Thursday, December 19, 2013

Kick in the Head: Tom Laughlin and Billy Jack

I’ve never been much interested in clothes, but when I was in my late teens or early twenties, I did develop what I thought of as a signature look: jeans, black T-shirt with denim jacket, and boots. It doesn’t sound like much, but I was very pleased with it. I thought of it as stripped-down, direct, and functional in a way that quietly made a statement, and I think I must have worn it for at least a dozen years before a switch flipped in my brain: I suddenly realized that I had unconsciously lifted my wardrobe from Tom Laughlin in the Billy Jack movies—minus the stupid hat. I was mortified; this was long after the brief window when Billy Jack was considered cool had slammed shut, and I had no personal desire to try to jimmy it back open. But it did make me realize that Billy Jack—or, at least, the second of the four movies he headlined between 1967 and 1977, the one that was actually called Billy Jack—had probably been a bigger deal to me, and to my childhood imagination, than I wanted to admit as a grown-up.

Tom Laughlin, who died last weekend, first created the character in The Born Losers, a cheap, ridiculously profitable exploitation movie in which a vicious motorcycle gang (whose members include the beloved ‘70s B-movie icon and human mountain, Robert Tessier) bothers the film’s screenwriter, Elizabeth James, a brunette who is in the habit of riding her own chopper in her bikini. Her only hope is Billy Jack, a former Green Beret and Vietnam vet who is half Native American, and who practices the martial art of hapkido all over those whose conduct he finds reprehensible and whose attitude is in need of adjustment. The fight scenes in the Billy Jack movies are hardly sleek models of kinetic action choreography, but kung-fu fighting was still something of a novelty in American movies, and the detached, Zen cool that went with the moves made for a nifty update on such reluctant master gunfighters as James Stewart in Destry Rides Again. As Billy Jack explained to Bernard, the town rich-boy bastard in his second movie, after catching him tormenting some innocent kids, he wanted to honor the pacifist, non-violent principles his friends believed in, he really did. But then, mean bullies and bigots like Bernard would stupidly misuse their power as domineering, affluent members of the white male power structure and then cause hurt to those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t raise a hand to fight back, and Billy would lose his temper. What happened next was a lot like what happened when Bruce Banner got angry.

Tom Laughlin as Billy Jack
I suspect that many people who half-remember Billy Jack from his cultural moment in the early-to-mid-‘70s lump him in with the other big vigilante movie heroes of the period, such as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Calahan, Joe Don Baker’s Buford Pusser in Walking Tall, and Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey in Death Wish.  The big difference is that those characters were implicitly, or not so implicitly, reactionary in their appeal. They were all fighting for law and order, in the face of a societal breakdown that had been brought about or encouraged by liberals who cared too much about the rights of a criminal class made up of animals. Billy Jack was a liberal fantasy hero, and Billy Jack was a counterculture movie, made outside the Hollywood system. (Laughlin directed all the Billy Jack movies, using the pseudonym “T. C. Frank,” a name cobbled together from the names and initials of his three children.) The character of Billy Jack began to take on a mystical dimension. He had turned his back on society, presumably because of his wartime experiences and the history of mistreatment of his people,

The real hero in Billy Jack, though, is Delores Taylor—Laughlin’s wife—as the head of the local “Freedom School,” an experimental educational safe haven populated by lively, smart-mouth kids and staffed with members of the comedy improv troupe The Committee, including Howard Hesseman. (In one scene, which seems meant to show how art and stage drama can be used to bridge social divides, they do street theater with the sympathetic local police chief.) After Bernard and his toadies rape the schoolmistress and kill an Indian boy, Billy Jack kills Bernard (who has a gun) with his bare hands. In the climax, the schoolteacher persuades Billy Jack, who is in an angry, despairing, near-suicidal state of mind, to surrender himself to the authorities so that no one else is hurt. It’s hard to mourn any of Billy Jack’s victims, and his killing of Bernard counts as an act of self-defense, but it’s the pacifist who has the last say.

Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor
Billy Jack is an amateurishly made movie. But if you can allow yourself to get on its wavelength, it’s admirable for what it was offering—at a time when action movies were dominated by self-righteous urban vigilantes and amoral spaghetti western mercenaries. Billy Jack is a strong, secure masculine hero who was repulsed by macho bullies, using his power to protect the defenseless—and packaged in an improvisational patchwork movie that includes a pitch for progressive education. (Laughlin even provides a long scene in which Billy Jack mostly just listens while the schoolmistress works out her feelings about having been physically violated.) Tom Laughlin also had some heroic behind-the-scenes qualities. Having begun the movie with financing from A.I.P. (which had cleaned up with Born Losers), he managed to finish it with money from 20th Century Fox after they pulled out, then worked out a distribution deal with Warner Bros. when Fox lost interest. Then, dissatisfied with Warners’ promotion, he sued for the right to distribute the movie itself, and four-walled it into maximum profitability during a 1973 re-release, which is when Billy Jack really became a cultural phenomenon. Although it’s impossible to look at the screenplays of his movies and imagine Laughlin becoming a much-sought-after script doctor, he has this much in common with John Sayles: for his tenacity and business savvy about getting his movies made and reaching their intended audience, he deserves to be remembered as a role model for independent filmmakers, one whose career predates the term “independent filmmaker.”

Laughlin’s later work makes him look more like the indie-auteur Michael Moore than Sayles, though. The 1974 follow-up The Trial of Billy Jack, which runs ten minutes short of three hours, was another cannily conceived hit, but it was also a self-reverential liberal victimization fantasy, in which National Guardsmen storm the Freedom School and Billy Jack is revealed to have been present at, and to have blown the whistle on, the My Lai massacre. Laughlin came back three years later with Billy Jack Goes to Washington, in which the hard-kicking hero was reduced to trying to destroy official corruption through a filibuster. Laughlin had never kicked less, or talked half as much, in a movie. Although he would later insist that powerful forces had conspired to keep the movie out of wide release, it seems likely that, like Hunter S. Thompson and the print version of the National Lampoon, Billy Jack was fated to be almost entirely a phenomenon of the Nixon era.

For all his ambition, energy, and charisma, Laughlin had no career outside Billy Jack. Every so often, he would announce plans to revive the character, which never came off. He reportedly had a few small acting roles in the years following the making of Billy Jack Goes to Washington; according to IMDB, he’s somewhere in Voyage of the Damned and the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep and the 1981 fiasco The Legend of the Lone Ranger, but I’ve never been able to spot him, and God help me, I’ve tried really hard. You’d think he’d have been at least briefly in demand by other directors, for at least sizable supporting roles; was he really just that bad at working and playing well with others? Robert Altman, who cast Laughlin as the hero of his own 1957 shoestring feature debut, The Delinquents, would describe him many years later as “just an unbelievable pain in the ass. Unbelievable. He’s a talented guy, but he’s insane. Total egomaniac,” adding that, because of his “big Catholic hangup,” Laughlin was “so angry that he wasn’t a priest.” It’s funny that the two of them worked together so many years before either was famous, because they were both ‘70s mavericks who had virtually nothing else in common. But someone who could make movies like Altman and sell them like Laughlin would be the ultimate indie-moviemaker hero.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't had a chance to read all the press that my father's death has engendered, but this one came across as I was commuting on a train, so I dove in. I have to say, it's one of my favorites so far. Thanks so much for the smile. Teresa Laughlin (Carol - the ubiquitous and unexplained blonde girl who liked to sing songs!)

    ReplyDelete