Tom Laughlin, the groundbreaking independent film maker who created the 70s iconic character Billy Jack, has dies at age 82. Laughlin originated the character in his biker exploitation movie Born Losers (1967), and then fully unleashed him in Billy Jack (1971), The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977).
Billy Jack is a Vietnam vet who embraces his own combo of New Age mysticism and Native American spiritualism and uses martial arts to kick the crap out of the bad guys who bully women, Native Americans and teenagers. Laughlin played a character along similar themes in his The Master Gunfighter (1975), only bearded and wielding a samurai sword.
The prickly Laughlin made and distributed his films independently, and Billy Jack and Trial were huge box office successes, among the most financially successful indies ever. For The Trial of Billy Jack, Laughlin engineered the then-unheard-of simultaneous release on 1500 screens. This excellent Bill Gibron article in Pop Matters describes this precursor of the Hollywood blockbuster strategy. Billy Jack was also the first widely seen martial arts movie in America.
Despite his innovations in the movie business, Laughlin never succeeded in making a good movie. Filled with clumsy acting and hackneyed dialogue, the films are still pompous, self-important and humorless.
Laughlin’s signature as a screenwriter is heavy-handedness. It’s never enough for the bad guys in the Billy Jack movies to be bad. They also have to be racist AND mean to animals AND sexually perverted. Billy Jack opens with the bad guys illegally raiding an Indian reservation to steal a herd of wild mustangs and herd them to a corral where they will be shot at pointblank range to bring in six cents per pound as dog food. One of the Billy Jack villains seduces a 13-year-old, insists on forcing a willing floozie at knifepoint and, for good measure, stakes a saintly teacher to the ground for a ritual rape. In The Trial of Billy Jack, a government henchman shoots a child – in the back – while he is cradling a bunny.
I have a Bad Movie Festival that features unintentionally bad movies that are fun to watch and mock. The Billy Jack movies are too painful for this list. While bad enough, they are gratingly platitudinous.
Laughlin was married since 1954 to his Billy Jack co-writer and co-star Delores Taylor.