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’ come the judgment day
On the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away. ~ Coven

We love the hero—the champion who inspires us and shows us that we can live for something greater than ourselves and be the catalyst to make things right in a world with so much wrong. Whether Greek mythology, Spaghetti Westerns, or Star Wars, we have an unshakeable category in our minds for heroes.

As a boy growing up in the early 70s, I marveled at the heroes I saw in films, but in that, I wasn’t doing anything unique. For me and my brothers, we didn’t think we were doing anything special when we pretended to be the heroes we’d seen in a movie. Isn’t that what every kid did? You see an adventure film with your parents, head outside, and become someone else for a couple hours?

Heroes captivate our imaginations, and if there’s one thing a kid has, it’s an imagination!

My Hero, Billy Jack

When we grow up, we tend to lose our heroes, and sometimes, it’s not because we simply grew out of them. As a boy, I idolized O. J. Simpson. So much so, that for one Christmas, my step-father took my red football helmet and hand painted it to match the Buffalo Bills helmet with number “32” on the back. I loved it.

Needless to say, that hero was crushed, but not all heroes follow the same route, and one hero of mine never lost his luster in my eyes. It was Tom Laughlin, the screenwriter and actor for the film Billy Jack.

Ironically, O. J. Simpson was a close neighbor of Tom Laughlin in Southern California (They lived on the same street) and Laughlin was involved in fighting domestic abuse. He was always a hero.

A True Hero

I’d seen plenty of martial arts movies as a boy, but none made an impact on me like Billy Jack. I think it’s because it was closer to real life than the stories I’d seen by my other heroes Bruce Lee, David Carradine, and Chuck Norris. Billy Jack was real to me, and he wasn’t fighting drug lords, or crooked cops. He was defending the innocent from small town thugs.

What I didn’t realize at the time was how politically-charged Tom Laughlin’s stories were, and that was completely intentional. In fact, by the time he produced The Trial of Billy Jack, he was addressing the very same political issues we deal with today regarding war, fascism, and political propaganda. However, I was cool with it so long as he was still kicking somebody’s ass!

The Half-Breed

Still, anyone who’s seen Billy Jack remembers the scenes where he used realistic martial arts to put a beating on the bullies that were persecuting the school filled with hippies and indians. Billy was essentially “kicking” the prejudice out of a small town. That much I understood, and for that, I loved him.

But Billy Jack was “cool” too. He was the loner. He was the special forces soldier shaped by a war he didn’t start. He was internally torn because he was half Native American, and that drove his uncontrollable anger against the bigots and bullies.

The symbol of the “half-breed” was seen in his clothing. Billy Jack wore the denim jacket and jeans, the black t-shirt, and the contrast of the Native American hat.

He drove around in a jeep with a rifle, which he only brought out when necessary, and he always seemed to arrive on time. When you saw that jeep coming down the road, you knew things were about to get ugly!

A Real Hero

But Billy Jack felt pain. He suffered loss. He loved deeply, but he also hated, and I identified with both. Billy didn’t hate others. He hated injustice. And in that sense, he appealed to the deepest sentiments of humanity, because we all pant for justice.

Billy was fighting the system, so Billy Jack was the hero of all of us. He was the individual who was handicapped by the system, but he used his strong emotion to resist the system. In the story, this created a conflict between his way of handling evil and the peaceful methods of the woman who directed the school.

For me, I always sided with Billy’s way of dealing with evil. I was a boy, and most boys like to see the bad guys get theirs!

Hero’s Inspire

Tom Laughlin created a lasting hero, because Billy Jack was as real a hero as you can create in film. This worked because Billy Jack was one of the highest-grossing independent films ($40+ million in 1973), and much of that had to do with the fact that Tom Laughlin himself handled the distribution. Still, it’s the qualities of Billy Jack, and what the character symbolized, that keeps him a cultural icon to this day.

This is because heroes inspire us, and that’s because heroes themselves are inspired. The word “inspire” means to breathe in, and a hero like Billy Jack is filled with the air of ideals that make the character larger than life. Without this, there simply is no hero. The hero serves a purpose greater than themselves, and for that, they are an inspiration to us all.

The Real Billy Jack

Not many heroes of mine have lasted a lifetime for me, but Billy Jack, and Tom Laughlin, have. I own all the films on DVD, and I’ve been tempted to buy a Billy Jack t-shirt for years. I’ll certainly do so now that the great Tom Laughlin has passed on.

Tom Laughlin was a highly-motivated individual. He was not quiet like the character Billy Jack. Tom was very animated, gregarious, and energetic. His female co-star, Delores Taylor, was his wife and business partner. They were married in 1954 and never divorced. Once again, Laughlin lived a hero’s life in every sense of the word.

Laughlin was a student Jungian psychology, and lectured often on the subject while completing several books on the relation of psychology to cancer. Despite having cancer of the tongue himself—which he said was in remission—it was not cancer that took his life. According to his daughter, the death of the 82 year-old hero was due to complications relating to pneumonia.

Tom Laughlin the Motivator

Tom Laughlin was not all that different from his Billy Jack character, and both personalities inspired me to such a degree that they remain my heroes to this day. I showed the Billy Jack film to all of my sons when they were young, and did so with my daughter just a couple of years ago.

Although a good many celebrities have passed since the millennium, none has meant more to me than Tom Laughlin. His optimism, creativity, and work ethic showed me what real possibility was all about. He was original and then some. I celebrate his life and work like no other. He changed the world with his art. I would not be who I am today were it not for his legacy.


C. J. Ortiz
C. J. Ortiz

My mission is to help equip people to maximize their resources for a purpose greater than themselves. That's what my own mentors and teachers have done for me, and I'm paying it forward. Life can be merciless, and the world can be a messed up place, so what's needed is a stronger people that can both endure and overcome in life. My motto is, "In whatever you do, don't suck! Metal up!"

Leave a comment! Let me hear from you!

    24 replies to "Tin Soldier Rides Away: Why Tom Laughlin and “Billy Jack” are My Lifetime Heroes"

    • Jeremy Tinnin

      Hell yeah! I remember watching Billy Jack when I was little! He was my Dad’s favorite! And growing up with my Dad as a Karate instructor and learning also myself Billy Jack was the coolest thing next to my Dad!!!

    • Rick Simoni

      Agree…:-)

    • C. J. - The Metal Motivator

      Thanks for writing, Rick.

    • Bill Lawrence

      I’m right with you on this. After seeing Billy Jack as a 9 year old little boy. I went home and asked my Mom to marry a man with the last name Jack so I could be Billy Jack. Now as I reflect on my life… I too became a defender and a protector… As my wife says “Your a pacifist, but when it comes to protecting the innocence of a child or defending the ‘weak’ you go medieval on the oppressor.”
      I made this “Memorial March” to remember Tom. Feel free to share.
      Thank you for your your thoughts on Tom and his influence on so many of us.

    • C. J. - The Metal Motivator

      That’s great, Bill. You sound passionate for justice. Thanks for writing.

    • Anonymous

      Like the author, C.J., Billy Jack became an instant hero of mine when I first saw him on the screen in the eyes of a teenager in 1972. Seven years ago, I bought the five DVD deluxe set of the Billy Jack series. Because of increased instances of police misconduct and outright lawlessness by those in uniform all across the nation, I constantly find myself citing this passage from the opening scene in comments online:

      “When policemen break the law, then there isn’t any law – just a fight for survival.”

      R.I.P. Tom Laughlin, you were a stand-up, honorable man!

    • JD Pearce

      I really enjoyed your article about Tom Laughlin. His movie inspired me as well. He will be missed!

    • Carl Webster

      I saw Billy Jack in the theater in my twenties. I’ve never forgotten it, or all of his movies. Great man we need another just like him.
      R.I.P. Tom you will be missed.

    • Bradley WabiMukwa

      In 2010, my wife beaded a replica Billy Jack hatband for me, and I wear that hat to pow wows and protests. KisheManido bless you, Tom Laughlin…

    • C. J. - The Metal Motivator

      Awesome!

    • C. J. - The Metal Motivator

      Amen!

    • C. J. - The Metal Motivator

      Very cool

    • Rich Harris

      Billy Jack!!!!

    • Teena Smith Billy Jack fan

      I LOVE your article concerning Mr. Laughlin aka Billy Jack. He has been my hero from a small child seeing the movies. I always refer to my husband of 31 years as MY BILLY JACK. No one could put into words as well as you have in this article and summarize who/what Billy Jack/Tom Laughlin was about. Of course, I never knew the man but the character. From what I read….very close to the same person… ESPECIALLY his character. Thank you for writing this to elegantly. Peace..

    • C. J. - The Metal Motivator

      Thank you, Teena. That means a lot to me. Sounds like you’ve got an awesome husband. Much respect!

    • Condorien

      Really well put !
      Got everything right dude except for the theme song One Tin Soldier was originally written by Dennis Lampert and Brian Potter and performed by The Original Caste….and coven redid it later

    • Leon R. Mattson

      Amen.

    • C. J. - The Metal Motivator

      Gotcha! Thanks for writing.

    • Kea Giles

      Thanks for this post. I was a student of Tom Laughlin’s at CU Boulder in the early 80s, when he taught Jungian psychology. He was a good man.

    • C. J.

      He certainly was. Thanks so much for writing.

    • Dale Tigner

      Thank you for putting this all together. Very moving emotionally and intellectually. Role model ? As a man I don’t think there is a better example in the “entertainment’ realm. I personally appreciate that he did not exude a”macho’ attitude . He didn’t have to . I suppose he’s always been there in the back of my mind since seeing him as “Billy Jack “, the first time . it’s inspirational to learn more about him .

    • C. J. Ortiz

      Thanks, Dale. I wanted to share my own inspiration in these guys, and I appreciate that you’ve seen the very same things.

    • Bill

      Great article! Saw Billy Jack at drive in theater when I was 7,must of been in 1973. It had a very similar impact on my life!

    • C. J. Ortiz

      Thanks, Bill. Yeah, Billy Jack is still a powerful symbol for me.

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