Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin / U.S., 1971):

The schoolmarm and the ass-kicker, as Paul Robeson would have it, "that's America to me." The moral position derives largely from Aldrich's Apache and Western landscapes indeed adorn the opening credits, though Tom Laughlin readily situates his fable in the Now of Nixonian discord. Old and new communes, the Arizona hamlet gripped by the fat-cat cowboy (Bert Freed) and the home for wayward juveniles run by the peacenik (Delores Taylor) in the Indian reservation, "a very progressive school." The whole megillah of hippies and squares spins between the poles, so does Laughlin's eponymous half-breed knight—a sensitive badass, raging and serene, decked out in broad-brimmed stetson and denim. (In a blunt dilation of the diner brawl from Stevens' Giant, he comes to the rescue of bullied kids and negotiates the bigoted henchmen with them newfangled hapkido kicks.) "A rainbow made of children" is the utopian image, shamanic rattlesnake rites and mewling acoustic guitars and interminable improv sessions fill the generation gap. "When that set of laws is applied to everyone, then I'll turn the other cheek, too." Hondo, The Misfits, Lonely Are the Brave and Alice's Restaurant comprise the affectingly absurd formulation, the tone is barefoot earnestness aided by the occasional fist to the throat. Haight-Ashbury is a deception far away, youth must work things out in the wild: The wickedness of the scion (David Roya) on one side, on the other the romance between Smart Mouth (Julie Webb) and Punching Bag (Stan Rice). Whitman's "primeval password," facsimiles of Civil Rights and Ken State confrontations, "just a fight for survival." Tight choreography for bouts and loose-limbed framing for street theater, a divided mise en scène for a divided epoch. "You know, that's not a bad thought for a pacifist." Laughlin rides his one tin soldier to Washington and beyond in the sequels, Steven Seagal inherits all. With Clark Howat, Victor Izay, Teresa Kelly, Kenneth Tobey, Susan Foster, and Howard Hesseman.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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