The 1970s are awash in classic martial art films, but the most unique of them all has to be Billy Jack.
While most screen action heroes were fighting drug cartels, rival martial art schools, avenging a master's death or proving they can be the best in the ring, Billy Jack was fighting the system and the entrenched attitudes and prejudices people formed over generations. Written, directed, and starring Tom Laughlin, Billy Jack is the story of a lone warrior with a dark past seeking enlightenment but unable to turn away from the injustice he witnesses against Native Americans both by townspeople, business, and the law.
Christina Laughlin is the daughter of Tom Laughlin and Billy Jack co-star Delores Taylor and was the best person to tell the story behind the scenes of the independent film that broke records and brought forth a new hero. Christina Laughlin is a writer, screenwriter, and environmentalist, and is making a documentary film with her siblings about their father and mother's life and films called Renegades. She spoke to me about her trailblazing parents and the making of the classic indie movie.
The Billy Jack character first appears in the film The Born Losers, but he is different from the one we come to know in the eponymous film. In The Born Losers, Billy Jack is a hard-punching tough guy, minus the Hapkido, exacting revenge on a motorcycle gang. So where did the Hapkido come from that made the second film so different? Laughlin tells, "Bong Soo Han was giving a martial arts Hapkido demonstration at a park, and my Dad was mesmerized by it and watched the whole thing. He had never seen anything like it. He went up afterwards and said, look I'm making this movie. I'd love to meet with you. I'd love you to work with me on this. And Bong Soo Han came to my parent's house shortly thereafter and they decided to put Hapkido on film for the first time."
Training with a Master
The legendary Hapkido master Bong Soo Han became a critical addition to the films both as a stunt performer and choreographer. Han's flamboyant kicking, and ability to dispatch multiple opponents with ease, contributed to making Billy Jack an enduring martial arts film. Laughlin relates how Han became a fixture not just in the making of the film but in the Laughlin family, "The whole family got into it, he was basically training everyone at the house. They kept doing it through Trial (The Trial of Billy Jack) and Billy Jack Goes To Washington." Christina Laughlin has fond memories of her training in later backyard sessions and remembers master Han with a mystical reverence, "His whole being and presence was just kind of otherworldly, honestly."
What was Tom Laughlin's training like to become Billy Jack? Did he train after the films? Christina Laughlin explains, "He wasn't doing the regular, three days a week, training schedule. There were very intense training periods, daily, for several hours, and then he'd kind of let it go and then pick it up again. It wasn't a steady practice for him, but an immersive one." Since Tom Laughlin was writing, directing, and starring in the movie, he did what he needed to do to make it look great on film.
Other Billy Jack Projects
Billy Jack Returns was the last project that attempted to bring back the iconic character. The film began production in 1985 but was never completed due to injuries Tom Laughlin incurred during filming. Christina Laughlin explains, "He was supposed to be hit with a break-away bottle, but it was mistakenly a real bottle. They did the take several times, and then he went down, was unconscious and that was when they realized they were using the wrong bottles. He ended up in the hospital for a short bit. Through his recovery and all of that, it just fell apart. It's half-done sitting in a can."
What about a reboot? Could a new actor wear the iconic hat, gaze with a steely-eyed stare and become the new hand of justice? Whether as a remake of the original film or a new story entirely, Christina Laughlin isn't ruling it out, "It's definitely something we're looking forward to pursuing."
Renegades and the Legacy of Billy Jack
In filmmaking the lifeblood of getting something made is money. It took years to complete Billy Jack and even then it was not guaranteed a theatrical release. A movie about a veteran martial arts expert turned vigilante, for the cause of Native Americans, was not an easy sell in 1971. An action movie with a message, although entertaining in its use of choreographed violence, was not the norm for the time. The Laughlin's documentary film Renegades is about their parent's lives and the journey through the film, as they are both forever intertwined, as Laughlin states, "You can't explore the film they made without exploring the biographical part of it because it's who they were. It all starts with who they were and what drove them to do what they did."
Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor were two people that pursued their goals with a singularity of purpose and tenacity that makes them both honorary black belts in life. Christina Laughlin summed up their legacy best, "Really the only reason they did what they did was because they really believed in saying what they needed to say and exposing the realities of racism and exposing the plight of Native Americans in this country. They were bankrupt, putting everything on the line with three kids at a point when they could have made some good money and wiped their hands of it. You can't really tell the story of the film without telling their story."
Racial injustice and oppression at the hands of the powerful are themes that resonate deeply and are as compelling now as they were back then. An action film with a hero armed only with an iron will, their fists, and the belief in the ability of the individual to make a difference would be a refreshing change. Maybe now is the right time for the return of Billy Jack.