We remember Billy Jack


Tom Laughlin


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.


11 Responses to We remember Billy Jack

  1. Keith Bartlett says:

    I have been a fan of the billy jack movie since it came out. I still watch it today & still think its a great film. Much can be learned from it & more people need to be made aware about the true way our governments treated our native american people. Thanks for such a great, heartfelt movie, and for such a great story.

    Keith Bartlett…

  2. Bill C. says:

    I think the BJ movies are great. Sure there may have been a few corny actors, but the story/plot overshadowed those. I liked them in that even with all of the action, it was still well defined between who the good and bad guys were. Unlike the movies we’re seeing over the last 20 yrs. From what I’ve read on TL’s film making/business talent, he is a genius. I also purchased the entire set of BJ films. Love to watch them over and over.

  3. Brent says:

    I agree some of the scripts are harsh and gratuitous and aome of the acting is a little contrived but that’s as harsh view as my consciousness will allow. This rather scathing review is at least historically correct but the content and ground-breaking reflection of this society at it’s self-destructive point post Viet Nam where it opened thr dialgoue of racial tension and abuse both of the invidial and society cannot be compared. I applaud laughlin for his efforts and vision. He has been and shall remain one of my heroes.

  4. Shirley Tholen says:

    Great actor! Loved his look and style. Without a doubt, still a heart-throb to watch.

  5. Dewayne Laux says:

    I saw “Billy Jack” when it was first released as a double feature along with “The Omega Man”. Then again when it was re-released as the blockbuster that it was. It was the coolest film of its time! You can say all the things you want about the quality of the film. The bottom line is it got the message across. LONG LIVE THE SPIRIT OF BILLY JACK!

  6. Linda Marrie says:

    Just watched Billy Jack for I don’t know how many times since 1971. I love this movie! Still makes me cry at the end. Just learned one of his children played in the movie. The girl who sang and played the guitar. I never new she was his and Deloris’ daughter. Cool!

  7. Tina Grossklaus says:

    I loved all all Billy Jack’s movies and own Billy Jack, Trial and Washington DVD’s and can watch them over and over. We once had a marathon of all three movies for New Year’s Eve w/friends, it was great. And yes, I cry at the end every time too..Let us never forget what his story was all about even if you didn’t like the movie his story meant something to the Native Americans and how our government treated them, got the story out on Kent State and other college massacres, and treatment of the wild horses…he was and still is my hero. A very happy birthday to you Tom Laughlin…

  8. Faith Marie says:

    Billy Jack, The best of birthdays to you sir. I just got through watching BJ for the umpteenth time. I loved your movie then and I love it all these years later.
    I have Blackfoot running through my
    veins, and have always related to my heritage.
    Grow old with grace my friend, and know that
    you are loved.

  9. Joey from the Burgh says:

    I’ve tried not to get angry ..Msy his soul rest in peace & thank you for the great adventures..My best to uour family

  10. Nancy Caldera says:

    I remember going to the Brooklyn show in the 1970s to see Billy Jack, I have seen this movie many times, one of my favorite movies, and yes he was so cute…I wish I could of meet Tom Laughlin. ..that would of been a honored. R.I.P

  11. Tim says:

    I remember my dad taking me and my brothers to the drive in theater to watch Billy Jack. The fight scene in the park is one of the best for me,because it was the first time i saw one man fight multiple attackers. it was so cool. It brought out raw emotional feelings of good over evil. and cannot forget on of the best endings to any movie of Billy Jack being driven to jail and the never ending line of supporters, the song ONE TIN SOLDIER.It is truer today as much as it was back then,the corruption and injustice in our government. Billy Jack and Mr.Tom Laughflin you both will be missed my friend.

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