Thanks to his work as the creator and star of the four-film Billy Jack franchise, Tom Laughlin remains one of the most weirdly fascinating figures of ’70s cinema. On the plus side, he’s a maverick with deeply sincere political convictions. On the negative side, his hallmarks are confused ideology and sloppy storytelling. As a case in point, consider the only movie Laughlin made in the ’70s outside of the Billy Jack franchise, notwithstanding a couple of small acting roles in other directors’ pictures. Like the Billy Jack flicks, The Master Gunfighter is a strange mishmash of bleeding-heart politics, extravagant action, and murky philosophy derived from indigenous cultures. Yet while the Billy Jack movies sprang forth from Laughlin’s turbulent id, The Master Gunfighter is a pastiche of influences.
The plot was taken from a 1969 Japanese movie called Goyokin, and Laughlin added a smattering of episodes from the history of 19th-century California. Reflecting the story’s Asian origin, all of the principal male characters wear a six-gun on one hip and a Japanese blade on the other. And reflecting the Latin influence on old California, the characters prance around in flamboyant Spanish-style costumes of embroidered bolero jackets, form-fitting bell-bottomed slacks, and puffy white shirts.
The storyline is as jumbled as the aesthetic. Finley (Laughlin) is a solider at a coastal hacienda whose de facto leader is a fellow warrior, Paulo (Ron O’Neal). In a confusing prologue that writer-producer-director Laughlin spends the rest of the movie explaining and rehashing, Paulo robs gold from a U.S. government sailing ship, and then slaughters a village of local Indians who accidentally come into possession of the loot. After extracting a promise that Paulo never commit another atrocity, Finley leaves the hacienda in shame. Yet while Finley wanders the Mexican wilderness (working, of course, as a sideshow performer), Paulo contrives plans to repeat his infraction, forcing Finely to return home for a showdown—and for a reunion with his wife, Eula (Barbara Carrera).
As in all of Laughlin’s pictures, unnecessary subplots make the picture feel meandering and vague. Furthermore, Laughlin’s reiteration of tropes from his best-known characterization make Finley seem like Billy Jack in a beard: Laughlin sighs and speechifies before dispatching bad guys, repeatedly expressing the dubious notion that he’d prefer not to kick ass. The funny thing is that Laughlin’s actually a pretty good actor, though he’s his own worst enemy when working behind the camera; melodramatic staging and stiff dialogue undercut the quiet intensity that Laughlin generates simply by occupying the camera frame.
Just as Laughlin the director subverts Laughlin the actor, Laughlin the producer subverts the whole movie with poor casting. Untalented amateurs are featured in minor roles, Carrera is pretty but vapid, and O’Neal (best known for the Superfly pictures) is truly awful. Only suave African-American player Lincoln Kilpatrick, as a warrior with shifting allegiances, delivers a consistently credible performance. Worse, while some of the movie’s action scenes are exciting, Laughlin’s camera often seems to be in the wrong place, and many scenes end too abruptly. However, Laughlin and veteran cinematographer Jack Marta make great use of the beautiful Monterey, California, coastline and nearby inland forests, so the movie often looks great even if what’s happening onscreen is bewildering.
The Master Gunfighter: FUNKY