”You know what I think I’m gonna do then … just for the hell of it? ... I’m gonna take this right foot and I’m gonna whop you on that side of your face. And you want to know something? There’s not a damn thing you’re gonna be able to do about it.”
— Actor Tom Laughlin in the movie Billy Jack
Now, that’s one way to kick off a well-staged cinematic fight sequence.
But it’s also the only really good line in the 1971 film Billy Jack.
New Mexicans of a certain vintage remember it well: A movie that promoted pacifism while repeatedly allowing its hero to use violence to right things. It tackled everything and anything that was relevant at the time: women’s rights, civil rights, prejudice, the unlawful killing of horses, the school system, teenage pregnancy, rape and political corruption. And it still managed to cram in an “improvised” comedy scene featuring people you probably wouldn’t like having in your home.
But Billy Jack, other than being something of an entertaining and confusing mess, meant plenty to what then was New Mexico’s fledgling movie industry.
Though filmmakers have been coming to New Mexico for more than 100 years to use its scenic backdrops as sets — 1955’s The Man From Laramie, 1958’s Cowboy and 1970’s The Cheyenne Social Club were filmed on ranches near Santa Fe — the state’s capital city itself was rarely a film location.
That is, until Billy Jack rode into town.
Jeff Berg, author of New Mexico Filmmaking, said Billy Jack was “one of the few films of the time to use downtown Santa Fe or even Santa Fe at all as a locale.”
Billy Jack, the character after whom the 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 appeared out of nowhere whenever someone needed help — sort of like Superman, except more likely to ride a motorcycle or a jeep. And oh, yes, he carried a rifle.
But in the spring and summer of 1971, when the film was first released, its “throw everything including the kitchen sink” approach somehow worked. Audiences responded to the message of a new Western hero who stood for everything that was right and against everything that was wrong and who was ready to back up his beliefs with fists and feet.
For a society fed up with an unpopular war, political shenanigans, racial prejudice and the establishment in general, Billy Jack was the perfect tonic. You could be a hippie or a square and still love the guy.
“The main appeal of the film was fighting bias, prejudice,” said journalist and fiction writer Jorge Casuso, who wrote The Untold Story Behind the Legend of Billy Jack, a 1999 book self-published 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, goons, and the good guys are the students, Jean [Billy Jack’s girlfriend] and these almost angelic kids.”
Casuso, who first saw the film in a theater in Miami during its initial release in 1971, said it was a film every teenager in America thought was “cool to watch.”
The independent movie, shot in 1969 and 1970, attracted a lot of ticket-buying patrons. It was made for under a million dollars — Laughlin cited about a half-million, the New York Times $800,000. But it earned much more than that.
Then, incredibly, it earned tens of millions more when Laughlin, in tandem with Warner Bros., bought back the rights, rented cinemas around the country and released it again 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 shook its collective head in disbelief.”
The film’s success also helped put New Mexico and Santa Fe on the map for Hollywood production companies as then-Gov. David Cargo initiated the state’s first film office in an effort to draw moviemakers to the state.
Laughlin, who scripted, produced and directed Billy Jack under a number of pseudonyms, shot the film in both Arizona and New Mexico. The famous fight scene in which Billy Jack “whomps” quite a few racist bullies in the park was shot primarily in Prescott, Ariz. — until New Mexico offered Laughlin a better financial deal to woo him here.
“Half of it had been shot in Arizona and was already in the can,” Casuso writes in his book, which was based on months of tape recorded interviews with Laughlin. “The second half was to be shot in New Mexico. The Laughlins scouted locations until they found a grey concrete building to match the backdrop in the first half of the scene. The surroundings were different, so the cameraman was limited to shooting more closeups than he’d have liked.”
The New Mexico sequence from the riveting fight scene appears to have been shot on the lawn outside the federal courthouse in downtown Santa Fe. Other New Mexico locations include Bandelier National Monument, Eaves Movie Ranch and Santa Clara Pueblo.
Former Pasatiempo film writer Jon Bowman, author of 100 Years of Filmmaking in New Mexico, said by phone from his home in Kentucky that this was the period in which Cargo tried to make New Mexico the go-to place for location filming, particularly for Westerns, which were still popular.
“There were a good dozen movies shot here during that time,” Bowman said, reeling off the titles of several: Red Sky at Morning, The Hired Hand, Two-Lane Blacktop — all, to some degree, very much made with the same independent, autonomous filmmaking process as Billy Jack.
“But this [Billy Jack] was the biggest hit,” Bowman said.
Of the film’s dual-location filming history, he said, “There’s definitely some stuff that says New Mexico in there. If you know the geography, it’s entertaining to see it jump around.”
But Peter Grendle, the new cinema director at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, said it may be the film sequences of Billy Jack on Santa Clara Pueblo and Bandelier National Monument that stand out today.
“You can’t go up there and shoot a movie today,” he said. “What stands out is the natural scenery; you could tell they weren’t in California. It was kind of poetic and fun to see where Billy Jack lived.”
The picture played well a half-century ago because it touched on so many issues important to people at the time, Berg said.
“Billy Jack magically appeared here and there, and his sense of justice also may have been seen as something really good for the anti-hero days,” Berg said.
Grendle said the film came out at a time “when we were all beginning to doubt what America is.” It also had the added advantage of arriving during a period in which solo vigilante action movies were hot at the box office.
Finally, Casuso said, it had an odd but effective combination: a Western genre and martial arts, all in one.
“It’s a karate Western,” he said.
Laughlin, who played a number of small parts in films of the late 1950s — he’s a goofy-smiling surfer in 1959’s Gidget — first wrote the script for Billy Jack in the 1950s in an effort to deal with 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 movie Born Losers, but that film was pure drive-in fare — 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, The Trial of Billy Jack and Billy Jack Goes to Washington. The first was a financial success but a critical failure; the second never earned a real release and is considered a bomb by many who have seen it.
Unlike Sylvester Stallone, who had some success shaking free of his franchise Rambo and Rocky characters, 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 ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for president in the 1992 election. Laughlin, whom Casuso got to know, said everything the actor did after the success of Billy Jack was based on that character.
“He sort of became him,” he said. “And in the public eye, he is Billy Jack. If you ask most people what is the actor’s name playing Billy Jack, they probably wouldn’t know.”