Monday would have been the 90th birthday of Tom Laughlin, the actor who revolutionized independent American cinema through his Billy Jack films.
In four films, Laughlin played Billy Jack, an American Navajo, a former Green Beret, a veteran of the Vietnam War, a hapkido master, and a man who just protects children and other living things. When he first appeared in 1967’s The Born Losers, he was protecting a woman from bikers. In 1971’s Billy Jack, he was protecting the Freedom School from ignorant townspeople. In 1974’s The Trial of Billy Jack, he was …. well, in that film, Billy Jack did a little bit of everything but the National Guard still ended up destroying the Freedom School. Finally, in 1977’s Billy Jack Goes To Washington, Billy was appointed to the United Stated Senate because what else are you going to do with someone who has killed a tremendous amount of people over the course of three films?
(Of course, in Senator Jack’s defense, they were all bad people.)
Laughlin not only starred as Billy Jack but he also directed all four of the films and, starting with Billy Jack, he also handled the distribution of them. A huge box office hit, Billy Jack is considered to be a seminal counter culture film. The other three films are a bit less acclaimed and Trial of Billy Jack is often cited as one of the most pretentious and self-indulgent films ever made. But, regardless of their individual artistic merits, all of the Billy Jack films share an appealing mix of sincerity and silliness. Laughlin was a good actor and, visually, he was a stronger director than he was often given credit for. Some of the shots in the original Billy Jack are breath-taking. At a time when even self-styled progressive films still portrayed women in the most condescending and demeaning way possible (check out Getting Straight or R.P.M., if you dare), the Billy Jack films were as much about Jean (played by Delores Taylor, Laughlin’s wife and creative partner), the founder of the Freedom School, and her beliefs, as they were about Billy Jack and his struggles to accept pacifism. If nothing else, the Billy Jack films featured actual conversations and debates about actual ideologies and philosophies, as opposed to the usual shallow Hollywood politics. Unfortunately, Laughlin was also a heavy-handed storyteller and a terrible editor. The Trial of Billy Jack goes on for three hours.
And yet, of all the Billy Jack films, The Trial of Billy Jack is my favorite. It’s just so weird that it’s hard not to like it. It’s a film that doesn’t really work but, at the same time, you can’t help but appreciate all the effort that was put into it. Whatever else you might be able to say about him and his films, it’s obvious that Tom Laughlin truly did think that the movies could make a difference. There’s an aching sincerity to Laughlin’s work that pretty much cannot be found in the majority of today’s films.
In honor of Laughlin’s birthday and his legacy, here’s a scene that I love from The Trial of Billy Jack. In this scene, Billy goes on a vision quest and experiences the Three Levels. I would be lying if I said I really followed much of the logic in the scene but at least we get to see Billy hit a hippie professor. Billy also smacks Jesus, which isn’t cool but Jesus shows exactly how to handle that type of belligerence and hopefully, he provides a lesson for us all.
Learn about the Three Levels, with Billy Jack. And be sure to spare a thought for the hard work of Tom Laughlin.