Well, we lost some cinema icons today. Peter O’Toole of course. I’m not the guy to write the definitive tribute for him, but here’s a piece I wrote when I saw LAWRENCE OF ARABIA in 70mm a couple years ago. And one on THE STUNT MAN. And, uh, SUPERGIRL.
Also Joan Fontaine from REBECCA and SUSPICION died, so there will be some good tributes to her. She was 96.
But me being who I am I want to write a few words about Tom Laughlin, whose family announced today that he died on Thursday. He was 82, a year older than O’Toole! I was surprised to read that. Laughlin was an actor, writer and director who occupied a unique corner in the history of Badass Cinema and independent film and I don’t think alot of the young people know about him. So put your learning pants on.
“Put your learning pants on” and related phrases and merchandising are © 2013 by Vern
Laughlin was a young character actor in the ’50s, appearing on TV shows and getting supporting roles in a few movies including THE DELINQUENTS, SOUTH PACIFIC and GIDGET. He liked to brag about knowing and being a peer of James Dean. In the ’60s, tired of struggling just to get bit parts, Laughlin started writing and directing his own star vehicles. He had trouble getting his script about racism toward Native Americans made, so he took its main character Billy Jack and introduced him in the 1967 biker scare film THE BORN LOSERS.
Billy Jack is an ex-Green Beret who saw some bad shit in ‘Nam and became sort of a pacifist. I say “sort of” because he’s the type of pacifist we like in action movies, the William Munny or Glimmer Man type that really doesn’t want to fight but then you push him too far and look, are you happy now? He just broke his code to kick your ass. Billy Jack is hapkido expert (though Laughlin didn’t really start studying until after BORN LOSERS) and is called a “half breed” by racist locals because of his Native American heritage (which Laughlin did not share). He tries to live a life of solitude on the California coast, but has to put his foot down when a biker gang comes into town and commits racism and rapism. I guess technically he puts his foot up and in the character’s most famous scene he makes a big show of taking his cowboy boots off before karate kicking some assholes.
Laughlin explored the character further in BILLY JACK, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK and BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON, which is a straight up remake of MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON but with one karate scene in the middle. Although somewhat forgotten today, at the time BILLY JACK was an out-of-nowhere low budget phenomenon like a PARANORMAL ACTIVITY or something like that. Unable to get it released by a studio, Laughlin rented out theaters with his own money, pioneering a method of self-distribution.
As I described in Seagalogy, I’ve always felt Seagal’s masterwork ON DEADLY GROUND was heavily inspired by the BILLY JACK series, and in fact Seagal has many characters who follow the Billy Jack mold: ex-military, sometimes even Vietnam vet, also down with spiritual wisdom from a non-white culture, sometimes professing pacifism but then doing martial arts on some guys while talking quietly and calmly.
But the thing that really endeared me to these movies is their heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity. Laughlin is talking about war and peace, racism, the struggle of veterans, the coverup of the My Lai massacre, politicians bought out by greedy big business, crooked cops, the abuse of women, the potential of the youth to change the world. Before the BILLY JACK movies we had many westerns that reinforced a pretty conservative view of the world, after them we saw the same thing in the action movies of the ’80s. But Laughlin was making Badass Cinema that was unequivocally from a hippie perspective. Starting with BILLY JACK his character and his wife Jean (played by his actual wife of 60 years Delores Taylor) run a multicultural, progressive alternative school called The Freedom School. They sing folk songs, they protest at town meetings, they stand up against racist bullies, they push for a federal initiative process to try to institute their ideas to improve the country.
I also like a lesser known Laughlin movie that he starred in and wrote called MASTER GUNFIGHTER. It’s a western with SUPERFLY’s Ron O’Neal giving a great, charismatic performance as the villain. It’s another deeply felt melodrama, this time dealing with the outrage of genocide, but giving its bad guys believable motives instead of just making them evil. Despite the title making a big deal about his guns his character is trained by a samurai and mostly uses a sword.
These movies are corny and they totally mean it and that’s why I love them. Laughlin clearly believed in these things and in trying to change the world, whether through activism or through art. We’re so used to cynicism in movies, but Laughlin’s were outraged idealism, calling attention to a problem and believing we can and must do something about it.
Years later, all through the age of the World Wide Web, Laughlin ran an official Billy Jack websight selling not only BILLY JACK merchandise but also his many books about independent filmmaking and self help books about living with cancer and things like that. For years there was talk of a BILLY JACK remake starring Keanu Reeves. I was always against it, though these days I like the idea. For just as long Laughlin talked about a sequel where the aging Billy Jack would mentor a young asskicker. He was still very political (even running for president three times – they must’ve been too afraid to let him debate) so during the Bush years he said the movie would incorporate real footage of Bush and have Billy Jack kicking him in the head. And also it would blow the lid off of such and such and change the world and inspire the children and what not.
To be honest, Laughlin’s writings about that rebootquel seemed somewhere in between an infomercial and the rantings on the label of Dr. Bronner’s Soap, so I’m not surprised he never got it off the ground. But it sounded like it would have to be interesting in its craziness and admirable in its passion. I remember I tried to contact him about doing an interview for The Ain’t It Cool News about it, but didn’t get a response.
You know me, I like underdogs, I like outsiders, mavericks and do it yourselfers. I like guys like Rudy Ray Moore who can’t become superstars so instead they print up their own records and sell them out of their trunks and end up doing something more interesting scraping by than they would with The Man’s money. I’m sure Laughlin would’ve loved to be Paul Newman, but instead he was Billy Jack, and proud of it.
Maybe it’s time I finally read that Trial of Billy Jack novelization a friend gave me. Check out this beautiful cover: