Published on December 22nd, 2013 | by Callen Diederichs0
Goodbye Tom Laughlin: One Tin Soldier Rides Away
Actor/filmmaker/activist/amateur psychoanalyst Tom Laughlin died on December 12, 2013 at age 82. He is best known for playing the character Billy Jack in four films (so identified is he with the character that his personal website is ‘billyjack.com’). I won’t bother with all the biographical incidentals; you know how to use Wikipedia as well as I do. Instead, I’ll try to give a few reasons for his significance to cinema and culture.
This 1967 flick introduced the character of Billy Jack, a true icon of American film: Green Beret Vietnam vet, half Navajo, libertarian, wild horse protector, master of hapkido, motorcycle aficionado, crack shot with a Winchester, proud purveyor of double denim. A supreme slice of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too, with Billy’s Zen-calm exploding into righteous rage at all the campy evil bikers terrorizing hot chicks in bikinis on motorcycles, it was an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of biker films in order to finance Billy’s proper debut.
The 1971 follow up brought out Laughlin’s ideals in earnest, positioning Billy as the protector of an alternate school run by his pacifist girlfriend on a reservation. Of course the nearest town is full of corrupt landowners, cowardly cops, and rapey rednecks, providing Billy with even more opportunities to speechify as he slowly takes the shoes and socks off his Deadly Weapons before employing them.
It gleefully mixed hippy sentiments and sincere if misguided appropriation of Native spirituality (including a sequence where he gets ritually bitten by a rattlesnake) with a dose of 70s cinematic nihilism not far removed from Peckinpah and a lurid fascination with the violence it was supposedly condemning. Its vigilantism prompted Roger Ebert to ask in his review, “Is our only hope that the good fascists defeat the bad fascists?” The tone veers from a traditional western feel to self-conscious melodrama to a documentary vibe when songs and skits during a community meeting at the school play out in real time. I love it, from its iconic red and white Warner Bros logo to the Che Guevara salute ending. Its earnest theme song causes a slight flutter in my stony heart whenever I hear it. Hell, it even features Howard ‘Johnny Fever’ Hesseman as a (big stretch) hippy stoner.
The Trial of Billy Jack
Released in 1974, this film upped the ante on all fronts: the Freedom School stands in for Kent State, Billy has flashbacks to witnessing a My Lai-style massacre in Vietnam, his vision quest involves Star Trek-style special effects and culminates in him punching Jesus in the face, while the barefoot brawling sent more stuntmen than ever to their chiropractors.
Billy Jack Goes to Washington
Pretty much petering out at this point, the series tried a different direction as Billy somehow ends up in the Senate and faces down pro-nuclear lobbyists. There are some token scenes of his feet kicking guys in the face or nuts, but mostly he stands on them in a filibuster that ends with his collapse.
Intransigent independent filmmaker
Like a genre Cassavetes, Laughlin took the long view of things and would spend years, if not decades, in getting his films made his way, acting in other films to finance his own (he wrote the script for Billy Jack 17 years before filming it). Of course this led to predictable clashes with distributers like Warner Bros, but also to an accidental precedent-setting change to the way films were released theatrically, as The Trial of Billy Jack was the first picture to be released on a wide schedule and marketed aggressively on TV. For almost 20 years, up to nearly his dying days, he was pushing and scheming to get the next episode of Billy Jack made. His website featured various ploys to raise money and promised it would be a ‘new genre of film.’
His lack of formal training in psychology didn’t prevent him from writing books and lecturing on Jungian psychology and offering personal counselling. One of the more amusing applications of his perspective was an evaluation of Sarah Palin, posted under a picture of her and her daughter with a freshly killed deer. “Despite the incredible charm and charisma of Palin’s Persona, starting with her drop-dead gorgeous, all-American good looks, her glib, smooth-talking verbal skills, her warm and engaging personality, and her marvelous hockey mom façade … her extreme narcissism, severely damaged Maternal Instinct, severely damaged Feminine Instinct, and her malformed Animus — including her Vengeance Animus which makes her punitive minded, weakens her conscience, and makes her deceitful, who will shamelessly say and do anything to be elected — makes her, in view of McCain’s age, illness and potential Alzheimer’s, the most unqualified, dangerous and destructive Vice President in modern times.”
Speaking of the Tea Party, he epitomized the American libertarian before greedy racists sullied that label. “America has lost its moral purpose … America was the only nation formed for a moral purpose, the rights of every man [sic], everywhere, especially the right to freely criticize and dissent.” He ran for president three times as both Republican and Democratic nominee, before deciding that, “we don’t disdain both the Democrat and Republican Parties, we loathe them…What America desperately needs is a new, mainstream — not fringe — 3rd party to break the stranglehold big business and the multinational corporations have over both the corrupt cowardly Democrats, or the equally corrupt rapacious Republicans.”
He was a vocal opponent to the Bush administrations, both Iraq Wars, and indeed to American interventionist policy of any sort. He had the quixotic plan to make the U.S. free of oil dependency within three years, using advances in technology to create ethanol out of byproducts, not staples, of the food industry.
As could be assumed from his Billy Jack persona, he was a long time ally of Native American causes, down to his last gesture: on his website, under a still of him performing the above-mentioned rattler ritual, is a request to make donations to Friends of Pine Ridge Reservation in lieu of flowers.
A bit loony but engaged to the end, Tom Laughlin exemplified the benevolent, admirable Weird America which, in these days of “Santa and Jesus were white!,” serves as a rare counterpoint to its more toxic aspects. What better time than Christmas to indulge in some guilty pleasure viewing that blurs the lines between po-faced PC and offensively tasteless, and be reminded that, sometimes, one man can make a difference. If, that is, that one man is…Billy Jack.