The Strange Saga of Billy Jack
How indie maverick Tom Laughlin changed Hollywood and created a ’70s pop-culture icon
Billy Jack screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on National Aboriginal Day, Wednesday, June 21.
The late Tom Laughlin was a man of many contradictions: a white man who became a ’70s screen icon by playing a Native American; an outspoken left-winger whose films advocated the virtues of violence; and a fiercely independent filmmaker whose DIY distribution strategies set the template for the present-day full-market saturation techniques practiced by the same Hollywood studios that he publicly battled back in the day.
Laughlin’s legend rests on his creation of Billy Jack, a half-Cherokee Vietnam vet and former Green Beret who preaches peace, love and pacifism, but is all too ready to pull off his boots and protect progressive values by barefoot-kicking all the right(-wing) asses in American society, from biker gangs to racist Southerners to corrupt cops and politicians.
Laughlin’s string of idiosyncratic anti-Establishment “message pictures” were some of the biggest box-office hits of the 1970s, and while they are largely forgotten now, they left an indelible footprint on how movies are marketed and distributed to this day.
“I met my then future wife [Delores Taylor] in South Dakota where I was a student. She lived on an Arapaho reservation and invited me for a closer look. My stomach churned when I saw the poverty and degradation there. Worse than that — the racism. When the tribesman went into town to pick up their monthly allotment of flour, some of the local assholes would dump it on their head and try and provoke them. I carried that around inside me for years.” —Tom Laughlin, quoted at Jehovahs-Witness.com
Following this early encounter that would plant the seeds for his iconic character, Laughlin and his wife Delores Taylor moved to Los Angeles in the mid-’50s as he pursued a frequently frustrating acting career. He caught an early break was when he was cast as the lead in Robert Altman’s first feature, The Delinquents, but the two men locked horns throughout the shoot. Signed to Warner Bros. as a studio contract player, he appeared in such high-profile films as South Pacific, Gidget and Tea and Sympathy, but found himself unable to break out of the ghetto of small supporting roles. (During this time, he appeared alongside another young WB contract player, Clint Eastwood, in the WWI flying picture Lafayette Escadrille.) In the manner of his friend, independent-filmmaking pioneer John Cassavetes, Laughlin struck out on his own in the early 1960s to write, produce and direct his own low-budget features — but the resulting films, The Proper Time (1960) and The Young Sinner (1963), failed to make a splash.
Even as Laughlin struggled to find a firm foothold in the film industry, his religious beliefs and political convictions (which had already inspired him and Taylor to found a Montessori preschool in Santa Monica) fired him with the idea of using cinema as an instrument of social change. Angered that the burgeoning Civil Rights movement had failed to address the injustices visited upon the country’s Indigenous population, Laughlin dusted off a script outline he had written shortly after that fateful visit to the South Dakota reservation, which featured the first incarnation of the Billy Jack character. Unable to interest potential investors in his highly uncommercial-sounding social-protest film, Laughlin repurposed the script as a biker exploitation picture, The Born Losers, and sold it to schlock specialist Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International Pictures, with himself attached as director (under the pseudonym T.C. Frank) and star.
In his initial screen outing, Laughlin’s Billy Jack is much as he would be in the future films, a righteous protector of the weak who takes up arms (and feet) to defend a small town against a gang of marauding bikers. But the explicit socio-political themes that would drive the BJ series proper are not really in evidence here, with the racism Billy faces only serving as a catalyst for the requisite bone-smashing action.
The Born Losers did very well on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit and soon became AIP’s most successful release, making over 100 times its budget. Laughlin parlayed that success into a green light from AIP to make his passion project, a proper Billy Jack vehicle. In Billy Jack, our hero is now the self-appointed guardian of an experimental alternative learning centre called the Freedom School, which is targeted by racist townspeople and law enforcement who don’t take kindly to hippies. When Billy finally loses his cool against the local bullies (ironically, in an ice-cream parlour), we discover that while the world may indeed need peace, love and understanding, a well-placed hapkido kick has its role to play as well.
Co-starring alongside her husband as the Freedom School’s organizer (and Billy’s love interest) Jean Roberts, Delores Taylor — who was not a professional actor — gives a rather reluctant performance that nevertheless steadily gains power over the course of the film. No matter the harsh words they had for the film itself, many prominent critics singled out Taylor’s performance for special mention, particularly praising the powerful scene where she speaks about the trauma of being raped by the dastardly son of the town’s resident evil land baron; none other than Marlon Brando named this as the gold standard for screen acting.
AIP initially agreed to fund Billy Jack, but battles between producer Arkoff and the mercurial Laughlin led to the plug being pulled on the production. Over the next several months Laughlin shopped the project around Hollywood and was finally able to strike a deal with 20th Century Fox, which was working overtime to corner the youth market with edgier fare such as Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and the (disastrous) adaptation of Gore Vidal’s sex-change opus Myra Breckinridge.
Billy Jack was completed in 1971, but when Laughlin screened the finished product for Fox execs, production head Richard Zanuck balked at the film’s leftist politics — in particular, one line of dialogue where a Freedom School student compares Richard Nixon to Hitler. (Zanuck, a California Republican, was at that time a member of the Nixon campaign’s soon-to-be-notorious organization CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President.) Discovering that the studio had seized the negatives with the intention to re-cut the film behind his back, Laughlin countered by smuggling the film’s soundtrack elements off the lot, threatening to erase them one reel at a time and leave the studio with a silent movie unless they returned the footage.
After Fox ultimately agreed to sell the rights to the film back to Laughlin, the maverick filmmaker took the project across the street to Warner Bros. Warners VP Ted Ashley hated the film but saw its potential audience appeal, and agreed to distribute Billy Jack in limited markets before deciding on an expansion. While the film did solid business in the South and Midwest — and even spawned a radio hit with its theme song, “One Tin Soldier” — it never transcended the drive-in and local-theatre circuits; finally arriving in New York months after its debut, it received bad reviews from most critics and closed after two weeks. Laughlin was furious at what he saw as the studio’s mismanagement of his film, and later that year he announced that he was suing Warner Bros. for $35 million.
After two years of legal battles, Laughlin and Warner Bros. settled out of court under the agreement that the studio would allow Laughlin to proceed with his own personally devised national re-release strategy for Billy Jack, with Warners handling the distribution costs and any profits split down the middle. Laughlin’s strategy hinged on a practice known as “four-walling,” wherein a producer or distributor would rent a theatre for a flat weekly fee and keep all of the box-office revenue, rather than dividing profits with the exhibitor. Prior to Laughlin, no one had ever attempted a four-wall release on so wide a scale, and expending such an effort on a two-year-old film was viewed as a huge risk.
However, Laughlin would prove to be uncannily accurate in gauging the mood of the moment, both commercially and politically. Not only did Laughlin/Billy Jack’s jaw-dropping hapkido battles tap into the vogue for martial-arts films that had been sparked by the international success of Bruce Lee, but the film’s siege climax — which sees the wounded Billy Jack making a one-man stand against the corrupt local authorities — echoed the recent occupation of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement (AIM), which had captured the nation’s attention in the winter of 1973. Laughlin’s highly effective marketing campaign emphasized the pressing timeliness of the film: ads on local and regional TV stations were built around testimonials from audience members in theatre lobbies, urging viewers to see this important film and see it often. And did they ever: Billy Jack brought in an astronomical $40 million in its 18-month re-release, and Laughlin’s unlikely creation became a pop-culture hero.
Riding high on his unprecedented success, the maverick auteur struck a deal with Warner Bros. to distribute the highly anticipated sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack, which, like its predecessor, set a new milestone for movie distribution. Securing four-week commitments from theatre owners across the country, Laughlin opened Trial on over 1,200 screens nationwide in November 1974 — an unheard-of practice at the time, when even major hits such as The Godfather were released in a traditional platform pattern, opening first in the major media markets and then, if it proved successful, gradually fanning out across the country over the next few months. But once again, Laughlin proved to be a prophet where profits were concerned: on its opening weekend Trial took in $11 million, a massive take for that era (and especially impressive for a nearly three-hour film). Nine months later, Universal Pictures copied Laughlin’s wide-release strategy for a little picture called Jaws — and the rest, as they say, is history.
Though Laughlin had triumphed once again, The Trial of Billy Jack is where the writer-director-star first started to falter in his Hollywood adventure. While audiences went in droves to see the film — it made $89 million and became the third biggest box-office hit of the year, even outgrossing The Godfather, Part II —it was one of the most anti-commercial “commercial” movies ever made: phantasmagorical where the original was realistic, endlessly and wearyingly moralizing, and, when viewed today, almost indigestible.
The film picks up right where Billy Jack left off, with Billy in prison after his showdown with the cops. While Billy uses a court appearance to decry the atrocities committed by the US military in Vietnam, the Freedom School expands its operations to become even more of a threat to the status quo: the school starts its own newspaper and TV station, and student journalists expose malfeasance and state corruption — they even invent a sophisticated lie detector that can tell when people on television are lying. Inevitably, Billy must once again pull off his boots to defend both the school and the local tribes whose treaties are being violated by local developers. The disturbing finale where the National Guard opens fire on the school, killing and wounding many of the students, was intended by Laughlin to echo the notorious 1970 killings of student protestors at Kent State. A final title crawl even implicates the audience (and critics of the series) in this state-sanctioned bloodshed: “Some may feel this picture is too violent...but the real massacres which inspired this fictionalized version were a thousand-fold more violent for those innocent people who were its victims.”
The critical reception to the film was harsh; in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael called The Trial of Billy Jack “the most extraordinary display of sanctimonious self-aggrandizement the screen has ever known.” Though Laughlin insisted he made films for audiences, not for critics, the bad reviews got under his skin, and he took out full-page ads in the trades to promote a 1975 re-release of Trial that offered a generous cash prize to the person who could best explain how the critics could be so out of step with popular taste. “The only ones who really pay attention to the critics are other critics and the people in our industry,” Laughlin declared; listing 20 of the top-grossing films of all time (with the original Billy Jack modestly placed at #3), he asserts that “the above facts overwhelmingly show (with the exception of certain Art films) the critics have no impact whatsoever on what films audiences will go to see.”
Laughlin followed Trial with The Master Gunfighter (1975), a western remake of Hideo Gosha’s 1969 samurai tale Goyokin, in which Laughlin starred opposite Superfly himself, Ron O’Neal. The film was not nearly the success Warner Bros. was expecting, and Laughlin was once again compelled to return to his familiar Billy Jack persona — but this time in a very different setting, and with much higher stakes.
A modernized but nearly scene-for-scene remake of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (produced by Capra’s son Frank Capra, Jr.), Billy Jack Goes to Washington was Laughlin’s most ambitious production to date: Laughlin even sank $5.5 million of his own money into the production, which included a detailed recreation of the US Senate chamber. The film closely follows the plot of the Capra original, as a cabal of Washington power brokers arranges to appoint a supposedly pliable small-town naïf to serve out the term of a recently deceased senator — and naturally, who else would they pick as their senatorial stooge than imprisoned multiple murderer Billy Jack? Assuming that Billy will be symbolically useful for the party’s minority outreach, and that he won’t even show up for work — and therefore not get in the way of a secret nuclear power plant deal being cooked up by the state’s governor and the respected Senator Paine (E.G. Marshall) — the plotters have Billy pardoned and shipped off to the Potomac. Of course, these Beltway schemers don’t know (Billy) Jack: once our hero discovers the scale of graft and corruption in Washington, he becomes just as dangerous with his words as he is with his feet, and the story climaxes with a passionate Billy Jack filibuster on the floor of the Senate.
While the film did play in limited screening engagements, Billy Jack Goes to Washington did not receive a general theatrical release. To hear Laughlin tell it, the film was suppressed by political power brokers who feared that the film revealed too much about Washington’s cozy relationship with the nuclear power lobby. A more plausible explanation is that by 1977 the Billy Jack series had peaked with the public, and the new film’s commercial prospects were not aided by its lengthy running time (155 minutes) and dearth of fight scenes. It remained unseen for decades until it was released on DVD, with 40 minutes removed.
The Return of Billy Jack was intended to be the fifth and final entry in the series, with Billy going up against a child pornography ring run by the mob. Shooting began (before full financing had been secured) in 1986 in New York and Toronto (!), but the production was plagued with difficulties; and when Laughlin received a head injury on the Toronto set after being hit with a breakaway bottle that didn’t break, the project had to shut down. Until his death in December 2013, in between returning to education and counselling, writing books on Jungian psychology that took him on college lecture circuits, and occasionally announcing his candidacy for President (twice as a Democrat and once as a Republican), Laughlin announced numerous plans to revive the Billy Jack series — including a promising concept that would have pitted BJ against George W. Bush, in the catchily titled Billy Jack’s Crusade to End the War in Iraq and Restore America to Its Moral Purpose.
While Laughlin did indeed play a revolutionary role in American film history, it was likely not in the way he intended. In addition to introducing the now-permanent emphasis on the opening weekend in studio distribution strategy, his two-fisted and two-footed hero could be seen as a model for a number of the lone-wolf protagonists in ’80s American action cinema — including his ideological opposite, Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo.
However, the ’80s action star who was most clearly indebted to Laughlin and Billy Jack was Steven Seagal, whose 1988 debut Above the Law found room for a leftist critique of American foreign policy in the midst of all its wrist- and arm-snapping action. Even more telling, Seagal used the commercial success of his 1992 thriller Under Siege to produce, direct and star in his own Trial of Billy Jack-esque vanity production: the Alaska-set On Deadly Ground, a mishmash of cultural appropriation, Indigenous mysticism, long-winded ecological speechifying, and violent beatdowns followed by heartfelt calls for pacifism. One wonders if Tom Laughlin ever got a chance to see it.