The Best Hippy-Dippy Catholic Movie Ever

The Best Hippy-Dippy Catholic Movie Ever April 23, 2012

A naked blonde lies staked to the ground, straddled by a man who means to insult her, in the Victorian sense of the word. Gulping back terror, she warns her assailant that if he goes through with his plan, she’ll make sure he goes to jail for the rest of his life. Even in her last, desperate bid to protect the integrity of her body, she speaks with perfect composure, sound jurisprudence, and even a hint of compassion. St. Agnes herself could have done no better.

Do I really need to remind everyone that this scene is from Billy Jack, the film where a discharged Green Beret employs fist, foot and finally bullet to protect a school full of hippies from reacionary townies? In a just world, I wouldn’t. Released in 1971 after production on a shoestring budget by auteur Tom Laughlin, who also stars in the title role, it remains the most profitable independent film of all time. It begat two sequels: Trial of Billy Jack and Billy Jack Goes to Washington. It retains a strong enough following to have earned a 62% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Just five years ago, Laughlin found it worthwhile to have the series released in a DVD box set, and to haul his aging frame on a circuit of local TV stations in the hope of promoting it. Where Billy Jack is concerned, please, do not seek the living among the dead.

The point here is not that Billy Jack has aged like Led Zeppelin IV or Sticky Fingers. The headbands and hip-huggers on the girls, not to mention the Stetson hats and overt racism of the yahoos, date it indelibly. But as cultural artifacts of Nixon’s first term go, it’s nowhere near so hokey as Daddy Dewdrop’s “Chick-a-Boom,” or even Melanie Safka’s “Brand-New Key.” No, I’d say Billy Jack compares best with Don McLean’s “American Pie” — a little whiny, a little long, but hard not to enjoy, especially after it’s taken a sabbatical of decent length. Catholics should pay it particular mind because it captures a moment in Church history that offers itself too easily to mockery.

The plot: Billy Jack, half-Native American, half-white, a Special Forces veteran who served in Vietnam and a hapkido expert, finds himself in a rapidly escalating pissing contest with a gang of Sunbelt squares. Not only does the gang, led by Chevy dealership owner Stuart Posner (Bert Freed), shoot innocent mustangs for fun, it harasses the students and faculty at the Freedom School run by Jean, Billy’s sweetheart (Delores Taylor, Laughlin’s wife). As tensions mount, Posner’s sulky, shifty son, Bernard (David Roya), murders one of the students and rapes Jean, driving Billy to take his revenge, to the audience’s satisfaction.

Spotting the Catholic dimension in all this might require watching with a copy of Henri J.M. Nouwen’s Wounded Healer on the lap. In Wounded Healer, published a year after Billy Jack’s release, Nouwen outlines the challenges of ministering to what seemed then a new personality type. Nuclear Man has “lost all naive faith in the possibilities of technology” in favor of a morbid awareness that scientific progress could mean human extinction. He’s also abandoned any hope of immortality, either through reproduction or resurrection. Trapped in “the prison of his mortality,” and of his immediate sensory experiences, he tries to free himself — either through mysticism or through revolutionary politics.

For Nouwen, the dialectic of revolutionary and mystic resolves itself in Jesus. In Billy Jack, it attempts to resolve itself in Billy Jack. On the mystical side, Billy studies with a Native American shaman, and in one scene, participates in a ritual where he “becomes brother” to a rattlesnake by permitting it to bite him. He tries his hand at counseling the kids. In the film’s most famous scene, he explains to Bernard, who is acting as town bully: “When Jean and the kids at the school tell me I’m supposed to control my violent temper, and be passive and non-violent like they are, I try. I really try.” But after listing all the atrocities Bernard’s committed that day, Billy concludes, “I…JUST…GO..BESERK,” and karate-chops Bernard and his flunkies all over the screen.

As a prototype of the leader Nouwen had in mind for his day’s youth — a compassionate contemplative who was also a man of action — Billy’s a work in progress. But a work in progress sometimes counts as progress. In the series, Billy Jack follows The Born Losers, where Billy defends a college girl from a biker gang. By 1967, when Born Losers hit theaters, low-budget biker movies were an established genre. With titles like The Wild Angels, The Violent Angels and The Glory Stompers, they featured Nuclear Man living out the nihilism of his Nuclear Manhood to the fullest. As Joan Didion writes, “There is always that ‘perverse’ sequence in which the bikers batter at some psychic sound barrier…break on through to the other side and find, once there, ‘nothing to say.'” By creating Billy Jack to thrash them, Laughlin was at least trying — well ahead of the general culture, and in a way that partly foreshadowed Nouwen — to impose some meaning on the mishegoss.

If Laughlin never quite made Billy into Nouwen’s beau ideal of a culture warrior, he certainly placed him in a setting conducive to the transformation. It’s from the details of place and character that the film most obviously draws its Catholic flavor. Jean’s Freedom School, where Nuclear-type teen runaways work on a ranch while learning to express themselves through the arts, is basically an intentional community — perhaps not so different from the Catholic Worker farms. One senior instructor, a dry, intense man by the name of O.K. Corrales (Allan Myerson), might as well have FORMER JESUIT SCHOLASTIC stamped on his forehead. When pursued by what looks like every trooper in Arizona’s Department of Public Safety, Billy holes up in a mission-style church, its cross proudly on display.

But the proof is in Jean herself. She has the swift, purposeful walk, the modest gaze and deferential delivery of someone who spent the first 12 years of her life in the care of nuns. Jean may lack Dorothy Day’s fine bones, but with her face windburned and scrubbed fresh as an angel’s, she could have based her look on a snapshot of the youthful Day she saw on her copy of The Long Loneliness. She hesitates to report Bernard’s attack, fearing that Billy will kill him and force the closure of the school. If she’s guilty of consequentialism here (and I’ll let my better-informed readers tell me whether she is or not), she at least displays an impulse toward Cross-bearing. Finally, Jean acts as Billy’s conscience, perusading him to give himself up peacefully, in what we are meant to recognize as a Christlike act.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should state for the record that my old parish had its resident Jean-like figure, a woman whose studied placidity never failed to drive me beserk. But I won’t stand to see these signs of Catholicism dismissed as figments of my imagination. Laughlin, who attended Marquette, planned for a time to produce a film on Fr. William DuBay. DuBay, a priest who served in Los Angeles at the time of the Watts riots, demanded his archbishop be removed for inaction on civil rights, and urged priests to unionize. In fact, Laughlin first announced his interest in DuBay in 1965, just before he would have began production on Born Losers. Billy Jack, in effect, replaced William DuBay as Laughlin’s hero for our times.

The sort of transition — from social activism to Marx-flavored liberation theology, from a world-friendly Christianity to outright syncretism — is the kind of thing that gives 1960s-style Catholicism a bad name. It’s what critics have in mind when they condemn a style of Catholicism as hippy-dippy. When the CDF released its report on the LCWR, those are the memories that got stirred, and which stirred up passions in turn. I suppose I’m submitting Billy Jack for inspection to get people measuring the water in the glass differently. Billy and Jean might not have been solid, Mass-going Catholics, but they had enough of the Church left in them to hold down the body count. If the counterculture infected Catholicism, so too did Catholicism affect the counterculture. Otherwise the decade, like Evelyn Waugh, could have been a hell of a lot worse.

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