In the aftermath of Watergate, a number of Hollywood figures developed an interest in filming a remake of Frank Capra’s classic, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." The time seemed just right for another version of the beguiling fable of an innocent man-of-the-people who comes to Babylon-on-the-Potomac and cleans up the cynicism and corruption of the Senate. Singer John Denver, for one, wanted badly to do the movie, but saw his hopes blown Rocky Mountain high by a superior bid for the rights to the old film from producer-director-writer-star-messiah Tom Laughlin.
Laughlin, as you may recall, is the Hollywood maverick who confounded the critics and experts by grossing more than $100 million with his two previous films, Billy Jack (1972) and The Trial of Billy Jack (1974). These melodramas chronicle the adventures of a black-hatted, soft-spoken Indian hero and former green beret who uses barefoot karate kicks to preach his hip-cool gospel of peace and understanding. By beating the stuffing out of a number of overfed, middle-aged villains, Laughlin won a formidable cult following for his bizarre character. “It’s a shame,” he modestly confessed to Time magazine, “that the youth of this country have only two heroes—Ralph Nader and Billy Jack.” Given this high estimation of his own popularity, is it any wonder that Laughlin—Billy Jack finds himself at the beginning of this new movie, appointed by the governor of his state, to fill an unexpired term in the U.S. Senate? It hardly matters that in his previous appearances Billy has been severely wounded by the National Guard, after standing trial for murder. We believe in rehabilitation, don’t we?
From this auspicious opening premise, "Billy Jack Goes to Washington" staggers forward at the stately pace of a drugged brontosaurus. The film lasts for nearly three hours and in its numbskulled way tries to follow each of the twists and turns of the old Capra formula. Lucie Arnaz (daughter of famous parents and sister of that distinguished thespian, Desi Arnaz, Jr.) makes her movie debut in the Jean Arthur role as the new Senator’s seasoned but soft-hearted secretary. Mean while, E. G. Marshall steps into Claude Rains’ part as a corrupt older Senator. Unfortunately, Laughlin cannot resist the temptation of throwing his own paranoia and conspiracy theories into the stew, and so we enjoy plot “innovations” that bring the story up to date and take it “even beyond the Watergate experience.” The secretary’s husband, for instance, is murdered by government secret agents in the amphitheater behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This is not precisely the light, gentle touch one would expect in romantic comedy, but then nobody has ever accused Tom Laughlin of possessing a sense of humor. Billy Jack does manage to deliver several long, preachy speeches on the Senate floor but disappoints his fans by gesturing only with his hands and not with his bare feet.
Laughlin ran out of money in the middle of production, after having squandered $750,000 to build a precise replica of the Senate chamber on a Hollywood soundstage. With his creditors closing in around him, he bid for sympathy from the public by announcing that his family’s personal living allowance had been “drastically cut” to a mere $50,000 a month. Finally, he secured the funds to finish his masterpiece, but when he tried to distribute the film, ran into an elaborate barrage of suits and countersuits involving his creditors, business associates, the owners of the two previous Bill Jack films, and most of the rest of the world. The movie ultimately played a few local theaters around the country, and turns up occasionally on TV. A generous production budget —- in this case more than $7 million dollars—has seldom been wasted so lavishly and completely.
"Billy Jack Goes to Washington" Tom Laughlin takes the Golden Turkey award as much for his off-screen bad sportsmanship as for his on-camera incompetence. In seeking to explain his monumental failure, he managed to blame everyone except himself—and in particular used the good old U.S. government as his scapegoat. Charging that he had been cruelly harassed, both during and after the shooting of his film, he hinted that the White House itself stood behind the entire plot. “It’s unreal and it’s frightening,” he declared. “The public doesn’t stand a chance. There is a concerted effort in Washington to keep information from flowing out.” In Laughlin’s fantasy world, our top leaders live in mortal fear that the crusading Billy Jack, during his four-week shooting schedule in the capital, might discover damning truths that had escaped all the investigative journalists who have worked there over the years. While nursing the wounds to his pride and pocketbook caused by his cinematic disaster, Laughlin could at least console himself with the idea that he had been martyred because of the uncompromising purity of his art. “Anybody who really is good at tapping into the deeper level of the collective psyche is almost never appreciated in his lifetime, or ever,” he observed.
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"Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" (1939) is scheduled on Turner Classic Movies occasionally