Above is Tom Laughlin and below a poster of his biggest hit. Graham Hill suggested we enlighten our readers about the Billy Jack phenomenon of the 1960s. Go to it Graham.
Graham writes; “BILLY JACK… A Very Small Movie That Changed HOLLYWOOD!
Not a great movie by any means, but certainly a revolutionary and iconic one, as BILLY JACK was truly the original BLOCKBUSTER movie.
And one, very worthy of mention here…
It was produced, financed, written and directed, and starred the husband and wife team of Tom Laughlin and Dolores Taylor.
You can be forgiven for not having seen BILLY JACK when it originally came out in 1971, that’s because it’s distributor Warner Brothers didn’t bother promoting it, they released it without any advertising or even posters…
Now BILLY JACK simply put, is a counter-culture, modern-day western, about an ex-Green Beret and hapkido master, who comes home from Vietnam and seeks peace and a new direction in the American Southwest.
He becomes a friend and a champion to Native Americans, an activist for civil rights and progressive education, saves wild horses from being slaughtered and Indian teenagers from the town’s bigoted red necks.
Totally frustrated with HOLLYWOOD politics and Warner’s indifference to their dream project, the Laughlin’s decide to distribute their movie themselves. Booking it into literally a handful of very small theaters, even to a few that usually showed porn.
The result was it was a big hit, but the Laughlin’s knew it could’ve done a whole lot better and become a massive hit with the RIGHT kind of dedicated and personal marketing….
And being the strong willed, stubborn, egotistical and opinionated man that he was, Tom Laughlin sued Warner Brothers for $50 million and against-all-odds won!
This short YouTube video explains the BILLY JACK phenomenon better than anything I could write
In 1973, the Laughlin’s took complete control of the re-distribution of their movie. They decided to use revolutionary methods of renting individual theaters for a flat rate known as “four walling.”
They were also revolutionary in being the very first to use local television for airing their movie trailer, and doing everything to get word-of-mouth out, and make seeing their movie something akin to an event, a religious ‘trending now’ experience that preceded the blockbuster lines of THE EXORCIST and JAWS.
With a shoestring budget of $800,000, BILLY JACK would go on to gross over $98 million.
It was the fifth top-grossing film of 1971, behind FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, and DIRTY HARRY, and ahead of CARNAL KNOWLEDGE and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
Film scholars and writers better than I, have long sang the praises of BILLY JACK.
Perhaps the best article, is that of writer Nathan Rabin from 2014 –
A short clip-
“True, BILLY JACK had the advantage of being a sequel to a minor box-office success—the 1967 American International biker movie THE BORN LOSERS—but that only explains so much. If anything, the fact that a typically repellent, sleazy, sordid biker movie from 1967 kicked off a massive pop-culture phenomenon of the 1970’s makes the whole enterprise even more bizarre.
Before The Born Losers, Laughlin couldn’t catch a break; after BILLY JACK’s groundbreaking success, he could write his own ticket. It was as if the universe was handing him a blank check with which he could fulfill his wildest fantasies. He now had the leverage to really realize his vision in all its cockeyed glory. If Billy Jack was a movie about The Way We Live Trojan-horsed inside the awkward, ungainly form of a revenge thriller, then its sequel, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK, was a referendum on the state of American life and politics, circa 1974.
THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK ends by preemptively dismissing the legitimate criticism that this ode to non-violence is horrifically violent, then points an angry finger at phantom critics for not doing as much to fight oppression as the film’s fictional characters. It’s overwhelming and exhausting, and it leaves the series nowhere to go. But that didn’t keep Laughlin from making another Billy Jack movie, 1976’s BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON (a remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington), which never saw wide release, and marked the end of the Billy Jack saga. (Laughlin unsuccessfully tried to revive the franchise with 1986’s unfinished THE RETURN OF BILLY JACK, which was abandoned when Laughlin hurt himself performing a stunt, and then funding ran out.)
In the final decades of his life, Laughlin ran for president three times, twice as a Democrat and once as a Republican. As recently as the previous decade, Laughlin had plans to revive the franchise with a film he planned to call, among other names, Billy Jack’s Crusade To End the War And Restore America To Its Moral Purpose. (Laughlin was not a fan of the Iraq War, or George W. Bush.)
Laughlin died last year at 82. He accomplished so much over the course of his lifetime, yet he died broke and more or less forgotten.
The website billyjack.com, where I long ago bought my first Billy Jack movie, is now pretty much dead, with only a still image and a link to an eBay estate sale for the entire contents of the house Laughlin left behind when he died. The opening bid was $2,500. There were no takers, but all money would have gone to fund Dolores Taylor’s Alzheimer’s treatment.
Laughlin changed the way movies were distributed and marketed, but his movement was mercurial and short-lived. He was not a savvy businessman with good preservation instincts like Perry: he was an arrogant, mercurial hothead who created a character the world loved, only to lose the empire he had created through hubris, shortsightedness, and a stubborn refusal to compromise or play the game. That’s what made him such a cultural force, but it also helps explain his demise.
One final twist regarding this singularly insane slice of Americana: Among its other claims to fame, BILLY JACK birthed an anthemic single in “One Tin Soldier (The Legend Of Billy Jack),” an angrily delivered allegory about the evil of greed and short-sightedness that became a huge, huge hit for Coven, the band that recorded it. “One Tin Soldier” is an anthem of peace and brotherhood with a weird footnote: The members of Coven were practicing Satanists whose 1969 album Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls helped introduce now-ubiquitous Satanic tropes like inverted crosses and the phrase “Hail Satan” to heavy metal. Given the contradictory nature of Billy Jack, it seems both bitterly ironic and all too appropriate that the series’ ultimate anthem of hope and peace was popularized by people who worshipped Satan. In the too-strange-for-fiction world of Billy Jack, it seems, the devil really is in the details.”
Dolores Taylor died at the Motion Picture Home in Los Angeles on May 23, 2018, at age 85.
Personally, I never saw BILLY JACK till on TV in the 1980’s… It’s not exactly a favorite, but it is still special and important, a reminder that once upon a time, you could get a very small movie made that would go global and become very much “trending now” and iconic, without the help of a mega corporation.
It was propaganda of the most hopeful kind, but it didn’t change a single damn thing in making the world a more peaceful and prosperous place… But then counter-culture was never about change or revolution, it was just another part of our masters social engineering agenda to keep us pacified and amused, whilst they forever continue to rob us blind and profit from death and destruction…
And not even a worldwide army of BILLY JACK’s is going to change that evil phenomenon anytime soon!”