Tom Laughlin (1931-2013): The Inventor of Billy Jack, and the Blockbuster
With his passing on 12 December, writer/ actor/ director/ activist Tom Laughlin leaves behind a complicated legacy filled with maverick moves and industry defiance. Here is the truth behind his role in bringing what we now call "the blockbuster" to movie screens across America in the early '70s.
It was the original blockbuster. It was helmed by a heretofore unknown moviemaker who had a couple of successful projects under his otherwise novice belt. It was based on incredibly popular material that many in popular culture knew about and followed faithfully, and it introduced a series of innovations to both the marketing and distribution of films, creating the wide release strategy that started the entire opening weekend/multi-screen approach we know today. And it had absolutely nothing to do with a great white shark, the seaside city of Amity, or a director who would go on to be perhaps the most accepted cinematic voice of the last 40 years. No, no matter what you heard, Steven Spielberg and Jaws did not set the benchmark for future popcorn movie fortunes. Indeed, it was a manic maverick filmmaker and the third installment in his ongoing 'spiritual vengeance' franchise that first cracked the boffo box office code.
His name was Tom Laughlin, and for years he was a no name bit player eking out a marginal living in that land of failed dreams known as Hollywood. Thanks to his rugged good looks and athletic prowess (he was a running back in college at the University of Minnesota) he at first found himself cast as soldiers, young ruffians, and the jaded juvenile delinquents that populated the standard studio b-picture of the era. Even when he landed a part in a legitimate major release (South Pacific, Gidget) he found himself billed several spaces below the marquee leads. From his mid-20s to his early 30s, he seemed stuck in a stereotype that wouldn't let him escape. Even when he tried to create material for himself (he wrote and directed two independent efforts -- 1959's The Proper Time and 1960's The Young Sinners), the industry ignored him. Looking to the lagging exploitation genre for inspiration, Laughlin came up with a character he was sure would sell.
Using the growing anti-war movement for inspiration, as well as the controversy over the American government's unseemly treatment of the Native American population, Laughlin created an ex-Green Beret Vietnam veteran who uses his stance as a half-breed member of the minority population -- and his extensive martial arts training -- to work out all manner of social struggles, be they rich against poor, black against white, or craven versus the innocent. Naming the man of moral justice "Billy Jack", he drafted a combination biker pic / vengeance actioner, the kind of passion pit production that kept the petting hot and heavy down at the local outdoor theater. Entitled The Born Losers, this standard story of a good girl gone kidnapped and the chopper-riding reprobate intent on violating her virtue (among other things) was a major hit. But it wasn't until a sequel of sorts was released that the name of this counterculture icon became a wholesome household word.
Billy Jack continued the adventures of this reclusive revenge renegade, establishing a set of thematic elements that would come to define all of Laughlin's future films. The storyline was, again, very straightforward: the corrupt dropout son of an equally crooked town big wig spends his days in abject racial intolerance and his nights raping the local teenagers. When he picks on Billy's schoolteacher woman Jean Roberts (played by Laughlin's real life wife Delores Taylor), our hero rejects his basic pacifist principles and opens up a can of king sized whoop ass on the bad guys. Interspersed between the expertly choreographed and photographed fistfights, there's a lot of hippie-dippy politico-social-psychobabble, courtesy of the film's progressive educational institution known as The Freedom School. All throughout, Laughlin's Jesus-like Jack deliver's benevolent bon mots about kindness and kidney punches, giving the mano y mano machinations the sheen of a spiritual quest, or at least a journey into the self, complete with some sweet jujitsu moves.
Billy Jack was a treasure trove, making money hand over fist. Suddenly, Laughlin's character was more than a cinematic symbol; he began taking the unlikely form of a substantive political force. People identified with the man, seeing an empathetic anti-Establishment pose in everything he stood for. And when you consider that the movie also experimented with notions of social reform, civil rights, and a veiled criticism of the country's policy in the contentious Far East, it's surprising the film wasn't more successful. But Laughlin was livid over what he saw as a financially unfathomable distribution ideal. Back in the earliest days of cinema, studios not only owned the product, but they owned the theaters, as well. That meant that when a film was finished, it could roll on as many screens as possible all across the country.
But when the Golden Age system finally fell apart, and anti-Monopoly legislation mandated the selling off of these assets, the new owners took on a far more protectionist position when it came to film booking. For example, a movie like The Godfather couldn't open on 2,500 screens its first weekend. Instead, it played in several houses in major cities, staying there until it earned its keep. Then, more prints were generated, and slowly, the movie was metered out to the lesser tier markets. Eventually -- and sometimes years down the line -- a film would finally see the light of a local Bijou. By then, the next major offering would be ready to start the expedition all over again. That many of these 'events' ended up generating massive grosses was a testament to the power of film as an entertainment, and the savvy of the men on Madison Avenue.
Laughlin didn't understand why films had to follow this pattern. He understood the concept of regional distribution and market exclusivity, but the simple theory of supply and demand dictated that you try and get a film out to as many people as possible - especially films as wanted as his. Indeed, cash came calling for another Billy Jack movie and Laughlin had some lofty ambitions. Inspired by the horrifying events at Kent State, the growing disillusionment of Watergate, as well as the heartbreaking book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, he wanted to combine the persistent unethical treatment of minorities with one man's continued quest for enlightenment while mocking the cynical sway of the powers that be. Using the same formula of self-sacrifice modified by vague vigilantism, and lots of crackpot courtroom histrionics, The Trial of Billy Jack was born.
It remains a frighteningly freaked out film. Told in flashback, an injured Jean relates the story of how the Freedom School became another campus bloodbath. While Billy Jack was in the Big House (for acts antisocial committed in the previous film), the unorthodox learning center underwent tremendous growth. It even got into the business of muckraking journalism. When Mr. Posner, the local banker with substantial mining interests on the Indian Reservation, starts putting pressure on the Natives to give up their claims, Jean and her crew go to bat for them. This gets the "Freedom" fighters labeled "subversives" by none other than the US government, and soon, martial law is declared. It is up to that pissed-off pacifist Billy Jack to step in and set things right, before everyone dies. Apparently, he doesn't succeed.
If there is a misguided masterpiece in Laughlin's lamentably short career behind the camera, it's the The Trial of Billy Jack. With the capital to realize his most extreme vision, and a hot-button storyline that suggests as much as it outright says, Laughlin turned everything about America circa 1974 - the Vietnam War, its country-dividing contradictions, the growing generation gap, and corporate corruption -- into a passive-aggressive paean to the power of protest and the Establishment's determination to silence it. Making this a personal as well as pragmatic journey -- Billy Jack is eventually freed from prison and tries to resolve his violent and peace-loving personalities -- there is a great deal of mindblowing mysticism in this film. Perhaps the most unbelievable sequence remains the moment when our harried hero, out to merge with the infinite powers of the cosmos, climbs a high mountain peek and proceeds (with the help of a handy medicine man) to go on a psychedelic journey to the center of his own orneriness.
And as stated before, the storyline offered the perfect rational for the film's initial $50 million gross. It spoke to a young populace still reeling from the discovery that institutions like the Presidency, the military, and their local officials were flawed, sometimes fatally, and it said it in a way that was hip, progressive, and very, very liberal. With its advice toward inner exploration and acceptance, in tandem with its declaration for the deliberate exposing of injustice and social sin, The Trial of Billy Jack practically tapped into the subconscious of its audience and visualized its most prevalent fears, and its most determined set of responses. Even some 30 years later, it remains a powerful message tucked inside an unapologetically Me Decade dynamic. In fact, you can argue that Billy Jack started the whole religious / secular quest for inner peace with his constant statements toward exploring one's psyche (Laughlin remains a confirmed believer in the teaching of psychologist Carl Jung).
Though it's definitely dated, The Trial of Billy Jack today plays like a diatribe designed by David Lynch, an all-out surreal sensation with elements so outlandish you can't imagine how anyone thought of them. Any movie that would feature police officers patting down (and feeling up) a bus full of school children, an abused boy with only one hand who comes out of his shell and learns to play the guitar, a recreation of the My Lai massacre, and a bizarre marching band concert, not to mention a trip into the cave of the dead, is bucking for some manner of misguided greatness. The Trial of Billy Jack also has some of the best Billy Jack butt-kicking of any of the character's four films. There is one scene where our hero takes on two dozen men (he has an Asian kung fu instructor as a sidekick) and its pre-wire fu at its most mesmerizing, with lots of boots to the head and flying formations.
Thanks to the inherent controversy of the premise, the previous audience acceptance of the Billy Jack character, the large deposits in the distributor's bank accounts, and the unbelievable buzz generated by the production, everything was set for another stellar twist of the turnstiles. Everything was riding on Laughlin's shoulders, and he wasn't dumb enough to ignore that fact. He used this new-found leverage to cut a deal with theater owners, promising them prints if they agreed to show the film simultaneously with other movie palaces in town. Through a combination of grit, drive, and some less than subtle influence, Laughlin got what he wanted. Before he knew it, an unprecedented 1,500 screens agreed to show his latest opus. Forming his own company, Taylor-Laughlin Distribution, The Trial of Billy Jack took the title of first legitimate blockbuster. Indeed, if you go by the standard definition of this kind of film - high profile project with high impact financial returns - it stands as a motion picture benchmark.
Naturally, the studios hated the fact that an independently made movie would show them up both in popularity and pecuniary concerns, and they immediately jumped on the mass distribution bandwagon. Indeed, when Universal announced plans for Jaws, they purposefully used the same approach that Laughlin did. Arguing that this was about to be the cultural event of the era (the Peter Benchley book had been a huge bestseller) and hoping that everyone would agree to get on the gravy train all at once, the gambit worked. When it hit theaters in the Summer of 1975, no one had ever experienced an entertainment phenomenon like it. Jaws instantly leapt to the top of the all time biggest box office grosser list, and held the title tight until a certain intergalactic action movie by Spielberg buddy George Lucas took over. And thus a mighty myth was created, one where no other film had ever had such a staggering social impact, with audiences willing to shell out the dollars again and again for another ticket.
Granted, Jaws went on to make over $100 million - the first film ever to do so. The Trial of Billy Jack only made about half that amount. Jaws cost $12 million to make, plus extra in marketing and publicity. Again, The Trial of Billy Jack also came in at about half that amount. If we're going by strict commercial comparisons, there is literally no difference between the two. And since Laughlin's film came out first, beating that broken down special effect Bruce the Shark by nearly seven months, it is clear which film history should hail. But just like everything else this maverick moviemaker did, The Trial of Billy Jack was marginalized and trivialized, the burgeoning receipts offering no aesthetic solace to a man who truly gave everything for his art.
Sadly, The Trial of Billy jack would also signal Laughlin's last major success as a filmmaker. Hoping to use the money he made as a means of supporting even higher individual goals, the director decided to make his next movie a kind of political platform for his own burgeoning interesting in public office. He reconfigured Mr. Smith Goes to Washington into a scattered stand against nuclear power, corporate greed, environmental hazards, and shady Congressional backslapping. Plugging every concern he had into this dream project, he ended up with a big, bloated bungle that many felt was unreleasable. Resigned to get his movie into theaters, Laughlin hacked out nearly 45 minutes to try and shape the storyline. It didn't help. Exhibitors hated what they saw, and refused to book it. Billy Jack Goes to Washington never got a legitimate theatrical release, and was only recently resurrected 30 years later on DVD (completely intact, no less).
This doesn't take away from Laughlin's true legacy, however. If there was any real justice in this false and phony business called show, he would be championed along with visionaries like Spielberg, Lucas, Francis Coppola and William Friedkin as the innovators who pushed the outlandish, over-the-top event movie into the motion picture mainstream. He would sit alongside the noted names and share their status as founding fathers and formidable Hollywood Hall of Fame players. Instead, he's now viewed as a complaining crackpot, a man with an oversized axe to grind who offers up his political polemics as part of an online cottage industry. Vehemently proud of what he's accomplished, he never downplays the role of Billy Jack - either in his life or inside the entertainment arena. Perhaps it's about time the rest of us take a similar stand. After all, he did invent the first blockbuster, whether popular opinion likes it or not.