites of American Indians. This kind of religious juxtaposition is paralleled stylistically through “staged” scenes placed side by side with cinema-verite episodes. Rather than seeming forced, this olla podrida of methods attests to the film’s vision of American multiplicity and the need for each man to find his own small salvation and redemption within it. In a sense the film is conservative, or at least anti-radical, accepting the existence of evil as part of a permanent moral order.
Its heroine, clearly the character through whom the film speaks, is the pacifist mistress of an experimental multiracial school located on an Indian reservation. She is played by Delores Taylor with a sensual maturity practically unknown among American actresses, inviting comparison with Moreau or Signoret, although completely native in ambiance. The school, with its longhaired students, is in conflict with the square values of the nearby town, and all hell breaks loose when the students hide the pregnant daughter of the local deputy sheriff. A rape and several murders occur before the final showdown in which Billy Jack sacrifices his desire for revenge for the sake of the school’s continued existence.
As played strongly but silently by Tom Laughlin, Billy Jack follows in a long tradition of screen Indians, running at least from Burt Lancaster (“Apache”) to Paul Newman (“Hombre”) — full of existential angst and fury at the wrong done his people, expressionless, ready to fight fire with fire. But the film is truly a “modern western” in that it uses genre cliches to comment on historical irony and reality. Thus, the militant western hero again has as nemesis a pacifist “schoolteacher” with whom he is in love. But rather than representing settlement and rule of law, she symbolizes a return to pre-civilized tribal living. Law and order in “Billy Jack” is shown in the west as the rule of fat, amoral ranchers and their lackeys. “California,” that escape route of so many westerns, is now Haight-Ashbury, no escape at all.
Some of the picture’s Catholic attitudes may be hard for an urban audience to swallow: Abortion seems an unheard-of solution to the problem which sets off the plot, and (pace, Women’s Lib) rape seems to be taken a bit too seriously. Yet all of this pays off eventually in that a semi-miracle works: Billy Jack, though bleeding from a wound placed exactly where the spear hit Christ, feels nothing and goes about his business.
This sincerity on the part of Frank and co-scriptwriter Teresa Christina, plus their feeling for American pluralism, informs the ending where a series of right-on clenched fists become a symbol for peace and are incredibly moving. In America, the film seems to be saying, what starts out meaning one thing can be made to mean another. “Billy Jack” is the nicest surprise of the year, and my own feeling is that it ranks among the top half-dozen American films so far in 1971.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 27, 2010