Meet the “Real” Billy Jack
By Terry L. Wilson
Of all the thousands of martial arts techniques to appear on the big screen, none — with the exception of the late great Bruce Lee’s performances — had more of an impact on moviegoers than the now-legendary kick by Billy Jack in the film of the same name.
The scene takes place in a park, where former Green Beret/martial artist Billy Jack, portrayed by actor Tom Laughlin, is standing nose-to-nose with the film’s villain, who has brought along several of his “good ol’ boys” to do a little Texas two-step on the hero’s head. Realizing that there is no way to avoid a fight, a calm and confident Billy Jack tells his arrogant adversary exactly what is going to happen next: “I’m going to take my right foot and I’m going to kick you on that side of your face. And you want to know something? There’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”
A split second later, he did exactly what he promised, dropping the villain with a well-placed crescent kick to the side of the head. It was perhaps the most memorable single kick in martial arts movie history, and with it a legend was born. To this day, what many people do not realize is that the real hero of that scene was not Laughlin, but his martial arts stunt double, Bong Soo Han, a Korean master of Hapkido, who actually performed the kick. Thanks to Han’s Hapkido skills, a low-budget action film was transformed into a piece of cinematic history.
And the funny part is, Han got the job purely by accident. “I was doing a Hapkido demonstration at a park, and Tom Laughlin was among those watching,” Han recalls. “About a week later, I got a call from him, and he asked me if I would be interested in doing an action film. So I invited him to my Hapkido studio to discuss the project.”
Laughlin told Han that, while impressed with the instructor’s Hapkido demonstration, what really excited him was the way the crowd had reacted to the show. Laughlin wanted movie audiences to react the same way to his upcoming film.
Han was hired to train Laughlin in Hapkido and to choreograph the fight scenes for the 1971 film “Billy Jack” Han also doubled for Laughlin in many of the film’s fight scenes, including the now-immortalized sequence in the park. “The filming of the movie took six months, and, of course, it is impossible to teach anyone such advanced fighting techniques in that short period of time,” Han explains. “So I doubled for him.” Han served in the same capacity for the 1975 sequel, “The Trial of Billy Jack.” Following that movie, he went on to star in “Kentucky Fried Movie,” one segment of which was a spoof of Bruce Lee’s “Enter The Dragon.”
Yet, while the film careers of martial artists such as Lee and Chuck Norris began to take off in the early ‘70s, Han virtually disappeared from the Hollywood scene after “Kentucky Fried Movie.” Although his name would forever be linked with the exciting high kicks and joint locks seen in “Billy Jack,” neither Han, nor Hapkido, prospered to the degree that some of his fellow martial artists and their self-defense systems did. Still, Han had accomplished what he had set out to do, using the big screen as a tool to inform people about his martial art.
“I enjoy doing films,” Han says. “But the best thing about ‘Billy Jack’ was that it introduced Hapkido to the world.” Han was neither bitter nor jealous of the success other martial artists went on to achieve in films, even though it was he who opened the door for them with “the kick” in “Billy Jack.” Han also understands that the kind of classical Hapkido he teaches at his Santa Monica, California-based school is not easy for students to master, which is one reason why the art is not more popular.
“Hapkido is not like other martial arts,” he explains. “In many other systems, the students learn a few techniques, then they are allowed to teach right away. This is not so with Hapkido. We teach thousands of techniques; it takes a long time to achieve a black belt in Hapkido. To obtain a first-degree black belt, a student must not just know these techniques, he or she must master them before being allowed to teach others. I feel this is one reason why Hapkido may not be as popular as some other systems. It takes much dedication, time and discipline to learn it.” But then, it’s the quality, not the quantity of his students that has always been more important to Han.
“Several of my black belts have been with me for more than twenty years; that kind of dedication is not typical of other schools,” Han relates. “I feel most fortunate to have such devoted and hard-working students. They train hard, not so much to progress in rank, but to learn the art, no matter how long it takes. And, to me, that is more important than having hundreds of schools with thousands of students.” Unlike many martial arts of Korean origin, Hapkido doesn’t emphasize kicks at the expense of other fighting techniques. Instead, Han’s art, the so-called “Way of Coordinated Power,” is a blend of kicks, punches, Aikido and Jiu-jitsu locks, chokes and grappling maneuvers. It was one of the first systems to incorporate such a variety of techniques. There are no stylized, prearranged training patterns, such as karate’s kata, in Hapkido. Each technique in the system is put to task in an actual attack situation to see if it is truly effective.
“Hapkido is a martial art, not a sport,” Han says. “In order to master a defense against any situation, you have to know how to defend against kicks, punches and weapons. You must also learn how to fight on the ground using chokes and joint-locking techniques.”
Hapkido, says Han, is more than a collection of self-defense techniques. “It is a way of life that stresses courtesy, tenacity and perfection of character,” he explains. Although some students select a system because on the number of tournament trophies they see displayed in the school’s window, Han is not a big believer in tournament competition. The win-at-all-cost attitude doesn’t coincide with Hapkido’s philosophy of inner harmony and self-improvement. “I believe that martial arts are not intended to be used to challenge other people,” Han says. “It does not matter who is best. Martial arts are for you as an individual. They should be used to perfect one’s character and to help you develop as a human being. Those who use the martial arts for personal glory or to win money are not using them properly.”
Han created and heads the International Hapkido Federation (IHF), which he calls “the world’s leading Hapkido organization.” Its goals are to standardize the practice and instruction of Hapkido worldwide. Recently, in an unprecedented gesture, Han opened the IHF to practitioners from other schools and styles. “I feel it is time for me to share my knowledge with other people and other systems,” he explains. “My mission in life is to expand the International Hapkido Federation so that more people can be exposed to the benefits of Hapkido throughout the world.” In a step toward accomplishing his mission, Han recently completed a Hapkido video series with Panther Productions, the American-based leader of the martial arts videotape business. The tape covers Hapkido rank requirements from white through black belt.
Even today, at age 65 (this article was published in 1997), Han’s kicks still draw “oohs” and “ahhs” from spectators and students alike. The sliver-haired martial arts master presents himself and his art with dignity and style at all times. The secret to his success, he says, is simple: “Train daily with your whole heart, not just technically. The technical aspect is important, but without the philosophy and spirituality, martial arts become meaningless and just a dangerous sport.”
For information on the International Hapkido Federation, write to Master Bong Soo Han, 3201 Santa Monica Boulevard, Santa Monica, California 90404, or call (310) 829-2643.
This article was published inside a KICK magazine edition in 1997.