“You know what I think I’m going to do then… just for fun?” … I’m going to take that right foot and I’m going to hit you on that side of your face. And do you want to know something? There is nothing you can do about it.
– Actor Tom Laughlin in the movie Billy Jack
Now that’s a way to kick off a well-staged cinematic fight streak.
But it is also the only very good replica of the 1971 film. Billy Jack.
New Mexicans of a certain vintage remember it well: a film that promoted pacifism while repeatedly allowing its hero to use violence to redress the situation. It covered everything and everything that was relevant at the time: women’s rights, civil rights, prejudice, illegal slaughter of horses, the school system, teenage pregnancies, rape and political corruption. And he still managed to cram into an “improvised” comedy scene featuring people you probably wouldn’t like to have in your house.
But Billy Jack, other than being something of an entertaining and confusing mess, meant a lot to what was then New Mexico’s burgeoning film industry.
Although filmmakers have been coming to New Mexico for over 100 years to use its stage sets as backdrops – the 1955s The Man of Laramie, the years 1958 Cowboy and the 1970s The Cheyenne Social Club were filmed on ranches near Santa Fe – the state capital itself was rarely a filming location.
That is to say up to Billy Jack went to town.
Jeff Berg, author of Making Films in New Mexico, mentionned Billy Jack was “one of the few movies of the time to use downtown Santa Fe or even Santa Fe as a location.”
Billy Jack, the character whose film is named, was quite the mix. He was, according to the film, half-Native American, a Green Beret, a martial arts expert, and a Shane-like figure who popped up out of nowhere whenever someone needed help – much like Superman, except that ‘he was more likely to drive a motorcycle or a jeep. And oh, yeah, he carried a gun.
But in the spring and summer of 1971, when the film first came out, his “throw everything away, including the kitchen sink” approach somehow worked. The audience responded to a post from a new Western hero who stood up for all that was right and against all that was wrong and was ready to back up his beliefs with fists and kicks.
For a society tired of unpopular war, political shenanigans, racial prejudice and the establishment in general, Billy Jack was the perfect tonic. You could be a hippie or a bob and still love the guy.
“The main attraction of the film was to fight against prejudices, prejudices,” said journalist and fiction writer Jorge Casuso, who wrote The untold story behind the legend of Billy Jack, a self-published 1999 book by Laughlin – a man who became so associated with the character of Billy Jack that he played almost no other role and starred in a number of sequels until his death in 2013.
“It was a very black and white story,” Casuso said by phone from his home in Florida. “The bad guys are really bad, the morons, and the good guys are the students, Jean [Billy Jack’s girlfriend] and these almost angelic children.
Casuso, who first saw the film in a Miami theater when it was first released in 1971, said it was a film all American teens found “cool to watch.”
The independent film, shot in 1969 and 1970, attracted many ticket-buying customers. It was made for less than a million dollars – Laughlin cited about half a million, the New York Times $ 800,000. But he won much more than that.
Then, incredibly, it made tens of millions more when Laughlin, in tandem with Warner Bros., bought out the rights, rented theaters across the country, and re-released it in 1973.
Watching Laughlin succeed twice with the film in just two years, film critic and writer Danny Peary wrote in his 1981 book Cult Movies, “The industry collectively shook its head in disbelief.”
The film’s success also helped put New Mexico and Santa Fe on the map of Hollywood production companies as governor at the time. David Cargo launched the state’s first film bureau with the goal of attracting filmmakers to the state.
Laughlin, who wrote, produced and directed Billy Jack under several pseudonyms, shot the film in Arizona and New Mexico. The famous fight scene in which Billy Jack “crushes” several racist bullies in the park was shot primarily in Prescott, Arizona – until New Mexico offered Laughlin a better financial deal to woo him here.
“Half had been shot in Arizona and was already in the box,” Casuso writes in his book, which was based on months of recorded interviews with Laughlin. “The second half was to be shot in New Mexico. The Laughlins searched for locations until they found a gray concrete building that matched the backdrop for the first half of the scene. The environment was different, so the cameraman limited himself to filming more close-ups than he would have liked.
The New Mexico footage of the fascinating fight scene appears to have been shot on the lawn outside the Federal Courthouse in downtown Santa Fe. Other New Mexico sites include the Bandelier National Monument, Eaves Movie Ranch and Santa Clara Pueblo.
Former Pasatiempo screenwriter Jon Bowman, author of 100 years of cinema in New Mexico, said by phone from his home in Kentucky that this was the time when Cargo was trying to make New Mexico the go-to location for location shoots, especially westerns, which were always popular.
“There have been a good dozen movies made here during this time period,” Bowman said, reeling off the titles of several: Red sky in the morning, The rented hand, Two-way blacktop – all, to a certain extent, largely carried out with the same independent and autonomous realization process as Billy Jack.
“But this [Billy Jack] was the biggest hit, ”Bowman said.
Regarding the story of the film’s dual location shoot, he said, “There’s definitely some New Mexico stuff in there. If you know geography, it’s fun to watch it jump all over the place.
But Peter Grendle, the new director of cinema at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, said it might be Billy Jack’s film footage of Santa Clara Pueblo and Bandelier National Monument that stands out today.
“You can’t go out there and shoot a movie today,” he said. “What stands out is the natural landscape; you could tell they weren’t in California. It was quite poetic and fun to see where Billy Jack lived.
The image worked well half a century ago because it touched on so many issues that were important to people at the time, Berg said.
“Billy Jack magically appeared here and there, and his sense of justice was perhaps seen as something really good for the antihero days as well,” Berg said.
Grendle said the film came out at a time “when we were all starting to doubt what America is.” It also had the added benefit of coming in a period when solo vigilante action movies were hot at the box office.
Finally, Casuso said, there was a strange but effective combination: a Western genre and martial arts, all in one.
“It’s a karate western,” he says.
Laughlin, who played a number of small roles in late 1950s films – he was a goofy grinning surfer in the 1959s Gidget – first wrote the script for Billy Jack in the 1950s in an effort to address what he and his late wife Delores Taylor saw as overt and unchallenged prejudice against Native Americans.
Laughlin introduced the character of Billy Jack in the 1967 exploitation film Born losers, but this film was pure drive-through – devoid of most of the social, racial, and political commentary of Billy Jack.
Following the success of Billy Jack, Laughlin went on to make two sequels, Billy Jack’s trial and Billy Jack goes to Washington. The first was a financial success but a critical failure; the second never got a real exit and is considered a bombshell by many who have seen it.
Unlike Sylvester Stallone, who had some success breaking free from his franchise characters Rambo and Rocky, Laughlin never did. Efforts to make The return of Billy Jack in the mid-1980s failed, and he never made another movie after that.
He unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1992 election. Laughlin, whom Casuso knew, said everything the actor did after the success of Billy Jack was based on this character.
“He kind of became him,” he said. “And in the public eye, he’s Billy Jack. If you ask most people what the name of the actor playing Billy Jack is, they probably won’t know.