Before Bruce Lee leapt onto American cinema screens, audiences had already caught a glimpse of the sort of martial arts action that would usher in the new age of action cinema. ‘Billy Jack’ (portrayed by Tom Laughlin) was in every way the American underdog tale, whether it was on-screen giving small town bullies their just desserts and taking on the might of the government, or in real life, trading blows with the Hollywood who fought to keep his film on the shelf.
This was a ten-year cinematic political movement that also gave us some big screen martial arts action worthy of the moniker, ‘iconic’. Read on as we revisit the saga that is Billy Jack through his movies in this Action Special!
“The Born Losers” (1967)
Billy Jack is an enigmatic half-Native American and Vietnam veteran who lives as a recluse away from the nearby town of Big Rock, California. He incurs the anger of biker gang ‘The Born Losers’ by intervening in the senseless beating of a resident at the hands of the gang and their leader Danny Carmody (played by Jeremy Slate).
When the gang kidnap and rape four local girls, Billy ignores the authorities’ calls and goes out on a mission of vengeance against the violent gang.
“Billy Jack” (1971)
Billy continues his reclusive life away from town protecting the land owned by his Navajo tribesman on which the ‘Freedom School’ headed by Jean Roberts (Delores Taylor) operates a progressive education program.
Billy has the job of fending off poachers hunting Mustang (free roaming horses) on tribal lands. Generally shunned by the nearby town, the school becomes the focus of corrupt politician Stuart Posner (Bert Freed) and his son Bernard (David Roya) when the pregnant daughter of a local deputy takes refuge at the school. Billy steps in to protect the school and its students from the bullying tactics of Posner and his crooked entourage.
Once again the stoic hero with a temper is pitted against the town and its authorities in his bid to protect the school and the sacred land it inhabits.
“The Trial of Billy Jack” (1974)
Following the events of the previous film, Billy Jack is on trial, found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
When he is released early he tries to reconnect with his spiritual beliefs, and Jean Roberts’ Freedom School which has turned into a guerrilla news outlet. The school’s budding journalists are investigating the dubious activities of the town’s local politicians including Stuart Posner (Riley Hill) looking to acquire the local tribes’ sacred lands and turn them over to local developers.
Billy, the school, and visiting Hapkido instructor Mr Han (Master Bong Soo Han) team up to protect native lands from the greedy clutches of Posner and his corrupt band of local officials.
“Billy Jack Goes to Washington” (1977)
In this updated retelling of the classic ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ Billy Jack, back in prison is pardoned and released to take up the vacant seat of a Senator who suddenly dies after completing (and sealing) an investigation into the nuclear power industry. Billy, and Jean head up to Washington to investigate the suspicious plans to build a nuclear power station and this time battle the corrupt powers that be of Washington, DC.
The ‘Billy Jack’ series was never meant to be just action-packed fight films, rather cinematic platforms for writer/director Tom Laughlin’s and wife Delores Taylor’s political activism.
In four films spanning 10 years and over 10 hours’ running time, the total duration of the action scenes amounts to just under half an hour. Yet that is plenty for the films’ core messages, and depiction of reluctant warrior Billy Jack as the ultimate underdog fighting social injustices bravely and sometimes without his shoes.
Drawing on real-life unjust treatment of Native Americans and tragic events in American history, be it the brutal rape of two young women, or the shooting of students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard, the Billy Jack films embody the ultimate battle; one man, on the side of right, against the mighty and corrupt establishment, a battle with which Laughlin was well-acquainted.
Whilst the films ultimately aim for a call for unity through peace and understanding, they do at times require our hero to cast off his boots and fight injustice, quite literally, with his feet.
Although “The Born Losers” introduced ‘Billy Jack’ to unsuspecting audiences, it wasn’t until the second film that Laughlin gave western audiences their first taste of proper big-screen martial arts action. Billy’s fight in the town square, choreographed by Hapkido Master Bong Soo Han (who also doubled for Laughlin), plays out like a showdown in an old Western. The toe-to-toe standoff between Billy Jack and Posner exudes all the tension of a gun fight, waiting to see who draws first.
The stylish slo-mo of what is famously known as the “Billy Jack kick” remains a veritable crowd-pleasing opening salvo, with plenty more in store where that came from. Watching this scene again, the homages paid to it by TV series “Kung-Fu”, and John Woo’s, first Hollywood venture “Hard Target”, with their similarities of style and execution quickly become apparent.
To this day, it leaves other action films of the day in the shade with its realistic close-contact action that was a little too close for comfort. Whilst the remainder of the film has little action, its success for a bigger film meant upping both the political and action ante.
“The Trial of Billy Jack” again sees Billy take off his boots and socks to fight evil, only this time Master Han steps in front of the camera to strut his Hapkido stuff. The second outing is a much heavier film drawing on the darker events of American history and with a near three-hour running time makes for intense viewing.
Thankfully some levity comes in the form of a lighthearted outdoor Hapkido class featuring Master Han teaching a once passive Jean Roberts to leap and kick, much to Billy’s amusement. The lighthearted one-upmanship between Han and Billy sees the two warriors show off their kicking abilities and skills with the ‘Don jong’ (cane). Whilst Laughlin is more than capable, watching Master Han is literally seeing a ‘master’ at work with his flawless execution and graceful poise.
More action follows near the end and it’s obvious that Laughlin and Han were looking to not only capitalize on the popularity of “Enter the Dragon” but to outdo “Billy Jack” with an epic battle as the two men take on the town bullies at a local dance.
The dial certainly cranks up to the max on the action scale with a flurry of near-perfect kicks mixed in with some painful-looking locks and throws. Some of it might look a little dated now, but at the time, seeing this sort of martial arts action on-screen was new, with the stylish filming and cameras zooming in close for the audience to actually see feet sweeping heads, and knees up to the face, not to mention the bone-crunching arm-bars.
There’s no denying that the groundbreaking edge these scenes had in their day, not only dazzled audiences with spectacular kung fu action but the illusion of close up contact made these iconic moments that much more memorable.
It’s a little sad that so much has been forgotten about how the Billy Jack saga impacted the movie industry, shook America’s political outlook and to top it off, gave us some unforgettable fight action.
With the exception of “Billy Jack Goes to Washington” which only features a brief fight midway, the saga changed the face of martial arts cinema whose influence can be seen in films such as Jackie Chan’s “The Big Brawl”, “Road House”, “China O’Brien” (Keith Cooke’s character being a nod to ‘Billy Jack’) and Steven Seagal’s eco-warrior thrillers, “On Deadly Ground” and “Fire Down Below”.
In Billy Jack, the progressive movement of the day found its own action hero, the perfect antithesis to Clint Eastwood’s ‘Dirty Harry’. The Billy Jack series defined the phrase ‘game-changer’ in every respect and whilst the film’s subject matter and quality might leave many divided, and may even be dismissed, the fight scenes and their influence remain an integral part of action cinema to this day.
- Whilst studying at the University of Southampton, Laughlin started dating his future wife, Delores Taylor, who at the time lived on an Arapaho reservation. She invited Laughlin to see the reservation and what he saw later inspired him to write “Billy Jack”.
- In an interview Laughlin described what he saw on the reservation; “My stomach churned when I saw the poverty and degradation there. Worse than that — the racism. When the tribesman went into town to pick up their monthly allotment of flour, some of the local a**holes would dump it on their head and try and provoke them. I carried that around inside me for years.”
- “Billy Jack” was the first film to feature the Korean martial art of Hapkido which was introduced to the US in 1967, by Master Han, a student of the martial art’s founder Choi Yong-sool. Up to the time of his death in 2007 Master Han held the rank of 9th Dan.
- Hapkido is a complete fighting system that incorporates varied intricate striking techniques and numerous joint lock, throwing, and submission moves. Although it features some grappling techniques the emphasis is on escaping rather than taking the fight to the ground.
- Laughlin’s first film as ‘Billy Jack’ was “The Born Losers” a motorcycle gang exploitation revenge film based on the real life gang rape of two girls by a motorcycle gang. The film was a huge hit taking in over $36 million at the box office.
- “Born Losers” distributors, American International Pictures (AIP) were eager to work on the follow up “Billy Jack” but were deterred by the film’s strong political undertones and so pulled out. Head of 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck picked up the rights after viewing some rough cuts.
- Tom Laughlin got into a dispute with head of production Richard Zanuck, who as a supporter of President Richard Nixon, took exception to the film’s political content. Zanuck ordered the finished film to be re-cut. When Laughlin heard about this he stole the film’s soundtrack holding it to ransom. Fox eventually released distribution rights to Laughlin who then took it to Warner Bros who released it in 1971, limited mostly to drive-in cinemas and local circuits.
- The film’s theme, ‘One Tin Soldier’ (“The Legend of Billy Jack”) was a Top 40 chart hit following the film’s first release.
- Master Bong Soo Han choreographed the Hapkido fight scenes for the Billy Jack films, and performed the famous ‘Billy Jack kick’.
- The film made $32.5 million on a budget of $800,000 and so was a hit. However Laughlin was unhappy with the way the studio released and marketed the movie and sued Warner Bros. for distribution rights. After two years a deal was made whereby Warner Bros allowed Laughlin to re-release the film, and pay the distribution costs with any profits split down the middle.
- Tom Laughlin introduced the distribution model of Four Walling – paying cinemas a flat weekly fee and keeping the profits – which proved to be a financial success, netting a further $50 million when re-released in 1973.
- “The Trial of Billy Jack” was released in 1974 with a much bigger budget of $7.8 million and took in a total of $89 million making it the third box office hit of that year.
- Master Han returned to choreograph the fight scenes. He was also cast as Mr Han, a visiting Hapkido instructor to the teachers and pupils at the Freedom School. He also joins Billy Jack in the film’s penultimate fight against corrupt politician, Stuart Posner’s heavies.
- This film was the first to feature the use of the Hapkido ‘Don jong’ (cane).
- Once again the film had strong political messages inspired by the book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West” (by Dee Brown) and real-life shootings at Kent State University, Ohio in which four demonstrating students were shot by the US National Guard.
- No studio would release the film and so this time Tom Laughlin devised a distribution system that is used today – he took out four week contracts from cinema owners for simultaneous screening at 1200 cinemas, whereby he would pay them a flat fee and keep a greater percentage of the profits.
- “Billy Jack Goes to Washington” was released in 1977 featuring considerably less action, with more emphasis on the political message which was thought to be a precursor to Tom Laughlin’s later political activities.
- Famous Hapkido practitioners include Hong Kong film legend Hwang In-shik, Loren Avedon, Ji Han-jae (“Game of Death”), brothers Simon and Philip Rhee, and the legendary Master Steve Sexton (on whom Patrick Swayze’s character, ‘Dalton’, in “Roadhouse” is based).
- “I’m gonna take this right foot, and I’m gonna whop you that side of your face, and you wanna know something? There’s not a damn thing you’re gonna be able to do about it.” – Billy Jack
- Being an Indian is not a matter of blood, it’s a way of life.” – Billy Jack
- “If there is absolutely no way you can get out of taking a terrible beating the only sensible thing to do is get in the first lick.” – Billy Jack (from “The Trial of Billy Jack”.)
- “You did it…no matter what anybody says about you now, you did it. And you didn’t have to even once take your boots off.” – Jean Roberts (from “Billy Jack Goes to Washington”.)