Sunday, December 15, 2013

R.I.P. Tom Laughlin

Tom Laughlin started out in the fifties in JD films but quickly grew to write and direct his own, often under assumed names. One of those was BORN LOSERS, a 1967 drive-in flick about a girl raped by a cycle gang who fights back with the help of a laconic loner in a cowboy hat named Billy Jack. The most notable thing about the picture is the cameo by Jane Russell.

BORN LOSERS was re-released in the mid-seventies after the astronomical success of the next 2 BILLY JACK films!

BILLY JACK wasn't really a sequel, more of a new start. It clearly wasn't the same character and the emphasis in this one was how the half-breed hero felt bad about using violence to protect a school run by a peace-loving woman. It flopped.

But ever the maverick, Laughlin bought back the film and "four-walled it" in theaters starting in Cincinnati. Basically, that means he paid theaters to run the film for a certain amount of time while he saturated the market with ads on radio, TV and in newspapers. It worked and BILLY JACK--although trounced by critics, became a major hit of the year!

BILLY JACK was then re-released nationally as a very special film where it did amazing box office.

Later ads actually touted the film's unusual route to success. Since the character used martial arts, BILLY JACK also benefitted from the growing trend of martial arts pictures that began in 1972.

Inevitably this led to a sequel--the much-hyped but horribly overblown TRIAL OF BILLY JACK. Parts of it were much better than the other two films but the ego behind it made it tough to see those parts for the over-written, over-directed and over-long rest of the picture!

Another film was made and this one made its world premiere and debut back here at the site of the original BILLY JACK's success--Cincinnati. The cast and crew were here for a week, making the rounds of the local talk shows, riding in parades, getting the key to the city, appearing at Reds games (which means the date below is incorrect) and making personal appearances at the theaters showing the picture. None of which helped. BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON continues the social activist backstory of the previous two films while also serving as a not particularly well-made remake of Frank Capra's classic MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. Apparently it never even achieved a national release at the time.

A decade later, in the mid-eighties, the usual crew started and abandoned THE RETURN OF BILLY JACK in which our hero was to go undercover as a priest to stop the mafia's exploitation of children. Scenes later turned up on Laughlin's website.

Still later, Tom spoke in interviews of an anti-Bush film in which the GHOST of Billy Jack returned to coach young activists!

Tom Laughlin died on December 12th, 2013.


1 comment:

  1. Tom Laughlin, R.I.P. I had no idea he died.

    Weekend before last, we drove up to Prescott, AZ where much of "Billy Jack" was filmed. They do a big Christmas tree lighting at the courthouse, which is right along Whiskey Row. The grounds around the courthouse is where they filmed the big fight scene in "Billy Jack," and I always feel like I'm about to be jumped by a gang of racist, mustang-killing cowboys every time I walk around there...