Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Tom Laughlin 1931-2013

I once showed the film BILLY JACK (1971) to my daughter, and she rolled her eyes most of the way through. I was so crestfallen that she didn't get it. Or rather, I saw that she easily got it, since it all seemed so obvious to her.

I realized: much of what we once fought for had become passe. These truths are now just a given.

And that's a good thing, isn't it? In one way, of course. But it also means the young people do not understand how it was for us. They do not understand that what they now take for granted, was risky and dangerous for us--something as simple as standing at a bus stop, wearing patched jeans and scruffy hair. Or whites and non-whites entering an ice cream shop together.

That's when I knew the magic Billy Jack moment had passed forever, and doesn't even really translate well to the next generation.

Thus, the passing of Tom Laughlin is even more sad than expected.

From the New York Times:
Mr. Laughlin wrote, directed and starred in all four of the Billy Jack films, earnest tales of a tightly wound, half-Cherokee Vietnam veteran named Billy Jack who protects Indians, wild horses and progressive ideals against attacks.
By most accounts, the single-minded, loner-idealist tough guy at the center of the Billy Jack franchise was based on an amalgam of cowboy archetypes, Asian martial-arts film archetypes and Mr. Laughlin’s image of himself. Colleagues and family members described him as driven, stubborn, uncompromising and intensely attracted to quixotic endeavors.

After a succession of small film and television roles during his first decade in Hollywood, he and his wife, Delores Taylor — who later co-starred in the Billy Jack films — opened a Montessori school to keep their children out of what they considered the mediocre public schools of Southern California.

A half-dozen years later Mr. Laughlin decided to return to the movie business, but on his own terms. He wrote his script and raised money for the motorcycle movie “Born Losers” (1967), the first to feature Billy Jack. He later became an outspoken environmentalist and antinuclear activist and sought the Democratic nomination for president on several state primary ballots in 1992, 2004 and 2008.
At age 13 or 14, I wanted to go out west and go to the Freedom School run by Billy Jack's almost-girlfriend (and real-life wife) Jean. When my mother told me the school was all make-believe, I cried over it.

No, no, NO... the school is REAL. Billy Jack is REAL.

Just like Santa.


My deepest condolences go out to Laughlin's partner, Delores Taylor, who embodied the lovely, strong-willed Jean. The first lead actress in a Western movie who didn't seem to have on any makeup and didn't seem to care. Film critic Pauline Kael said Taylor's performance marked the first time she had ever seen a woman discuss her own rape in a movie, and what it meant to her life. "The film pauses for these moments, which were perhaps improvised by Delores Taylor," she wrote, amazed. Yes, and so did we. In the 70s-theater I was in, you could have heard a pin drop, as Delores Taylor relates the incident. Not a single woman was breathing, we hung on her every word. My mother said it was the greatest thing in the movie. (Later that day, she would finally tell me of her own experience.)

And see? We can turn on Law and Order SVU at any time of the day or night and see this scene over and over (with not nearly the gravitas) ... but once upon a time, it was odd enough that a New Yorker critic saw fit to mention it as almost-miraculous.


In Billy Jack, during a scene at the Freedom School, some kids are re-enacting the life of Jesus Christ. A black kid plays Jesus (which apparently is still pretty radical stuff!--but I digress).

One of the kids asks him, when you return, how do we know its you? Give us a sign! And he gives the black power salute, his fist in the air.

The kids, of all races, stand and silently return the salute.

And so, at about 2:04 in the video below, you see the significance as Billy Jack is taken away by the law. The kids, once again, give 'the sign'--the black power salute. And right in the shadow of a cross. (Sobbing at 2:39, in the purple shirt, is Laughlin's daughter, Teresa.) Whatever you think of Tom Laughlin's Jesus-complex, this was some bang-up B-movie film-making, folks.

Billy Jack finally controls his violent temper, for the greater good of the whole group. He sacrifices his own freedom to keep the Freedom School open. As one who often fights to control my own temper, do I have to tell you?

It always makes me cry.


Rest in Peace, Tom Laughlin. I would love to have known you.

One Tin Soldier - Coven (theme of Billy Jack)


bryce said...

heard song my whole life - never knew it was from movie. my sister sang it in a talent show

Conseglieri said...

I loved the way the song challenged you. "Go ahead and hate your neighbor.
Go ahead and cheat a friend. Do it in the name of heaven. You can justify it in the end.". Clearly these were shortcuts doomed to failure, but I still haven't seen these films. I am feeling a serious need for a "Daisy's Film Club" showing what...once a quarter at least?