Editor’s Note: The original version of this editorial was published in the March 1972 issue of Black Belt magazine, which featured an action shot of Tom Laughlin from the film Billy Jack on the cover.
Once again, the natural drawing power of the martial arts is refuting the argument of the skeptics who maintain the arts will never interest more than a minute segment of the general public.
In Warner Bros.’ hit film Billy Jack, enthusiastic audiences across the country are being treated to one of the most exciting, and at the same time realistic, presentations of karate — Korean hapkido, in this case — ever displayed in a movie.
Before the filming of Billy Jack even began, actor-director Tom Laughlin and hapkido expert-technical adviser Bong Soo Han vowed that the combat scenes would either be presented with total authenticity or would not be presented at all. There were to be no concessions to commercial practicality.
To be sure that the hapkido in the final version of Billy Jack was first-class stuff, Bong Soo Han served as a stand-in for the most demanding techniques.
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Just as impressive as those remarkable flying kicks was the credible manner in which the combat scenes were woven into the texture of the movie as a whole. Unlike the contrived, histrionic clashes of the James Bond series and other previous treatments of the arts, the altercation in Billy Jack evolves quite naturally out of the lead character’s background and the violent environment he finds himself in. At that, the dramatic showdown loses nothing from its inevitability.
Other recent presentations of the arts deserving of praise for their authenticity and thematic validity are the Bruce Lee segments of ABC TV’s highly successful Longstreet series. One especially commendable installment titled “The Way of the Intercepting Fist” made a real effort to examine the philosophy behind Lee’s art of jeet kune do.
As long-time Black Belt readers are no doubt aware, Bruce Lee has consistently refused to compromise his art to commercial convenience. As Kato in The Green Hornet series several years ago, Bruce more than once found it necessary to directly defy the director when he decided to heighten the action by introducing phony gimmicks into the gung fu. He refused to go along with the knock-down, drag-out western style of brawling sometimes called for in the script. More recently, Bruce has turned down lucrative movie contracts for the same reason.
As we see it, the day is almost gone when the martial arts in film and TV were performed by amateurs and used almost exclusively to evoke a satirical response. There will always be the farcical Hai Karate after-shave lotion type of advertisement — but anyone who takes these seriously is a lost cause, anyway.
Not surprisingly, the people who dismiss any treatment of the arts in the movies or TV as cheapening or as prostitution are, by and large, the same group who want to practice behind closed doors and keep their “secret” arts to themselves.
That’s their thing, and we’d be the last to deny them whatever satisfaction they get from their little “insider’s club.”
As for Black Belt, we welcome the new wave of realism the mass media is injecting into the public image of the arts. Hundreds of thousands of people are gaining some insight into what the arts are really all about … and that’s to everyone’s advantage.