The opening narration from Billy Jack:
“All any of the town’s people knew about Billy Jack was that he was a half-breed. A war hero who hated the war and turned his back on society by returning to the reservation – where he watched over the Indians, the wild horses, and the kids at my school. No one even knew where he lived. Somewhere way back in the ancient ruins with an old holy man who was teaching him secret Indian ways and preparing him for a sacred initiation ceremony. “
Billy Jack, the bad ass in the jean jacket and the Uncle Joe hat who figured out how to live “without ego or greed” while standing up for the passive and the weak.
Billy freakin’ Jack.
The world made more sense to me after I saw Billy Jack in 1973. I was eight going on nine. Just barely old enough to absorb the myriad themes worn on the sleeve in this picture.
Character is what counts. All men are created equal. Money does not define value. Good triumphs over evil.
Tom Laughlin passed away this past Sunday at the age of 82.
People die every minute – every second – of every day. Celebrities drop regularly; for some reason almost always in threes.
But this one was different. This one took my wind away.
Laughlin was never really a celebrity. Not to me, anyway. He didn’t even really seem like an actor.
He was Billy Jack.
Billy Jack was by no means a great film. Watching it now, I’m actually surprised I liked it so much as a kid. It’s amateurish and heavy-handed. The pacing is slow and the “action” scenes few and far between.
I think what I responded to so strongly, and what cemented Laughlin’s creation as iconic at this moment in time, was the absolute crystal clarity of his motivations and his morality.
Laughlin directed all four of the Billy Jack films under the name ‘T.C. Frank’ (tribute to his three children, Teresa, Christina, and Frank).
The best of the bunch was probably the first, The Born Losers (1967), in which Billy Jack takes on a vicious biker gang in a small California coastal town. The film scared the heck out of me. It was so violent it was banned in Sweden. Okay, maybe that’s not saying all that much. Still…for those times, it was a menacing picture.
Billy Jack toppled that ruthless gang. Served them right. They were degenerate scum and Billy would not stand for it. They got what they had coming and then some. Rapist pigs. Lawless bullies.
These were not studio pictures. These were political statements at a time of major upheaval in our country. Billy Jack was the physical embodiment of the defiant and displaced post-Vietnam anti-war “eat the rich” counter-culture that needed to be taken seriously for their ideals, not their slogans. Billy Jack was a realist amongst pacifists with a wicked roundhouse hapkido kick. His bumper sticker would have been “MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR – AND BE NICE OR I’LL KARATE CHOP YOU.”
Laughlin – described by Robert Altman as a “an unbelievable pain in the ass” – was a visionary as a filmmaker and producer. The Trial of Billy Jack set a new standard in Hollywood for how films are marketed through mass advertising during the nightly news, and how they are distributed with nationwide releases rather than incremental. Although the critics looked down on it, the film is to this day considered “the first blockbuster.”
Laughlin wrote several books on Jungian psychology and ran for President three times. Twice as a Democrat, once as a Republican. His platform? Tax cuts, term limits, an overhaul of public education, universal health care, and nuclear disarmament.
“Alright, Bernard, which is it gonna be? Drive your car into the lake or get a dislocated elbow?” Billy asks the town’s resident spoiled brat.
“Whatta you mean, dislocated elbow? What are you, nuts or something?” Bernard whimpers.
“A lot of people think so…but then we’re stuck with that, you and I.”
That’s all I knew about Laughlin as a kid. He was the guy who played Billy Jack. The guy who tried “really, really hard” to not pulverize Bernard after he poured flour over three American Indian kids in the ice cream shop. The way he handled that situation seemed to me to be the right way to handle such foolishness.
Thank you, Tom Laughlin, for having such strong opinions about how things should work in a civilized society. About how we should treat one another. About how we should always strive to be better teachers, parents, governors, and custodians. Better men.
“You know what mental toughness is?” Billy asks Martin, his young disciple on the reservation.
Martin doesn’t know.
“Mental toughness is the ability to accept the fact that you are human, and that you are gonna make mistakes, lots of em, all your life. Some of them are gonna hurt people that you love very badly. But you have the guts to accept the fact you aren’t perfect – and you don’t let your mistakes crush you and keep you from trying to be the very best person you can.”
Thank you, Tom Laughlin, for staying married to the same woman for 60 years. For walking the walk.
Thank you, Tom Laughlin, for creating Billy Jack. You made a difference.
One tin soldier rides away.