RIP Tom Laughlin, at age 82.
Man, does Billy Jack bring back memories. I remember seeing it with a couple of friends at the late Astoria Theater—we were all too young, technically, for an R-rated movie, but were, uh, tall for our age.
Of course, the artistic merits of the picture were uppermost in our minds when we decided to violate the rules laid down by the MPAA. That and there was kung-fu and boobies.
(Oh don’t look at me like that. Like you were never a teenage boy. Well, maybe some of you women weren’t. But that’s no excuse either.)
Billy Jack turned out to be a one-man civil-rights-crusading franchise. There were almost as many sequels as there were planets of apes, but by the time they got to Billy Jack on Planet Zombo, they decided to call it a day and tear down that drive-in while they were at it.
The 70s was the era of genre revisionism. In detective films, gangster movies, westerns, cops-and-robbers capers, the old cinema bad guys (say, Indians or Sicilian gangsters or “urban” youth) were now the good guys (sorta), and the old good guys (say, cowboys or police or clergy) were now bad guys (sorta). So Billy Jack engages in Native American rituals and wears a feather and fights on the side of equal rights and racial equality. That kind of reversal made a certain kind of sense, at least. But when you get to Taxi Driver, for example, the guy in the mohawk is, if not nuts, definitely lost in his own head. The bad guys he takes out are definitely bad, and no great loss, but that still doesn’t change the fact that Travis Bickle is an Ethan Edwards for the other side—a vigilante, a judge and jury. (The 70s were also the heyday of vigilante movies: Dirty Harry, where the cop turns against “the law”; Death Wish, of course; and Walking Tall, with Taxi Driver as the genre’s Citizen Kane.)
Anyhoo, Laughlin went on to have a fabulously unsuccessful political career. His platform was a strange blend of left- and right-wing causes. He grew disaffected from the Democratic Party because of the way primaries and debates were rigged against outsiders. (He ran for the presidential nomination in 1992. I remember his appearances on the Merv Griifin Show.) He ran for president again in 2004 — as a Republican. (He hated the so-called Christian Right, however.)
Rest in peace, you crazy bully-beating wild man.
And who’ll ever forget the theme song, which you must listen to once today:
Peace on earth was all it said, damn your war-mongering hides!