Billy Jack was one of the most popular action heroes of the '70s and possibly the first one to specialize in martial arts. A low-talking halfbreed, Billy Jack (played to perfection by Tom Laughlin) movies were always fight-filled affairs — but not the mindless junk that followed in the wake of films by the likes of Laughlin and, later, Bruce Lee.
Laughlin was a realistic action hero/tough guy as he was a real life athlete — obviously skilled in martial arts, he was also (like Burt Reynolds) a college football star (Laughlin attended the University of Minnesota).
The Billy Jack character starred in a quartet of films. The first film to feature Billy Jack, 1967’s Born Losers, appears at first glance to be similar to a lot of "biker gang terrorizes a small town" films that were all the rage on the B-level at that time. But the film is superior to most as it features some great sub-characters.
Jeremy Slate is first rate as the leader of the biker gang (Daniel) as is his second in command, William Wellman Jr. (Child). An appearance by a young and full-haired Bob Tessier (who would go to feature roles in Hard Times, The Longest Yard and, after shaving his head, played Mr. Clean in TV commercials) just about makes up as most believable and intimidating a gang as you could get at the time (making Brando’s crew in The Wild Ones look like grammar school dropouts and sissies by comparison).
Co-star Elizabeth James, who is the girl that Billy Jack tries to protect from the motorcycle gang, is quite good as the parentally ignored rich girl who, of course, falls for her protector. James would be replaced as the female sidekick in the remaining films by the wonderful Delores Taylor, whom Laughlin has been married to since the '50s. While Born Losers is sometimes referred to just as the film that introduced Billy Jack to the world, it is one of best of its genre (especially when it is compared to most of the motorcycle gang junk flicks from that time).
1971’s Billy Jack was the film that sky-rocketed the character to success. Touching upon a very popular issue of the time (the plight of the Native Americans), the film was the highest grossing of the franchise. A hit single from the film — “One Tin Soldier,” which really has nothing to do with the actual movie — did not hurt in aiding in the success of the film. While The Trial of Billy Jack and Billy Jack Goes to Washington were not as financially successful as Billy Jack they both provide great moments.
Though the Trial of Billy Jack follows a similar formula to Billy Jack, Billy Jack Goes to Washington has more of a focus on the corruption in D.C. and was a foreshadowing of the career path that Laughlin would follow after he stopped making films.
The picture quality and sound on the Billy Jack box is even more pristine and cleaned up up than the Ventura 35th Anniversary Ultimate Billy Jack Collection from a few years back – and that set was itself high in quality.
Each disk has two audio commentaries which do give some great insight into the making of all four movies and all disks are in Dolby and widescreen format. Unfortunately we don’t get some bonuses that Billy Jack diehards would have lusted for. Footage from 1985’s never completed film The Return of Billy Jack (in which he is reported to battle child pornographers) would have been a great bonus. Also, the fifth disk from the Ventura collection is also M.I.A.
Regardless, The Billy Jack Collection is a must for action fans.