Go ahead and hate your neighbor,
Go ahead and cheat a friend.
Do it in the name of heaven,
You can justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowin’
On the judgment day.
On the bloody morning after,
One tin soldier rides away.
– The Ballad of Billy Jack
Tom Laughlin, who self-immortalized back in the ’70s by writing, directing, and starring in the “Billy Jack” series of movies, died last week in Los Angeles at the age of 82. He died of pneumonia, and here at OMT, we were shocked to learn how old he was. He was the same age as Peter Sellers, who also died last week. We were fully prepared to hear that Sellers was 82, but Billy Jack? Are you kidding?
Billy Jack, for those of you who are unschooled, or just don’t remember, was the half-Navaho Vietnam Vet and former Green Beret with the slow-burning fuse who was kicking racist, redneck ass on behalf of liberal causes even before Clint Eastwood started kicking everyone’s ass for conservative ones. Billy first appeared on the big screen in a 1967 biker picture, The Born Losers, in which he kicks the shit out of the bikers for gang-raping a college student. The film went nowhere, box office-wise.
Next time around, Laughlin made him the main character in the 1969 film, Billy Jack, in which he was back, this time to defend a bunch of multi-ethnic hippies who are running a school for Indians from the local townsfolk who hate hippies, Indians, blacks, Jews and other minorities just on spec. They were Nixon’s “silent majority”, the dark underbelly of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” who saved the world from fascism only to sow the seeds of it here at home. Which sprouted up with great fecundity as their natural offspring, today’s Tea Partiers, who share their racism and love for authoritarianism, if not their silence.
But we digress.
When the Indian kids go to town for some ice cream, they are refused service by the owner of the ice cream shop, and then a gang of bullies dumps flour all over them. This pisses Billy off, natch, and lights that slow-burning fuse we mentioned earlier. Billy starts off calmly telling them how he tries hard to turn the other cheek when he witnesses the ugly behavior of ignorant racists. “But when I see this girl of such a beautiful spirit so degraded,” he continues, “and this boy, that I love, sprawled out by this ape here, and this little girl, who is so special to us that we call her God’s little gift to sunshine — and when I think of the number of years she’s going to have to carry in her memory the savagery of this idiotic moment of yours, I — just — go — berserk!”
Whereupon he does, and Billy Jack single-handedly kicks everybody’s ass. There is a tremendous amount of violence in the film, but it’s all in good fun. We say that because the people on the receiving end of Billy Jack’s ire are ignorant bastards who richly deserve it. And besides, whether or not it’s appropriate to perpetrate senseless violence on unreconstructed assholes is a moral quandary we never had much of a problem grappling with.
Billy Jack was peace, love, and flower power gone all psychopathic on us, and it was something to see. A real shock to the system, especially when viewed through the haze of reefer. The film was made well before Woodstock, but it had all the ugly sensibilities of Altamont, right down to the almost gratuitous violence that permeated the movie.
In the end, Billy Jack kills the son of a local political honcho, because he raped a 13-year old girl. Billy delivers the coup de grace in the form of a karate chop to the throat (it should be noted that this film, with its martial arts themes, predated the entire Bruce Lee genre). Billy is promptly arrested, and his supporters hold their fists defiantly in the air as the cops haul him off, setting up the storyline of the sequel, 1974’s The Trial of Billy Jack.
The film Billy Jack, as one might imagine, became a cult favorite, and spawned an entire subculture of losers who worshipped him as a counterculture hero. This is where we lost interest in the whole Billy Jack thing. We knew a couple of “Billy Jackoffs”, as we liked to call them, and it was a sorry state of affairs. That gene that allows for the worship of gods and other hustlers is recessive in us, which is why we always lose interest when people start pining for their gods, be they Billy Jack, Jesus Christ, Sun Myung Moon, or Steve Jobs.
We viewed the film, then as now, as a curiosity, something of a signpost of its time, an antidote to the 1970 film Joe, in which Peter Boyle starred as an anti-hippie working class father who perpetrates a shoot-out at a hippie commune and winds up killing his own daughter (Susan Sarandon, in an early, pre-Rocky Horror role). There is probably more violence in films today, but the film violence of the late ’60s and early ’70s seemed to take place more in everyday life than it does in today’s movies, in which the most violent films are set either in some fantasy of the future or of the distant past. Apparently since 9/11, Americans want their violence in a form that doesn’t hit quite so close to home, although they still want it, by god.
Still, we can’t help but think that those of us on the left could use a Billy Jack today, out there kicking conservative ass. Spinelessness, wimpiness, and weakness in general has always seemed to be much more prevalent on the left than on the right. Conservatives may not be any more brave than liberals, but they certainly give the appearance of being made of tougher stuff. And in this world in which appearance is reality, they may be onto something. Forget the fact that over on the left there are so many opinions that must be given equal weight, thereby muddying up the political waters to the point at which nothing is clear, the left’s chronic need to be polite, to be fair, to see things from the other guy’s perspective, even when that perspective runs counter to every principle that the left holds dear ultimately translates into political failure in spite of their larger numbers. Not to mention making them come off as a bunch of pussies.
If we ever expect to win this war of attrition against the right, then we on the left are going to have to toughen up — and toughen up hard — and here we think that Billy Jack shows the way forward. Billy Jack never tried to be fair to the racist bullies that populated his films. He never tried to see their side of the argument. Even-handedness was not a part of his makeup, unless by even-handedness you mean using both hands to break somebody’s neck.
Here at OMT, we just don’t see why our side has to concede toughness and single-minded purposefulness to our opposite numbers on the other side of the political divide. We’re not going to gain any ground by being fair when the right is unfair before the argument even starts. Billy Jack could walk into Fox (ahem) News and kick their asses from one end of the studio to the other and not even break a sweat. Faux tough guys Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity would pee in their pants if they had to go up against Billy Jack.
You know, we’re just sayin’ …
As for Laughlin himself, his daughter said “The separation between the character of Billy Jack and my father was tissue thin at its thickest part.”
We find that to be both reassuring and disturbing.
Still, we have an inkling of the rage that was building up in Billy Jack when he “just — goes — berserk.
We get the same feeling when we hear Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich.
* – The title of this piece was lovingly ripped off from a line in the Firesign Theater play In The Next World You’re On Your Own, in an OMT tip o’ the hat to the three surviving members.