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Release Date: September 29th, 2009 Movie Release Year: 1971

Billy Jack

Overview -

The trend-setting smash hit that broke box office records and had audiences cheering! A half-Indian/half-white ex-Green Beret, Billy Jack is drawn more and more toward his Indian side. He hates violence but can't get away from it in the white man's world. Pitting the students of the peace-loving free-arts school in the desert against the oppressive bad guys in a nearby town, this action-packed film remains a landmark focusing on the most emotional themes of the time: anti-establishment, two-sided justice, and racial segregation and prejudice.

Worth a Look
Rating Breakdown
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
BD-25 Single-Layer Disc
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p/AVC MPEG-4
Aspect Ratio(s):
Audio Formats:
English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround
Special Features:
TV Spots
Release Date:
September 29th, 2009

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take


Back in the late '60s and early '70s, anti-establishment films captured the imagination and stoked the passions of a turbulent society hankering for radical change. Railing against war and prejudice, and advocating free speech, free thinking, and free love, these low-budget, independent movies with misunderstood heroes often tried to temper their heavy-handed messages with enough action and attitude to appease the masses. Not all succeeded, but 'Billy Jack' sure did, tapping into the palpable emotion and malcontent of many Americans fed up with the country's state of affairs to the tune of millions of box office dollars. Though its altruistic themes of peace, love, and brotherhood are timeless, this martial arts, anti-everything cult classic remains firmly rooted in the '70s. Once considered edgy and bold, 'Billy Jack' now exudes a strange quaintness that severely dulls its heal-the-world mojo and turns what was once a blazing hot property into little more than an oddball curio.

The story focuses on the efforts of Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin), a half-breed, ex-Green Beret, to protect the minorities and misfits persecuted by bullying bigots in a divided, uptight Arizona community. Billy strives to embrace his peaceful Indian side, but resorts to violence when the situation warrants it, much to the chagrin of Jean Roberts (Delores Taylor, Laughlin's real-life wife), who runs a controversial progressive school for troubled students of various races and backgrounds. As tensions mount, largely due to the sadistic exploits of spoiled bad boy Bernard Posner (David Roya) and his band of thugs, Billy resorts to more drastic measures to exact revenge and ensure that both the school survives and Jean, whom he loves, can continue to teach and help needy children without worrying about vicious repercussions.

I first experienced 'Billy Jack' as a wide-eyed 10-year-old during its wildly popular 1973 re-release. I'd never before seen such a violent movie (although by today's standards, it's pretty tame), and the two things I remember most were Laughlin's slow-motion karate kicks and hand chops to the solar plexus, and Roya cutting open a bodacious bimbo's bra with a switchblade. Both made a big impression on my burgeoning adolescent brain, clouding it with enough stimuli to prevent any of the film's idealistic messages from gaining entrance. But however it wormed its way into my psyche, 'Billy Jack' reeled me in and stayed with me, and the mere mention of it sparked nostalgic memories for years to come.

Seeing it today, however, I found it tough to ignore the rambling script (written by Laughlin and Taylor under a pseudonym), lack of focus, choppy direction (by Laughlin, again under a pseudonym), and bad acting that distinguish the film. Sure, a movie that promotes a non-violent stand (except in extreme situations), the humane treatment of animals, and racial equality and tolerance should be admired, but such lofty principles can't mask the myriad artistic deficiencies plaguing the production. How much you're willing to forgive depends on your affection for 'Billy Jack,' but Laughlin's decision to use non-actors in many key roles – though it may lend the tale a more natural feel – harms the film more than helps it. The stilted, monotonic line readings of many of the students weaken the impact of several key scenes, and though Taylor enjoys a couple of excellent emotional moments, she looks at other times as if she's wandering about in a catatonic stupor. Laughlin, the rebel with a cause who speaks softly and carries a big kick, makes a fine action hero, and his steely-jawed magnetism keeps the enterprise on track. Yet he often sabotages his own efforts with extended improvisational sequences and interminable protest songs that needlessly stretch the running time and try viewer patience.

'Billy Jack' paints an accurate portrait of a specific moment in time, and its 1973 re-release on the heels of the highly publicized and tragic Wounded Knee incident in South Dakota (which shed a fresh spotlight on the sorry state of Native American relations in this country) added significant fuel and relevance to its story. Though the messages Laughlin preaches remain vital today, the vehicle used to transmit them is outmoded, resulting in a very uneven, often shamelessly indulgent film. Even the flower children of the protest era who most likely lined up to see 'Billy Jack' countless times during its theatrical run may now wonder what all the fuss was about.

Video Review


The packaging advertises a "fully restored and remastered" transfer, and that's exactly what Image delivers. Though the low-budget nature and advanced age of 'Billy Jack' lend a slightly rough quality to the video, it suits the subject matter and never distracts from the on-screen action. A moderate grain structure applies a veneer of texture to the image that seems more pronounced on solid backgrounds, such as the strikingly blue Arizona sky (which itself appears a bit oversaturated and noisy on occasion), but that's in keeping with the film's original look. For the most part, however, colors sport a natural vibrancy and stand out well against the desert backgrounds. The reds and yellows on the patterned native outfits are bright and distinct, although blood looks incredibly fake, taking on the gloppy quality of fingerpaint. Fleshtones can adopt a faint orange tint from time to time, but generally remain true.

With a few exceptions, contrast is excellent, black levels are rich, and fine details are clear and discernible. A few scenes exhibit a nagging softness, but close-ups possess lots of detail and high-def pop, bringing the picture welcome immediacy and presence. Thankfully, digital enhancements have been kept to a minimum, so the genuine feel of the film remains intact, and almost every nick and scratch has been removed from the print. This is by far the best 'Billy Jack' has ever looked on home video, and fans should be thrilled with this meticulous restoration.

Audio Review


The video quality of 'Billy Jack' is impressive, but the highly nuanced and active DTS-HD Master Audio track really surprised me. Films from 1971 – especially those with a shoestring budget – usually don't sound this good, or possess as much sonic punch. From the get-go, though, it's evident we're in for an aural treat. The dynamic rendering of "One Tin Soldier," the movie's highly recognizable theme song by one-hit wonder Coven, powers across all five speakers with marvelous clarity and tonal depth, and the ensuing horse hooves nicely rev up the subwoofer. There's also quite a bit of ambient surround activity, as chirping birds add lovely atmosphere to some of the quieter scenes. In addition, gunfire is crisp and directional, and Laughlin's kicks and chops enjoy good thudding weight.

Dialogue is well prioritized, and even though the actors often mumble, conversations are never difficult to understand. A slight bit of distortion creeps in now and then, usually when voices become shrill, but it never becomes bothersome. Though the equipment used to record the film was most likely far from state-of-the-art, and some of the effects surely have been artificially enhanced for this Blu-ray edition, the high-quality audio track makes 'Billy Jack' a far more immersive experience than it otherwise might be.

Special Features


A few extras lend some historical perspective and insight into this cult favorite.

  • Audio Commentaries – Two audio commentaries, one from 2000 and one from 2005 (and both featuring Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor), provide quite a bit of behind-the-scenes information and some interesting and amusing anecdotes, but they're almost identical in nature and content, so there's no need to listen to both. The earlier discussion begins with Laughlin talking about the film's 17-year journey to the screen and how making 'Billy Jack' was his "lifelong dream and crusade." He and Taylor reminisce about the use of non-actors in several key roles; intermingling seasoned pros with "raw amateurs"; the supreme compliment Laughlin received from legendary Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck; the compromises of small budget moviemaking; the improvisational aspects of many scenes; how their 14-year-old son Frank often doubled for Laughlin in motorcycle long shots and provided astute direction in one notable sequence; Taylor's body double for her nude sequence; and the crazy lawsuit brought by David Roya (who played Bernard) claiming he deserved star billing. It's a lively and absorbing track, but so is the 2005 commentary, in which a grown-up Frank Laughlin also provides his perspective on the picture and its production. His input adds an extra element, but little new material is covered. The dialogue has a more relaxed feel to it, as it was obviously recorded in Frank's home – some microphone issues somewhat hamper the track, and at one point Frank yells to his daughter to "close the door or turn down the music." Both tracks have equal merit, and which you choose really depends on how much input you'd like from Taylor. During the 2000 commentary, she's an equal partner to Laughlin, but in the 2005 discussion, she takes a back seat to her husband and son, and only squeezes in occasional remarks.
  • Featurette: "The Making of 'Billy Jack'" (HD, 14 minutes) – This brand new featurette inventively recounts the production history of 'Billy Jack' and its ultimate success. We learn about the story's true-life origins, Laughlin and Taylor's love affair, the struggle to interest studios in the project, and the revolutionary TV ad campaign that fueled the film's re-release. The piece also examines how Laughlin personally pioneered the wide release format that dominates the movie market today. Fans of the film will not want to miss this enlightening and visually stimulating mini-documentary.
  • Original TV Spots (SD, 8 minutes) – A collection of 11 television commercials for the re-release of 'Billy Jack' in 1973.

'Billy Jack' has its heart in the right place, but unfortunately this snapshot of the protest era is not a well-made film and hasn't held up over the years. Alternately touchy-feely and mildly violent, Tom Laughlin's cult classic possesses a few signature moments (and forever owns the word "berserk"), but often feels as aimless and nomadic as its title character. The restored video and audio considerably punch up the proceedings, as do a couple of notable extras, but they can't really bring this dinosaur into the new millennium. Still, because of the sensation it once caused and the bygone age it honors, 'Billy Jack' on Blu-ray is worth a look.