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Billy Jack: Tom Laughlin's 'Half-Breed' Action Hero

Entertainment | January 11, 2021

Tom Laughlin (1931 - 2013) as Billy Jack in the 1971 film 'Billy Jack', which he also wrote and directed. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Billy Jack, the movie protagonist created by Tom Laughlin, was a cowboy war hero who uses extreme violence to promote peace. Though the character, which Laughlin played himself, debuted in the 1967 biker film Born Losers, he became a phenomenon in the 1971 western drama Billy Jack. Jam-packed with the most absurd of fight scenes, Tom Laughlin’s film series was immensely popular -- Billy Jack was the #1 draw at the box-office in 1971, and The Trial Of Billy Jack was the third-biggest film of 1974. By standing up for what was right, the underdog Billy Jack became a role model for baby boomers who were inspired to defend mistreated people in a prejudice society.

Tom Laughlin Struggled In The Entertainment World 

Tom Laughlin was considered a man's man from Wisconsin, who played college football at the University of Wisconsin and Marquette University. He decided to pursue acting in Los Angeles in the 1950s. His ambitions progressed slowly as he landed minor roles in South Pacific and Gidget, and eventually took the lead part in the 1957 debut of The Delinquents. However, he wasn’t reaching as far as he had hoped so for a time he gave up entertainment altogether and instead established a Montessori preschool in Santa Monica with his wife Delores Taylor. Yet, there was an idea that had been on his mind for years that he couldn’t leave behind. This dream was to create a film that would do more than entertain, but bring awareness of the government oppression of Native Americans and inspire a movement for change. 

Billy Jack Was A Defender Of Outcasts 

When Laughlin finally decided to shoot for the stars and try filming the script he had been working on for so long, the biggest issue he found was financing. To save money he cast himself as the main character Billy Jack, although he was missing many of the ingredients that made up the subject. Billy Jack was a half-white, half Cherokee macho man complete with expert karate skills. He was a “war hero who hated war” and used extreme violence to promote peace and unity. Billy Jack stands up for the mistreatment of Native Americans in his town who were being taunted by cruel racists, even the kids. Billy Jack looked like a late'60s version of a cowboy, wearing head-to-toe denim and a large hat with a Native beadwork band. He was a perfect idol for the misfits he was protecting. Although Laughlin himself did not have any Native American ancestry, nor was he trained in martial arts, his burly appearance and own political morals made him an ideal fit for his character. 

Laughlin Distributed 'Billy Jack' Himself 

By the mid-'60s, Laughlin had been sitting on his Billy Jack screenplay for over a decade. He didn't have the resources to make the movie, an action film that addressed social issues. But the biker-gang genre was thriving, and Laughlin decided to go ahead and introduce the character. The result was the quickly and cheaply made film The Born Losers, directed by Laughlin and starring Laughlin as its protagonist Billy Jack. The Born Losers was distributed by Roger Corman's American International Pictures, and although it was considered cheesy and outlandish for its ridiculously unrealistic fight scenes, people absolutely loved it. 

The success of The Born Losers enabled Laughlin was able to finance the project his heart had really been set on, Billy Jack. Laughlin took an extra step to study hapkido karate to portray Billy and his martial arts knowledge accurately. Without the help of Warner Bros. or Fox, Laughlin only trusted himself and alone he distributed the film to theaters one at a time. The method he took in distribution is one of the reasons this film franchise was considered such an anomaly. 

Billy Jack Was A Counterculture Hero 

While most martial arts films starring karate experts such as Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris were centered around subjects most people won’t experience like drug lords and mass murdering criminals, Billy Jack was more relatable to the common folks. He stood up for the regular, average guy, protecting people like the moviegoers sitting in the audience. He was a counterculture hero as he was against war, despite his violent nature, a controversial stance during a time of the Vietnam War, when the U.S. government was trying desperately to justify a war that had lost support from a large segment of the population. The film depicted hippies as heroes, and victims of the conservative racist kids, which was also anomalous, as much of mainstream entertainment portrayed hippies as scruffy shirkers and worthless bums. Also exposed was the racism that was still so prevalent during this era and inspired viewers to also take a stand for the oppressed. The plot involves all of the artsy kids at Freedom School on a Native American reservation that dealt with their own issues, but they were still seen in a positive light as they took part in street theater, art, and music that even the local sheriff was involved in. Yet, Billy Jack was the only one who could protect them. 

Laughlin Followed The Footsteps Billy Jack Would Have Taken

The Billy Jack films are seemingly more philosophical and politically charged than action-packed, although the over-the-top fight scenes provided thrills and perhaps a few laughs. The Trial Of Billy Jack, released in 1974, was also a huge hit. Laughlin's streak came to an end with the fourth movie, Billy Jack Goes To Washington, which was a complete failure, in part due to distribution issues. He ended his film career and continued to pursue activism similarly to his own heroic character. Up until 2007, Billy Jack was still the highest grossing independent film of all time and a beloved way to feel nostalgia for the past.

In the '80s, Laughlin attempted to bring the character back with a movie that would have been called The Return Of Billy Jack. The project went on for years, under various names: Billy Jack's Crusade to End the War in Iraq and Restore America to Its Moral Purpose; Billy Jack's Moral Revolution; Billy Jack for President; and Billy Jack And Jean. But the film was never finished. Laughlin's other pursuits included lecturing and writing books on psychology, and a bid to be the Democratic presidential nominee (he was mainly a protest candidate) in 1992. Laughlin died in 2013.

Tags: Billy Jack | Movies In The 1970s | Tom Laughlin

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.