Movie lovers across the world are saddened this morning to learn of the passing of screen icons Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia) and Joan Fontaine over the weekend. And while these two receive much deserved press coverage of their many screen successes, I am mourning another who seems a very unlikely influence on my life. That would be Mr. Tom Laughlin, who passed away December 12 at the age of 82.
While that name may not immediately strike a spark in your memory, I’ll bet mentioning his screen persona will do so. You see, Tom Laughlin WAS … Billy Jack!
I’ve written in my blog before about five films of the 1970s that made a huge impact on my budding adulthood. While the 1960s represented the decade of my childhood, the 1970s ushered in my teen years, just barely seeing me through to my college graduation in 1980 and my entrance into adulthood.
The five films that helped shape my personality and outlook in the 1970s were, in order of release:
Dirty Harry (1971): I was 12 and Clint Eastwood’s depiction of the now legendary San Francisco tough cop forever changed the dynamic of police depictions in film and television;
Walking Tall (1973): Now 14, I was older and this was based on a true story! Like many others, I became a fan of the real-life Buford Pusser and read everything I could find about him. One man can make a difference, I realized. Joe Don Baker became one of my favorite actors as a result;
White Lightning (1973): Burt Reynolds made many silly movies, but he made many emotionally powerful ones as well. This one showed me that stereotypes are bad. You are not evil just because you may be in prison and not all uniforms ensure good character. Questioning authority is, at times, a good thing;
Death Wish (1974): Charles Bronson, vigilante. Need I say more?
But the first film of the 70s that I so clearly recall was Billy Jack (1971). I was spending the night with a childhood friend in my hometown of Moultrie, GA. His mom dropped us off at the theater while she shopped. It was one of the most electrifying movie experiences of my life.
You can find plenty of information about Laughlin online elsewhere as well as reams of analysis on his crowning creation. I just wanted to share what his films did for ME.
First of all, I was too young and immature to understand the true message of Billy Jack as a 12-year old in the summer of 1971. All I saw was a part-Native American Indian man of peace who loved wildlife and wanted to live quietly with his lady love, Jean (played by real-life wife, Delores Taylor. She survives her husband. They were married for 60-years). He had been a Green Beret in the Army, a combat veteran from Vietnam. Together, they ran a school for wayward children and preached tolerance.
As is always the case (both in film and real life), violence found its way into the Garden of Eden and the enigmatic Billy Jack would take up the cause of the helpless to stand for justice against tyrants.
The 1971 hit song, One Tin Soldier, was the theme music of Billy Jack. It rose to #34 on the pop charts. Here’s the old .45 RPM record from my collection.
Of course, Billy Jack … and Laughlin, who created, wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the movie, stood for much MUCH more than that.
In the midst of the ‘Drive-In’ biker movies like The Wild Angels (1966), Laughlin wrote and directed Born Losers. Released in 1967, Born Losers introduced a half-Navajo Vietnam veteran named Billy Jack who eventually triumphs over racist and corrupt adversaries.
Those themes were underlined again in the 1971 Billy Jack. Here, our hero faces down the law, indifferent citizens and corrupt officials. It also emphasized decades of mistreatment of Native Americans, something that caused me to want to research the subject and learn more. Isn’t that alone a great testament to his work?
When film production companies became nervous about distributing Billy Jack, Laughlin distributed it himself. It was a huge box office hit, and the name Billy Jack became a cultural icon.
I was 15 in 1974 when The Trial of Billy Jack hit the local theater. Now somewhat older and turning toward my obvious career path of the U.S military and possible law enforcement, I left the theater extremely disappointed. I no longer saw a hero worthy of emulation. Instead, I saw a man who clearly had a different vision of America than did I.
The Trial of Billy Jack fell far short of the success of the 1971 classic. The 1977 Billy Jack Goes to Washington stumbled and never made nationwide release. Though Laughlin tried many times to revive the franchise in subsequent decades, it never happened. Rumors of a remake involving Steven Seagal and Keanu Reeves never materialized.
And now, Laughlin is gone after a long battle with illness and pneumonia. Over the years, he stood against nuclear energy, the Christian right and various U.S. wars, including Iraq. He made a bid for the U.S. presidency in 1992 as a Democrat, but the party didn’t take him seriously or let him participate in the debates. He ran as a Republican in 2004, with similar results, and ran for the third and final time in 2008.
Basically, Tom Laughlin stood against most of the things I hold dear. But while our views of life and liberty may have been vastly different, I never … NEVER … felt he wanted anything more than what he believed was best of our country, our world, and the wonderful living things that populate it. And that’s something I will ALWAYS respect!
Basically, he reminds me of an America that I dearly love … an America that gives us the ability to disagree and still be friends.
I never met you, Mr. Laughlin, but I knew Billy Jack. He was a friend of mine. He taught me that peace should always be the objective, but to stand back and allow the innocent to be crushed by tyrants is not love of peace but rather, hatred of life. And I will never forget you!
Your war is over, Billy Jack! We salute you as one tin soldier rides away!