Monday, December 16, 2013

RIP Tom "Billy Jack" Laughlin.

Filmgoers 50-and-over may still have some memories of the late Tom Laughlin's 70s rise-and-fall as star/auteur/idealist/independent distributor due to the popularity of the first three films in the BILLY JACK series (the first, BORN LOSERS, was released in 1968, but was reissued by American International Pictures after the success of 1971's BILLY JACK).

Billy Jack was a Native American progressive--eager to defend fellow Native Americans and the multicultural Freedom School with words and last-resort karate against villains and corrupt politicians.  The character had a lot of appeal during the latter days of the counterculture (roughly 1971 to 1974), and BILLY JACK plus THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK may still, for some, maintain curiosity value as a snapshot of an era where vigilante liberalism as an answer to Injustice (though Delores Taylor's Freedom School teacher Jean was a relatively peaceful/verbal counterweight to Billy Jack's barefoot-kick problem solving) held almost as much sway in the pop culture marketplace as more conservative vigilantes Dirty Harry Callahan and Paul Kersey.

After THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK, Laughlin's career declined. 1975's THE MASTER GUNFIGHTER, a Western pitting Laughlin's title character against post-SUPERFLY Ron O'Neal, was a box-office disappointment.  So Laughlin attempted to play safe by injecting the Billy Jack character into a remake of MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (which never received a full theatrical release, though it's now available on DVD and streaming video in a 40-minutes-shorter version).  On paper, it was an interesting concept to place Billy Jack into a landscape where corruption and politicians-owned-by-corporate-interests couldn't be defeated by simple violent action (ironically, Laughlin's "people's initiative" solution to national government malfeasance bears a resemblance to the way that propositions--which can be controlled by corporate interests--get introduced into the California system of state government).  But, even in the shortened 115-minute cut, BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON is rather clunky (occasionally livened up by E.G. Marshall as the fraudulent Senator played in 1939 by Claude Rains, plus Sam Wanamaker as a proto-Koch brother) for a work by a director who briefly had his finger on the Youth Market pulse.  The financial failure of BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON effectively ended Laughlin as writer/producer/director/actor, though he attempted another BILLY JACK sequel in the 1980s which was abandoned partway through production.

As a filmmaker, Tom Laughlin's legacy is twofold.  Jane Fonda, quoted in a 1975 profile of Laughlin in ROLLING STONE, described THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK as "crude...simplistic"--then goes on to discuss how she watched people enjoying and learning from it, realizing she was out of touch.  Fonda's more complex and sophisticated message/entertainment films (produced with Bruce Gilbert) such as COMING HOME, THE CHINA SYNDROME and 9 TO 5 seem to be the results of her viewing of THE TRIAL.

And then there's James Cameron.  TITANIC (which I like a little bit more these days than I did on its original 1997 release) and AVATAR both display the Tom Laughlin hallmarks of simple Good Vs. Evil stories, liberal/progressive sentiments (certainly the willingness to examine the vast divide between the venal rich and the comparatively powerless poor) and effective audience manipulation.

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