Still, the film lacked distribution, so Laughlin booked it in to theaters himself in 1971. The film died at the box office in its initial run, but eventually took in more than $40 million in its 1973 re-release, with distribution supervised by Laughlin.
In the second film, Billy Jack, the hero defends the hippie-themed Freedom School and students from townspeople who do not understand or like the counterculture students. The school is organized by Jean Roberts (Delores Taylor).
In one scene, a group of Indian children from the school go to town for ice cream and are refused service and then abused and humiliated by Bernard Posner and his gang. This prompts a violent outburst by Billy. Later, Billy's girlfriend Jean is raped and an Indian student is murdered by Bernard (David Roya), the son of the county's corrupt political boss (Bert Freed). Billy confronts Bernard and sustains a gunshot wound before killing him with a hand strike to the throat, after Bernard was having sex with a 13-year-old girl. After a climactic shootout with the police, and pleading from Jean, Billy Jack surrenders to the authorities and is arrested. As he is driven away, a large crowd of supporters raise their fists as a show of defiance and support. The plot continues in the sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack.
Box-office and critical reception
The film was re-released in 1973 and earned an estimated $8,275,000 in North American rentals.
Billy Jack holds a "Fresh" rating of 62% at Rotten Tomatoes. As of February 2014 it has a score of 6.1 on IMDB.
In his Movie and Video Guide, film critic Leonard Maltin writes: "Seen today, its politics are highly questionable, and its 'message' of peace looks ridiculous, considering the amount of violence in the film."
Roger Ebert also saw the message of the film as self-contradictory, writing: "I'm also somewhat disturbed by the central theme of the movie. 'Billy Jack' seems to be saying the same thing as 'Born Losers,' that a gun is better than a constitution in the enforcement of justice."
Go ahead and hate your neighbor; go ahead and cheat a friend. Do it in the name of heaven; you can justify it in the end. There won't be any trumpets blowin' come the judgment day On the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away
Marketed as an action film, the story focuses on the plight of Native Americans during the civil rights movement. It attained a cult following among younger audiences due to its youth-oriented, anti-authority message and the then-novel martial arts fight scenes which predate the Bruce Lee/kung fumovie trend that followed. The centerpiece of the film features Billy Jack, enraged over the mistreatment of his Indian friends, fighting racist thugs using hapkido techniques.
Billy Jack's wardrobe (black T-shirt, blue denim jacket, blue jeans, and a black hat with a beadwork band) would become nearly as iconic as the character.
The second major movie to make use of the word "fuck" (MASH being the first). A black student says the words "fucked up" during the scene where the Freedom school students are talking about the "Second Coming".
Billy Jack in popular culture
In 1975 (release date 12/30/1974), Firesign Theater, an American comedy group, made reference to Billy Jack on their album, "In The Next World, You're on Your Own," in the form of "Billy Jack Dog Food", and "I'm not Billy Jacking you," among other thematic references.
In 1975, musician Curtis Mayfield recorded and released a song titled, "Billy Jack" on his album There's No Place Like America Today.
In 1976 musician Paul Simon played "Billy Paul" (a parody of Billy Jack, unrelated to musician Billy Paul) in a sketch on the second season of the NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live, after the film Billy Jack aired earlier that evening on NBC.
In 1982, a professional wrestler, Billy Jack Haynes, debuted as "Billy Jack" wearing a hat like Billy Jack. He changed his wrestling name from "Billy Jack" to "Billy Jack Haynes" after Tom Laughlin threatened to sue.
In the series Mystery Science Theater 3000, at least two episodes reference Billy Jack: on the episode Werewolf, after a fight breaks out between a racist dig supervisor and his Indian help, Tom Servo says, "This is where Billy Jack should come riding up."; on the episode Track of the Moon Beast, after the Native American professor finishes telling a story, Crow says, "Uh huh...do you know Billy Jack?"
In an episode of The Simpsons ("Bart of War"), Bart joins a Boy Scouts of America-like group called the "Pre-Teen Braves", and they engage in a rivalry with "the Cavalry Kids". A montage of the two groups fighting each other is set to Coven's version of One Tin Soldier.
Billy Jack is referenced in an episode of Gilmore Girls ("Red Light on the Wedding Night") while Lorelai and Rory are watching the movie in their living room. At the line "Billy Jack, I'm gonna kill you if it's the last thing I do!", Lorelai responds, "Ugh, he so jinxed himself with that one." Rory replies, "Yeah, he should've said 'Billy Jack, I'm gonna kill you or buy myself a lovely chenille sweater.'"
Upon meeting serial killerCary Stayner—then considered a possible material witness to a 1999 murder in Yosemite National Park—FBI Agent Jeff Rinek asked if Stayner had ever seen the movie Billy Jack, noting Stayner's resemblance to the film's hero. Initially, Stayner denied seeing the movie. However, 90 minutes later, after building rapport during the drive to the FBI headquarters in Sacramento from the nudist resort where he was picked up, Stayner surprised Rinek by reciting several of Billy Jack's lines.
In the motion picture Major Payne, Damon Wayans as the title character references the iconic fight scene quote "Now, what I'm goin' do is take this right foot and I'm 'a put it 'cross the left side your face."
In season three of the television series Sabrina The Teenage Witch, principal Mr. Kraft reveals that Billy Jack is his favorite film.
In the episode of the animated show Pinky and the Brain, titled "Brainy Jack," Brain assumes the role of the titular Brainy Jack to trick a commune of hippies into helping him take over the world. Brain's wardrobe is a direct reference to Billy Jack, especially the hat with a beaded hat-band. Likewise, the song Pinky sings in the episode is a parody of "One Tin Soldier."
British electro band Relaxed Muscle (fronted by Jarvis Cocker, from Pulp) released a song called "Billy Jack" on their only album A Heavy Nite With... in 2003. It was released as a single with a music video that featured Cocker (as alter ego, Darren Spooner) in Western garb reminiscent of Billy Jack's trademark outfit.
In the book "The Berlin Blues", a play by Drew Hayden Taylor, the character named Trailer references Billy Jack when he says on page 92, "No Cirque du Billy Jack?" when the plan for Ojibway World which was supposed to be opening on the reserve falls through.