‘Billy Jack’: One Tin Soldier Rides Away

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Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack

In 1971, a feature film, Billy Jack, about a Vietnam War veteran, arrived in theaters. The movie, directed, written and starring Tom Laughlin, as the half-Indian, Green Beret titular character, had a long journey on its way to the screen. Laughlin had begun filming it in 1969 on a shoestring budget – with his wife and collaborator, Delores Taylor, as co-star. After it passed hands though a series of distributors, it was finally released by Warner Bros. on May 1, 1971.

Billy Jack, with its contradictory message of peace through violence, became a significant hit. Laughlin’s character repeatedly stands up to injustices that he witnesses in an Arizona town, as he resorts to using martial arts to actively combat the perpetrators.

Billy acknowledges his need to control his “violent temper. I try. I really try.”

Watch the “I just go berserk” scene

[The martial arts sequences were performed by Laughlin’s stunt double, Han Bong-Soo, an expert practitioner of those skills.]

“I’m gonna take this right foot…”

[When a 1974 sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack, was released to even greater success, many fans discovered that there had been an earlier picture, 1967’s Born Losers, that featured Laughlin as the Billy Jack character. When Trial was released, with significant success (again via Warner Bros.), the original’s distributor looked to capitalize on its popularity and re-released Born Losers with ads that blared, “The Original Billy Jack is Back.”]

In 1969, a Canadian band, The Original Caste, recorded a song called  “One Tin Soldier.” The song, featuring Dixie Lee Stone on vocals, reached #6 in Canada and became a modest hit in the U.S., reaching #34 on the Hot 100.

Its lyrics included the verse:
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.

The anti-war song was written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, who penned a substantial number of hit singles for other artists, including “Don’t Pull Your Love,” by Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds, “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)” by the Four Tops, and the Grass Roots’ “Two Divided by Love.”

In 1971, Esther “Jinx” Dawson, the singer for the American rock band, Coven, recorded the vocals with session musicians for a remake of “One Tin Solder,” with the single credited to Coven. This version, titled “One Tin Soldier (The Legend of Billy Jack),” was used in the film and is often referred to as “The Theme From Billy Jack.” This version also charted, and slowly climbed the chart, ultimately reaching #26 on the Hot 100.

But wait… there’s more! In 1973, Laughlin re-released Billy Jack to theaters. Another version of “One Tin Soldier,” this time recorded by Coven in 1971 for their self-titled album on MGM, hit the charts, though it stalled on the Hot 100 at #79.

Related: Top radio hits of 1971

One year later, just for good measure, Coven’s cover charted again in 1974, to coincide with The Trial of Billy Jack, (got it?) this time topping out at #73.

Listen to Coven’s version

Coven became known for their occult lyrics and sinister images. And while they’ll be forever tied to “One Tin Soldier,” they’re also credited for introducing the “Sign of the Horns” to rock and metal culture. The back cover of their 1969 album, Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls, depicts several group members displaying the hand gesture.

Laughlin made one more film in the series, 1977’s Billy Jack Goes to Washington, though it failed at the box-office. Nearly a decade later, he started production on The Return of Billy Jack, this time with the titular character relocated to New York City. Laughlin suffered an injury while in production and filming was suspended. It was never completed.

In his varied life story, he played college football, founded a Montessori preschool with his wife, ran for President multiple times, and wrote several books on Jungian psychology. He died Dec. 12, 2013, at age 82.

Greg Brodsky

14 Comments so far

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  1. socalsue
    #1 socalsue 27 December, 2019, 20:44

    Back in 1970 or ’71, I believe, a version of “One Tin Soldier” was released by a “band” called The Original Caste. I always found the vocals superior to Esther “Jinx” Dawson’s. I would love to know that vocalist’s name. She was very good.

    Reply this comment
    • Greg Brodsky
      Greg Brodsky Author 27 December, 2019, 22:48

      It’s in the story, Sue.

      Reply this comment
      • Pete
        Pete 13 December, 2021, 00:50

        Thank you Greg for another interesting story. We really learn alot about inside the entertainment biz. From you!

        Reply this comment
    • Duke
      Duke 28 December, 2019, 20:44

      The North Country Singers was the name of the band before they were called The Original Caste, the song was released under the name The Original Caste in November of 1969, the author of the article is wrong on that point, the band had changed it’s name in 1968 and One Tin Soldier was not released under the name The North Country Singers, it was originally released under the bands name of The Original Caste.

      Reply this comment
  2. Plan B.
    #2 Plan B. 28 December, 2019, 20:39

    Billy Jack was a classic, and with so many other remake movies that have been done. Billy Jack definitely should be on a remake radar, and updated with a theme based on the current racial injustice, and police brutality that is so prevalent today. A great actor that would be most convincing to play Billy Jack, would be Mark Wahlberg!
    With his great acting ability, and similar features of The late great Tom Laughlin, it sure would be a number one blockbuster!

    Reply this comment
    • Hemlock
      Hemlock 28 December, 2019, 23:41

      You must be high…Walberg is a punk…Laughlin actually had a brain, authentic physical prowess, and a genuine likability…plus in the movie Billy Jack none of his moves were faked..he was a pretty badassed martial artist in real life…that “wop to the right side of Posners face” was a very different move in very close quarters.

      Reply this comment
    • Kat A.
      Kat A. 31 December, 2019, 21:48

      I think that’s a great idea for Mark to play Billy Jack…love those movies.

      Reply this comment
  3. Tammy Doherty
    #3 Tammy Doherty 29 December, 2019, 11:37

    A remake with Wahlberg would be awesome. But there are many Native actors out there that would also be great playing Billy. Why not use one of them?

    Reply this comment
  4. Meetoo
    #4 Meetoo 31 December, 2019, 13:48

    Billy also coined the term “blockbuster” for films and modern marketing was also created by that film release.

    Reply this comment
    • Pete
      Pete 13 December, 2021, 00:47

      Thank you for the Wedding pics! Very interesting to see another side of Billy Jack.

      Reply this comment
  5. TyStick
    #6 TyStick 2 May, 2022, 09:04

    When I was a kid, I saw all of the Billy Jack films. I finally met him at Tower Records when his films where being released on DVD. He was there signing merchandise and I had him sign a DVD.

    Reply this comment

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