Tom Laughlin died last Thursday, of complications of pneumonia. He was 82. With him, died a significant part of my adolescence. Just a few days ago, I mentioned Billy Jack in a blog post about growing up in Indiana, and basketball, and a friend of mine, a basketball genius, who loved the film enough to dress like the character. So I thought Laughlin (and Billy) deserved a blog post of their own.
I mentioned Laughlin’s death on Facebook, and a friend linked to a Nick Gillespie tweet: “Re: deaths of Peter O’Toole, Joan Fontaine and Tom “Billy Jack” Laughlin, only latter was culturally transformative by making DIY film.” I agree. Laughlin was the quintessential independent director. He co-wrote (with his wife), directed, starred in his films himself, and took personal control of the marketing. The Trial of Billy Jack was the first film to be given a wide release in the modern fashion, opening simultaneously in 1200 theaters nationwide, with Laughlin renting the theaters and controlling box office receipts. DIY indeed.
So Laughlin was an indie film pioneer, a remarkable mix of leftist politics and marketing savvy. He created an iconic character, and played him in four films, the first three of which were box office successes. He was also a devoted husband and father; his screenwriting pseudonym, Frank and Teresa Christina was simply the first names of his three children, and his wife and oldest daughter also had starring roles in his work. The films are also execrable. But they were execrable in interesting ways, which I think may be worth interrogating a little.
Some history first: Billy Jack made his first appearance as a character in The Born Losers (1967). For years, Laughlin’d been scuffling along in Hollywood, doing some TV, small parts in bad films, while trying to market an Indian Rights script about a half-Indian former Green Beret loner named Billy Jack. He met an actress, Elizabeth James, also scraping by, and the two of them hastily wrote a motorcycle gang movie, which were in vogue then, with starring roles for them both. They got $400, 000 from Roger Corman, to make it, and Laughlin directed. Billy Jack is a loner with mad martial arts skills, who defends a motorist being terrorized by bikers. He’s captured and badly beaten; James plays ‘Vickie,’ who is raped by the same gang, but who agrees to become a ‘biker’s mama’ if they’ll spare Billy Jack’s life. They do. This sets up the ending, where Billy rides up with a rifle and shoots most of the baddies, rescues the girl, and rides a motorcycle off into the sunset. . . . where he’s accidentally shot by a clue-less cop. It’s a fast little grindhouse action movie, brutal and mean, but it made buckets of money for American International, which Laughlin, apparently, couldn’t help but notice.
Billy Jack came out in 1971, when I was a sophomore in high school. I saw it several times–everyone did that I knew. I wish I could say that I recognized, even at 15, how bad it was, but no, I was callow and stupid and thought it was a masterpiece. It was built on two ideologies that would seem incompatible–hippie-ish odes to peace, love, happiness and pacifism, and an atavistic, primitive, Old Testament sense of justice, in which unrighteous asses are righteously and thoroughly kicked by a hapkido expert. It’s basically about The Freedom School, built on an Indian reservation and dedicated to all that pacifist turn-the-other-cheek stuff–run by a teacher, Jean Roberts, who was played by Laughlin’s wife, Delores Taylor. (Pauline Kael, whose review of The Trial of Billy Jack outraged me back in the day, compared Delores Taylor’s ability to weep on command to a kind of duck press, squeezing out the moisture).
Billy Jack is back, again a half-Indian former Green Beret, but also now supposedly converted, by Jean, to the kinds of ideals you probably recognize from songs like ‘Imagine.’ Or maybe this. But the town closest to the school is essentially populated by racist thugs, and so Billy Jack also gets ample opportunity to show off his martial arts skills. Which was the main thing my friends and I wanted to see–Billy Jack taking off his shoes and beating bad guys up.
This scene gets to the heart of the film, I think. First, a group of kids from the Freedom school show up at this ice cream shop. Two hippie chicks, two Native American kids, a little girl–five kids all together. (And don’t you love the hippie chicks; girls with the white lipstick and the long straight hair and the leather vest over a skimpy revealing tee shirt). They order ice cream cones; the owner, behind the counter, ignores them, then refuses, saying he’s out of cones. One Freedom School girl shows him a box of cones and calls him a liar, and it looks like a confrontation is about to escalate. But ‘Bernard’ (David Roya) intervenes. Bernard is the film’s villain; in one crucial scene, he rapes ‘Jean’. And Billy eventually kills him. Of course. (Ironically, David Roya really was a martial arts expert, and carved out a nice little career subsequently playing villains in martial arts films).
So. Bernard points out that, since the problem is the skin color of the Indian kids, all that needs to happen is to turn them white. And he takes flour from some container (ice cream shops always have barrels of flour in there among the tables), and pours it over the Freedom School kids, humiliating them. One kid protests; Bernard’s thuggish friend punches him. One of the pacifist hippie chick girls slaps Bernard. And then Billy Jack strolls into view. And gives a speech that I, age fifteen, practically memorized.
“Bernard.” (Billy takes off his hat, rubs his face in perplexity, sighs). “I want you to know, that I try. When Jean and the kids at the school tell me that I’m supposed to control my violent temper, and be passive and non-violent like they are, I try, I really try. But when I see this girl, of such a beautiful spirit, so degraded, and I see this boy, beaten up by this big ape here, and this little girl, who is so special to us that we call her God’s Little Gift of Sunshine . . .” (pause, Billy’s close to tears by now), “and I think of the number of years that she’s going to have to carry in her memory the savagery of this idiotic moment of yours. . . “(shakes his head sadly), “I just Go BERSERK.” (And beats Bernard and his sidekick up.)
A few points to make about this scene:
First, both Bernard and then Billy get to make long, polemic speeches, completely uninterrupted by each other or the other people in the shop. Nobody calls the cops, nobody intervenes. Everyone just sits there politely, letting the other guy make his big speech.
Second, where’d the flour come from?
Third, Billy may not initiate, but he absolutely escalates the violence. Bernard dumps some flour on kids’ heads. Then, his thug does punch the one kid in the stomach. But if the kid who got punched is in medical distress, wouldn’t getting him out of there be a higher priority? Billy punches Bernard, a nasty rich punk to be sure, but someone whose only crime, at that point, had been mostly verbal,with some flour added for emphasis. Billy whales on him. I’m not a lawyer, but that’s assault, is it not? And the thug, the sidekick, gets thrown out a window, and lays there in the street, clearly injured. Aggravated assault? Do I have my felonies right? But it’s okay, because they’re racist jerks?
The scene is simplistic–cardboard villains, and Billy Jack being righteously heroic. It’s hypocritical and politically confused. I remember sitting in a movie theater back then, and when Billy Jack says ‘I go berserk’ we stood up and cheered. Yay for us! But isn’t the message of that scene essentially this: Dr. King was wrong?
And yet, and yet. This is a lunch-counter anti-segregation scene too, is it not? Involving Native Americans, not African-Americans, sure, but it’s basically a scene about a guy refusing to serve food to customers because of their race. It’s a Greensboro lunch counter scene. It plugs into the most iconic images of the civil rights movement. There’s a Woolworth’s lunch counter protest scene in The Butler, and it’s one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, but that’s a film from this year, 2013. 2013 also featured 42, which I really liked, well-made film about Jackie Robinson. And that’s terrific, and it’s great to remind us all today about what Jackie Robinson accomplished and the obstacles he faced. (And yes, there was a 1960 film, which even starred Jackie himself). But my point is, mainstream Hollywood, in 1971, wasn’t making films with Greensboro lunch counter scenes. Mainstream Hollywood, in the late ’60s and ’70s, could not have been more timid about civil rights. They thought they were being courageous when they did Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or To Sir With Love. All those sadly noble Sidney Poitier vehicles.
So Tom Laughlin puts a ‘Greensboro lunch counter scene’ in Billy Jack, in 1971, and yes, it’s crude and stupid and badly written and acted, and it’s used exploitatively, to make Bernard-the-cartoon-villain seem terrible, and the burden of the message contradicts Martin without rising to the level of Malcolm. All true. But it is there, that iconic set of images.
Laughlin did it again in The Trial of Billy Jack–put a My Lai massacre scene in there, and yes it feels gratuitous and obvious and crude there too. And Trial ends with a Kent State-style shooting. And if you happen to see it, like if AMC does a Tom Laughlin tribute marathon or something, you may well be forgiven if you find everyone at the Freedom School so self-righteous and annoying that you find yourself rooting for the National Guard. I did, when I watched it recently. But in the early ’70s, at least he was referencing My Lai and Greensboro and Kent State. Hollywood was way way way too bwack bwack bwack chicken to deal with any images that incendiary.
And sure, Tom Laughlin’s use of those reference points was obvious and crude. He was neither a profound nor an accomplished filmmaker. He had guts and passion–what he doesn’t seem to have had was talent, or any sort of ability to self-criticize. (Remember: in the ’90s, Laughlin kept running for President. Three times, he ran for President of the United States, whatever that says about his judgment and ego). But Billy Jack matters, and not just because Laughlin was sort of a marketing genius. A confused and foolish courage is courage nonetheless. And one tin soldier rides away.