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Snakes in Movies
Billy Jack (1971)
Spoiler Alert !

Some of these pictures and descriptions may give away plot details that you might not want to know before watching the film.
Tag Lines

"Just a person who protects children and other living things."

"You've got due process, Mother's Day, supermarkets, the FBI, Medicare, air conditioning, AT&T, country clubs, Congress, a 2-car garage, state troopers, the Constitution, color television and democracy.
They've got BILLY JACK"

This is an action drama about a lone warrior who defends and protects mistreated native Americans, mostly by kicking white people in the head. Initially a failure at the box office in 1971, the movie was re-released two years later in 1973 with innovative TV advertising and it became an enormous hit. For a so-called martial arts action movie, there is surprisingly little fighting and a lot of acoustic guitar strumming and singing.

Tom Laughlin wrote and directed the movie and stars as Billy Jack, a half-Native American, half-white ex-Green Beret Viet Nam Vet who saves wild horses from being slaughtered for dog food and protects runaway kids at a pacifist hippie “freedom” school on an Indian Reservation from the racist rapists in the nearby town, by barefoot karate-kicking the bad guys in the head.
He also practices a sacred snake ceremony in which he is bitten repeatedly by a Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake. The details of the ceremony are absurd - a typical non-Indian fantasy of Native American spirituality - but the credits include the attribution “Indian Snake Ceremony - Rolling Thunder of Shoshone Nation” so I don’t know if there is any truth to the ceremony. (I suspect that “Rolling Thunder” was just earning a few bucks by giving the producers something fake but entertaining.)

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Billy Jack tells a kid who wants to be his apprentice in the ceremony that he will need to strip himself of his greed and ego trips in order to survive the snake bites. As part of the ceremony Jack takes a secret herb medicine and carries a sacred poultice to put on the snake bite, without which he would die. He says that after 3 days the poison works its way through his system and either kills him or makes him a blood brother to the snake. Ne never tells us what the benefits are of being a blood brother to a snake, but I think we’re supposed to understand that it makes him powerful and dangerous like the snake. He also tells the kid that after getting bitten he passes into unconsciousness and if he lives he has a vision and finds out what his life’s mission is and who the spirit will be to guide him on it. (After the ceremony he shoots a lot of people and gets arrested, so I suspect his mission was to go to prison and then make several sequals to this movie.)

During the ceremony he removes his customary big round black hat, dresses up in the kind of buckskins and moccasins you can buy in tourist souvenier stores, and gets into a large stone ring with a rattlesnake. We hear a voiceover telling him: " Okcheeba the snake waits for you up on sacred mountain. If you pass this test, then you will have a vision. It is not easy, and if you show fear you shall die. Hold on to this eagle feather and do not let it go. Regardless of what you see or what you hear. The demons will come and try to scare you, but show no fear or you shall die. May the Great Spirit watch over you." Then he dances around the snake pouring powder on the ground and, as advertised, the snake strikes at him repeatedly, each time followed by a grimace of pain, until he has to pry the snake’s fangs out of his moccasin and then falls on the ground and the snake crawls away. He survives, of course, puts the big hat back on, shoulders his rifle, and continues to ride around the reservation on his motorcycle.

A real snake was used in the ceremony and it looks like, at least for the long shots, Tom Laughlin, the actor who played Billy Jack, is actually in the ring alone with it. They probably cut away to the legs and feet of a stunt man for the shots where the snake is striking.

Watch it on YouTube.