Tuesday, December 17, 2013

One Tin Soldier*

Lost on the list of celebrity deaths the last few days is Tom Laughlin, who could have put my hometown on the map.

But didn't.

Quick sketch of The Master Gunfighter Scene That Would Never End.
I was startled to see Laughlin was 82 when he died. Peter O'Toole passed away at 81, but we watched him grow old, leveraging his age and reputation in roles perfect for him.

Laughlin disappeared from my view over the decades, so he'll always be the young man, gliding like a boxer, dressed like a charro in a giant black sombrero and matching embroidered and spangled coat, who gave me his autograph, a smile and a few kind encouraging words one day in 1975.

"See my Billy Jack movies?" he might have asked.

"No," I probably said.

"That's all right. Come see this one," he might have replied. Or something like that.

Laughlin was famous at the time as Billy Jack, a vigilante character he created and spun into four movies that built a cult following. He was Chuck Norris before Chuck Norris was God, a proto-Rambo. Billy Jack was an outsider, a Vietnam veteran, expert in the martial arts, half white, half Navajo, ostracized, pilloried, shamed. You could only push him so far before he wiped the floor clean with the bad guys, busting them up with a flying kick to their lumpy bad-guy jaws.

Billy Jack preached peace by beating the hell out of people. Or so I gather. My parents wouldn't let me see the movies. I could listen to the hit song, though, the anti-war hit "One Tin Soldier," from one of the movies.

Laughlin parleyed his success as Billy Jack to write and produce The Master Gunfighter. A major motion picture, being shot right here in Lompoc! That's how I remember the hype, and we all bought it because my whole family went down to Mission La Purísima to see the filming. We might even have walked the three miles, enjoying the benefit of living just across the chaparral bluff above the mission.

The whole town seemed to be there. The half who weren't hired as extras stood behind rope barriers to watch them.

Two keen memories remain:
  • For the first time, that old mission came to life. We walked there a lot, and it's a fun hike to a rare place, but the mission was just a bunch of old buildings to me as a little kid. Some of the rooms of the mission were fitted out with the tools of the mission trade — a loom, a leather tanning shop, a tallow works, the soldiers' quarters — but they were caged off, the captive tools just sitting there in the semi-darkness, dusty, unused, dead, smelling of bad breath.

    This movie restarted the mission's heart. Dozens of people stood in costumes like statues until a distant voice from a megaphone shouted, "Rolling … and action!" and the people began hoeing and tending the vast gardens, and washing clothes at the round stone pool that served as the lavandería, and carrying hay in carts to the corralled cows, and marching around and walking and talking. Suddenly I could see the mission's mission, merciless though it may have been.

    I'm not sure whether the mission was playing itself in this movie. It has portrayed other places, mostly ranches, such as in the movie Seabiscuit and a made-for-TV movie called Dazzle, in which viewers were supposed to believe Cliff Robertson's mission-style ranch was an actual mission, the building running some 150 yards long.

    As a state park, Mission La Purísima is perfect for filming, pristine, far from the main road and telephone lines and clutter — unlike working churches such as missions Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, still the center of the towns built around them.

    Earthquakes destroyed the first Mission La Purísima and the mission fathers moved it four miles to where it is now. Another earthquake leveled that, and the mission moldered. What visitors see now has been rebuilt by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, so it's mostly 20th Century re-bar and concrete on an 18th Century foundation.

    It looks freshly built, and its state and volunteer caretakers take good care and apply new paint. About 15 years ago the west end of the long complex was painted pink (ok, salmon). I'm not sure why; maybe historians found some new information and applied it, in the same way paleontologists play with new colors for how Stegosaurus might have looked (this time, all the colors of the rainbow!)

    When The Master Gunfighter was shot, the same walls were cream white like the rest of the mission, with a band of dark red along the ground.
  • Making movies is boring.

    We hung around all day to see only two scenes shot. After the scene in which the mission had come to life, the extras were sent home, the cameras and lights and cranes and dollies and miscellany were torn down and hauled 100 yards to the west end of the mission, rebuilt and repositioned. Two hours later, the filmmakers shot what seemed like a simple scene in which a rider was to gallop up to his superiors, sitting horseback, to warn them a bad guy approached.

    Gallop up, say one line, ride off. That's it.

    The scene needed at least three-dozen takes. The rider got tangled in bushes, or his horse overshot the mark, or undershot it, or refused to run at all. Or the rider fell out of his saddle. Or the rider flubbed his line, or completely forgot it, or ran out of breath, or the lighting wasn't right, or a donkey brayed, or a cloud passed over the sun. Over and over again the scene played out, funnier and funnier each time. I'd seen it so many times, you think I'd be able to recite it now.
I can't say The Master Gunfighter was the worst movie made, because I never saw it. It had the misfortune to be born before direct-to-DVD could have salvaged some production costs.

I heard it wasn't good. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "I don't think there's any way an intelligent moviegoer could sit through this mess and accurately describe the plot afterward."

I gather it was a mishmash of spaghetti western, samurai revenge and even some true California history, about the brutal subjugation of Chumash Indians by the mission fathers. And some samurai sword- and gunplay, probably.

Well, it was a good try, I guess. I will remember Tom Laughlin as a movie star who seemed to really like the people who watched his movies — and people who had never seen them. Typical for my Lompoc, though, to receive something with so much promise and have it fall short. Yeah, I'm hard on my hometown.

Rest in peace, Billy Jack.

* Watch Tom Laughlin in action!

P.S. Now that I look at the movie poster, I think: Nice typography. Also, I might have gotten an autograph from co-star Ron O'Neal of Superfly fame. If I told him I'd never heard of him, he hid his disappointment. He's an actor, after all. As an old guy, I mis-read the credits: You'd think I would have remembered that Ryan O'Neal was in The Master Gunfighter.


  1. Right ON.
    (I just want you to know I'm typing this with only my left hand, while my right is held high, in a proud fist.)
    Hell YEAH.