“In that one character [Billy Jack] you have embodied pretty much all of the 70s angst and anger that one could have in America. “
Ojibway Film Critic
[Chief Bromden] in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest started out as the stereotypical Indian and it rose to a level of humanity as the picture unfolds. He has to become the symbol of freedom for America really.”
Over the weekend I watched the documentary Reel Injun and realized that some Native & American Indians saw the 1971 movie Billy Jack as the movie that first signaled that the Indians were fighting back on film.
Some say that John Ford’s last film Cheyenne Autumn (1964) was an apology of sorts to his negative treatment of American Indians. Regardless, the long run of American westerns ended in the 60s. And along with it began to crumble the Indian as the perpetual bad guy.
It was a time of transition for America, President John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963, Bob Dylan’s song Blowing in the Wind was also released in ’63, the Beatles came to American to tour in ’64, the Civil Rights Act was passed in ’64, the march from Selma to Montgomery was in ’65, U.S. troops were heavily involved with the Vietnam war during this time, 1967 was the summer of love in Haight Ashbury district in San Francisco where hippies wore headbands doing their version of Indian dress and smoking their version of the peace pipe, then in ’68 Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot to death, Woodstock took place in ’69, and that same summer man landed on the moon.
That’s quite was quite a decade. The era was ripe for Billy Jack. Billy Jack as a character actually came on the screen in 1967 in the movie Born Losers. It was the flip side of the coin to Roger Corman’s pro-biker rebellion film The Wild Angels released by American International Pictures (AIP) in 1966. I imagine it’s success helped producer/writer/director Tom Laughlin fund Born Losers the following year introducing the half-Indian/Green Beret trained Billy Jack character. Laughlin also played Billy Jack and the sub-$400,000 budgeted movie made $36 million at the box office. But it was the second movie (Billy Jack) in 1971 that allowed Laughlin the opportunity to make the film he’d been trying to make since the mid-50s., a film about injustices done to American Indians.
It was released in 1971 with limited success, but Laughlin orchestrated a re-release in 1973 that took the movie that cost less than $1 million and ended up grossing around $70 million at the box office. It paved the way for the Indians to fight back on film. By the way, it’s hard to watch the snake scene in The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) —along with Billy Jack’s hat—and not think that the character had some influence on Indiana Jones a few years later. John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) also has similarities to Billy Jack. Rambo is also half-Indian (Navajo) and was a Green Beret in Vietnam and is only violent when provoked. David Morrell wrote the Rambo character in the novel First Blood that was published in 1972. Coincidence?
“Billy Jack was presented as an action hero which is something we saw emerge in the 70s, which is a native-style hero who would use physical violence to enact justice.”
Ojibway Film Critic
One of the most famous Billy Jack scenes is when he says to a corrupt businessman, “I’m going to take this right foot and I’m going to wop you on that side of your face. And you want to know something? There’s not a damn thing you’re going to be able to do about it”—moments before dropping him with one kick. Billy Jack featured the martial art known as Hapkido. (Keep in mind Bruce Lee didn’t make his first film until 1971.) Where was Billy Jack during Wall Street’s financial meltdown?
“The Indians start to fight back. Not just in the movies, but in real life as well.”
Cree Filmmaker Neil Diamond (co-director Reel Injun)
Like Watergate & President Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and politics in general the water gets murky even in the world of the American Indian Movement. Fast forward to 1990 when Dances with Wolves was released. In the documentary Reel Injun, the Indians interviewed seemed divided on its impact. Some praising its portrayal of Indians as three-dimensional characters, particularly the performance of Graham Greene. Some just dismiss it:
“It’s a story about a white guy and the Indians are T&A….we’re just backdrop.”
Poet, actor & former chairman of the American Indian Movement
And still others are angered by it.
“To treat my nation like we don’t know how to fight. We, the Lakota—the first nation to militarily defeat the United States of Amercia on the field of battle and Lawrence of the Plains (Kevin Costner’s character) has to teach us how to fight?”
Russell Means (Speaking of the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876)
What’s not debatable is the film was a huge financial success making well over $400 million at the box-office and won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director (Costner) and Best Writing (Michael Blake). (The ongoing debate will always be whether or not Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas was the better film.) But as one of the characters said it Smoke Signals, “It’s a good day to be indigenous.” Since Dances with Wolves Native Indians have been on the upward path in movies.
I thought my last post was the end of this run, but after watching Reel Injun I realized I wasn’t quite finished. Tomorrow will probably be the last post about Native Indians and we’ll look at how they’ve been finding their way to being in films and making their own films—finding their own voice— since the 90s until present day.
You can’t get more outside of Hollywood than Screenwriting from the Arctic, can you?
P.S. The Peabody Award-winning Reel Injun (directed by Neil Diamond. Catherine Bainbridge & Jeremiah Hayes) is currently available on instant Netflix.
Scott W. Smith
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