Billy Jack Goes To Washington

Director: Ton Laughlin                
Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, Sam Wanamaker

The screening seemed to go well. Generous comments were exchanged, and the small, but influential, crowd appeared to be gripped by the action on the screen. But when the final credits rolled through the projector and the lights came back up, Laughlin was greeted by an unexpected scene.

The Senator from Indiana got up and started screaming at him -- "You communist son of a bitch! I absolutely guarantee you, you will never get this picture released. Everything you have, this house, everything, in one year -- gone! You're dead."

- From Billy Jack Online

Ah, Tom Laughlin, what would we do without you? (Well...we'd find someone else who gives us a lot of unintentional amusement.) I like to go to that Billy Jack web site occasionally for a good laugh. There you will find, among all the offers of amazing Billy Jack merchandise and books offering the secrets of striking box office gold or treating cancer, a number of essays and short opinions penned by Mr. Laughlin. Reading these, what struck me the most was neither the subject matter nor Laughlin's opinion on whatever he was talking about. No, what kept going through my head was something akin to, "What the heck is going on in this guy's head?"

Among all of his sound and fury, he treats us to an excerpt from a book (which, coincidentally, can only be purchased at this web site), concerning the last Billy Jack move, Billy Jack Goes To Washington. You read part of that excerpt at the top of the review. Tom Laughlin has claimed over the years that there was a government conspiracy that stopped him from releasing his movie to the public ("until now!") As you can imagine, this is all bull; Laughlin never mentions his popularity shrinking before the release of BJGTW, which was seen with the box office failure of The Master Gunfighter and the re-release of The Trial Of Billy Jack. In his autobiography Flying Through Hollywood By The Seat Of My Pants, Sam Arkoff (founder of American-International Pictures) recalls Laughlin screening the movie for him to try and strike a distribution deal (*). More damaging is that the movie did get some critic screenings (I read a review of it in a back issue of Variety), and there is a record of a small theatrical release.

Anyway, I think both sides can agree that the movie has barely been seen by anyone, and has been unavailable for a long time. So when the movie was finally released on video earlier this year, I assumed that there would be a number of critics writing about it. Wrong - there has been nary a peep from anyone. So it looks like it will be up to me to write a review for the public so they can know all they have to know about this movie once and for all.

As you may have guessed, this is a remake of the classic movie Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. A pompous narrator (who just happens to sound like Jimmy Stewart) tells us at the beginning, "This picture you are about to see is dedicated as a loving tribute to that special breed of human being who, from the beginning, has been the backbone and wanderer of that spirit that was to become the American dream." Not a promising beginning - Frank Capra could get away with stuff like this in his time, but corny even in Laughlin's time. The movie itself seems to be following the Capra classic closely, though with a few updates; in Washington, Senator Sam Foley, head of a team investigating the nuclear industry, has just suddenly sealed his findings (Ooh, conspiracy!) Then he has a heart attack and dies, which leaves a seat open in the Senate chamber. Senator Joseph Payne (E. G. Marshall), whose party is unidentified, calls the Governor of his state, which is also unidentified. The Governor decides that the man to fill the spot, and to assist them with their secret plan to make a killing from a proposed nuclear plant, is...Billy Jack.

WHAT? Well, they give Billy Jack a pardon, which solves the prison record problem, and the Governor claims B.J. probably won't show up, he wouldn't last more than a term, and that they will get their party the youth and minority vote. Okay, but... Well, I'm not an expert on U.S. politics, but can a party just nominate anyone, especially without telling them first? And if these corrupt politicians want someone who will work with them, how come they would be happy if B.J. doesn't show up? And there is the obvious fact that Billy Jack in the past has yapped about various government abuses and conspiracies, and would seem shrewd enough to suspect something from the start.

That's what you'd think, but the Billy Jack in this movie is remarkably different from the one in the previous movies. Until the filibuster at the end he is remarkably soft-spoken, hardly says anything, and sounding like he's about to cry when he does. He's nowhere as sharp as he used to be; now he is so dumb, he doesn't even know what a calendar is. Also, he's gained a considerable amount of weight since the last movie, which probably explains why almost every shot he's in has him either far away from the camera, shot from the chest up, or holding his hat or some other object in front of his belly. Laughlin tries to put a little Jimmy Stewart in his voice in the end, but it's not only a disaster but far too late to even try a performance of any kind.

Also reprising a role is Laughlin's wife Delores Taylor as Jean, who here looks like she could be Lauglin's mother. If you haven't seen any of the previous movies, you'll probably be bewildered by her character, because no effort is made to explain who she is and her relationship with B.J. And if you have seen the previous movies, you'll still be bewildered, because there is no real explanation why she and the hippies (in 1977?) from the Freedom School are even there. Also, her character has also gone under a remarkable transformation. Remember how in the previous two movies she was a pacifist and preaching peace? Well, when she and B.J. encounter some murderous muggers (sent by the man, of course), she takes off her footwear and kicks the crap out of them with no hesitation at all.

If you think the movie might be slightly redeemed by more of the kind of martial arts scenes that the previous movies had, you're wrong - there is only this one scene in the entire movie. The rest of the movie is just a collection of boring talk, either boring in what is being said, or (after checking the collection of quotes from movies at the IMDB) incompetently read and acted dialogue taken without change from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. There is no real effort to change the original story considerably so that this remake could be its own movie instead of coming across as a tenth generation bootleg in comparison.

Speaking of looking bad, it's amazing how bad the movie looks at times despite a budget ($7 million) that was quite considerable at the time. A scene inside the train uses an incredibly shoddy back projection of the passing landscape. The Senate chamber (which by itself took over ten percent of the budget to construct) looks good, but it was a waste of money, since we seldom get a really good look at it. Amateurish editing (such as B.J.'s first speech at the Senate) and directing (such as the camera rapidly whipping back and forth during conversations) make the movie feel even more cheap.

My resources claim that the movie was originally released at a whopping length of 155 minutes, though the video Laughlin released runs less than two hours. I can't say if my resources are correct, but it would possibly explain a lot of unanswered questions that the movie generated. With the character of "Dan", is he the boyfriend, husband, or brother of the Lucie Arnaz character? Why, after finding an important piece of evidence, doesn't B.J. use it? These questions might have been answered if the movie was indeed longer, but then the extra length would have made the movie more of a burden to watch. It's also tough to watch with all the scratches and dirt on the print. Laughlin explained on his site that Warner Brothers had the negative (huh?) and claim it is "lost", so he had to use this particular print. Of course, he claimed there must be some kind of conspiracy at the studio, that he'll sue and fight them and yada yada....must I go on? Not just with detailing his rant, but describing his terrible movie?

UPDATE: "Booksteve" confirmed the movie's theatrical release with this letter:

"I love your site and just wanted to add to info on this movie. I saw it at the Florence cinemas outside Cincinnati in 1977. Seems Tom felt that the successful re-release of Billy Jack was centered in Cincinnati so he had the world premiere of Billy Jack Goes To Washington at a (small) downtown Cincinnati theater. Many of the actors were in town all week. Laughlin threw out the first ball at a Reds game and did personal appearances all around town, as did John Lawlor and at least two or three others including Laughlin's then-teenage daughter. The Sunday comics featured a full page, full color ad for the picture. It was a surreal week. By the time I saw it in the suburbs at the end of that week, the house was nearly empty. It was definitely a longer version. My dim recollection is that Lucie Arnaz came off best. A few years later, I finally caught the Capra classic and nearly erased the memories of Billy Jack from my memories (although I do have an autographed bathing suit pic of Cissy Colpitts, the well built young lady from Billy Jack!)

* Arkoff's previous and stressful dealings with Laughlin are also detailed in this book, and lessens Laughlin's credibility even more.

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