Billy Jack lobby cards image courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries
Warner Bros. brought Billy Jack to movie theaters in 1971. Tom Laughlin has the title role as the high-kicking Vietnam vet, with Delores Taylor, Clark Howat, Bert Freed and Kenneth Tobey along for the violent ride.
Billy Jack in The Born Losers
The Billy Jack character made his debut in the 1967 biker film The Born Losers. Released by American International Pictures, The Born Losers featured Tom Laughlin as Billy Jack, a half-breed martial arts expert who battles an outlaw biker gang in a small California town.
Budgeted at a miniscule $360,000, The Born Losers was deemed so violent that Sweden banned the picture from its shores in 1968, 1972 and 1975.
Tom Laughlin Directs Billy Jack
Tom Laughlin and real-life spouse Delores Taylor wrote Billy Jack under the pseudonyms Frank and Teresa Christina. As with The Born Losers, Laughlin once again directed under the moniker T.C. Frank, derived from the names of his two children, Frank and Teresa Christina.
Mundell Lowe created the original music score, which included the film’s spirited title song, “One Tin Soldier,” performed by Jinx Dawson of Coven. Released as Warner Bros. single 7509, “One Tin Soldier” graced the Billboard Top 100 for 12 weeks, peaking at #26.
Billy Jack Cast
Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack) and Delores Taylor (Jean Roberts) head the cast. Other players include Clark Howat (Sheriff Cole), Bert Freed (Stuart Posner), Julie Webb (Barbara), Kenneth Tobey (Deputy Sheriff Mike), Victor Izay (Doctor), Debbie Schock (Kit), Stan Rice (Martin), Lynn Baker (Sarah), Teresa Kelly (Carol), David Roya (Bernard Posner), John McClure (Dinosaur), Susan Foster (Cindy a.k.a. Little Miss Up Yours), Susan Sosa (Sunshine), Katy Moffatt (Maria), Gwenn Smith (Angela), Richard Stahl (Council Chairman), Alan Myerson (O.K. Corrales) and Ed Greenberg (Drama Teacher).
Howard Hesseman, who later found fame as Dr. Johnny Fever on CBS-TV’s WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-82), appears as Howard Johnson under the name Don Sturdy.
Billy Jack Filmed in New Mexico
Budgeted at $800,000, much of Billy Jack was filmed at the Eaves Movie Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Other locations used were Los Alamos, New Mexico; Prescott, Arizona, and Imperial County, California.
Hapkido karate master Bong Soo Han expertly staged the movie’s martial arts scenes involving the twisting, high-kicking Billy Jack. Han also doubled for star Tom Laughlin in some of the more difficult fight sequences, displaying the now-famous Outside Crescent Kick.
Billy Jack Studio Wars
Like The Born Losers, Billy Jack was originally to be released by American International Pictures. Because of studio interference, however, Tom Laughlin opted out of the AIP deal and took his film to Twentieth Century-Fox.
After learning that Fox might re-edit Billy Jack, the maverick Laughlin bought back his movie for $100,000. He then sold Billy Jack to Warner Bros. for $1.8 million and a whopping 45% of the film’s subsequent profits. In 1973, a disgruntled Laughlin sued Warner Bros. for $51 million, alleging that Billy Jack had been improperly publicized.
Billy Jack Set in the American Southwest
Billy Jack opens in majestic style, with a stunning aerial shot of a herd of wild horses racing through the canyons of the great American Southwest.
The motion picture centers on Billy Jack, described as “a war hero who hated the war.” An ex-Green Beret and Vietnam veteran, the mysterious Billy defends the persecuted and downtrodden against the locals headed by town boss Stuart Posner.
Posner’s son, Bernard, who pals around with a hulking sidekick named Dinosaur, is every bit as mean as the old man, habitually harassing the students who attend Jean Roberts’ Freedom School. Jean is an avowed pacifist, but boyfriend Billy Jack is decidedly not, as he continually demonstrates his martial arts skills in a series of violent encounters with the racist townsfolk.
Billy Jack is brimming with social idealism and violent action, with the latter including a dust-up at an ice cream parlor, a brawl at a city park, a brand new Corvette plunging into a lake, multiple killer karate chops and kicks, and a climactic shootout at an old adobe church.
Billy Jack Release and Reviews
Billy Jack was first trade-screened in Hollywood in the spring of 1971. The movie later went into limited release on May 1, 1971.
“For a picture that preaches pacifism, Billy Jack seems fascinated by violence, of which it is full,” reported Howard Thompson of The New York Times (7/29/71).
“Specious and mawkish as it is, Billy Jack has energy to burn: it’s deadly stuff but at least it doesn’t die on screen,” observed Gary Arnold of The Washington Post (8/7/71).
“There is essentially just one difference between Billy Jack and those countless oaters on which John Wayne has built a fortune and a personal credo. In this one, the good guys are youthful long-hairs and Indians, and the bad guys are your standard, paunchy pols, fat-cat capitalists, beer-guzzling ruffians, and cops…” opined Jerry Parker of Newsday (7/29/71).
Billy Jack Box Office, Golden Globe Nomination, Sequels, Movie Memorabilia, DVD
- Billy Jack proved to be a sleeper hit at the box office, grossing $32.5 million, good for the #2 position on the list of the top moneymaking films of 1971.
- Delores Taylor earned a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Female Newcomer.
- Billy Jack sequels: The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977).
- Auction results for original Billy Jack movie material, courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas: one sheet poster ($62), Polish poster ($59), international one sheet poster ($262.90), lot of seven lobby cards ($51), 1973 reissue poster ($11).
- On DVD: The Complete Billy Jack Collection (Image, 2009).
“I’m gonna take this right foot, and I’m gonna whop you on that side of your face, and you wanna know something? There’s not a damn thing you’re gonna be able to do about it,” Billy tells Stuart Posner.