“I just go berserk!” WHOMP!
Last night, as I was communing with my spirit animal—the majestic condor—under the full harvest moon, while practicing my deadly hapkido moves (translation: I mowed the lawn and then passed out on my hammock with a six-pack of Hamm’s), I couldn’t help but remember my drive-in exploitation guide and martial arts mentor of my youth, Billy Jack.
What a lousy guide he was.
By Paul Mavis
Anyhoo, thinking of him put me in the mood for some laughs, so a trip to my vast subterranean DVD vault (north wing, substation A-9, room 14) brought forth my old Image Entertainment discs for The Complete Billy Jack Collection, which includes all 4 of Tom Laughlin’s pacifist whup-ass epics: The Born Losers, Billy Jack, The Trial of Billy Jack, and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (later, Shout! Factory through their Shout Select line released Billy Jack: The Complete Collection on Blu-ray). Wanna talk about them? Sure you do! Let’s start with The Born Losers.
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High up in the hills above Big Rock, California, ex-Green Beret Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin) has returned from Vietnam to live among nature in his shiny new Airstream trailer. Hunting and fishing and bathing nude in the waterfalls (any other tourists up there, I wonder?), Billy’s bid for a peaceful—and isolated—life is already on shaky financial ground, since there aren’t any more wild horses up in the hills for the former cowboy to break. Coming into town for supplies (in his shiny new Jeep), Billy runs into a biker gang run by old acquaintance, Danny Carmody (Jeremy Slate). Having beaten a young motorist badly, the gang seems ready to kill him when Billy Jack steps in with a rifle and stops the thugs. For his trouble, though, he’s sentenced to a hefty fine for firing his weapon, while the biker gang gets off with much lighter sentences.
Meanwhile, stacked college student Vicky Barrington (Elizabeth James), disappointed that her neglectful father has canceled their Easter reunion, decides to go down to Big Rock on her nifty white Sears motorbike wearing nothing but a dazzlingly white bikini and matching go-go boots (I feel faint….). Naturally, this attracts the attention of Danny and his gang, and they run this chickie down, eventually daring her to go along with them so she can be “legal” (all she has to do is “turn out” a little bit for the gang)…if she wants.
She agrees, and once at their rats’ nest of a party palace, she slowly starts to get it that maybe she’s in over her head (the three screaming teen girls getting raped is her first big clue). She manages to bluff her way out of the house, and momentarily escape the bikers’ clutches, but not for long: she’s eventually caught and raped by Speechless (Paul Prokop) and Danny’s brother, Jerry (Gordon Hoban). Soon, the town of Big Rock is embroiled in this rape trial (Vicky as well as the three teen girls she saw at the biker pad) of the gang who vow vengeance on anyone who bears witness to their crimes. While the gang systematically threatens the victims and their families, it’s left to karate-chopping outsider Billy Jack to save the girls.
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A snappy biker flick with pretensions of social commentary, The Born Losers was, according to its creator and star, Tom Laughlin, the fall-back project used to introduce the Billy Jack character when, after 16 years, no studio showed interest in backing the script that would eventually become Billy Jack. According to Laughlin, the Hollywood studios said audiences wouldn’t be interested in seeing a picture where the hero was half-Indian (considering that quite a few successful Westerns were released where the hero was a full Native American, such as Burt Lancaster’s and Robert Aldrich’s Apache, I call b.s. on that assertion).
Laughlin’s wife (and the producer of The Born Losers), Delores Taylor, was watching a program on television in the mid-60s that detailed a true-life attack by a group of Hell’s Angels, where gang members raped two girls and then proceeded to terrorize the girls’ town, threatening witnesses with their lives if they chose to testify. Taylor felt the story could be easily adapted to the then-emerging biker genre of exploitation films (which really took off with Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels in 1966), with the Billy Jack character inserted as the heroic anti-hero who saves the day. If The Born Losers proved popular with audiences, then studios would be more inclined to underwrite the film Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor really wanted to make: Billy Jack.
Filmed and released (by American International Pictures) in 1967, The Born Losers proved to be enormously successful at the box office; it was AIP’s highest-grossing picture before 1979’s The Amityville Horror (AIP more than doubled its original b.o. take on the movie when it was re-released during the subsequent re-release of Billy Jack in 1973). Watching The Born Losers today, one can see why it must have appealed to the undemanding drive-in crowd back then. It’s quickly-paced (at least until the end of the second act); Laughlin has a good eye for exciting compositions; the action is competently handled, and the girls, shown frequently in their underwear or bikinis, are on display often.
Today, the movie is cited more often for introducing the philosophical head-bustin’ Billy Jack character than for its own role in expanding the popularity of the biker genre, but The Born Losers works best when viewed in that context as a straight actioner, and not a socially conscious political statement. If you look too closely past the beatings, the bikes and the babes, the messages put out by The Born Losers are confusing as hell.
Later in Billy Jack, the issues of Indian rights and prejudice between Whites and Indians will take center stage, but Billy Jack’s mixed heritage is used in The Born Losers strictly as a catalyst for the action between the bikers and Billy—and a perplexing one at that. When Billy first encounters the bikers beating up the kid motorist, the bikers start throwing out racial taunts about his Indian heritage, and continue to do so throughout the movie.
But since Laughlin’s features don’t immediately suggest Native American ancestry, we’re puzzled how they immediately attach to him Indian stereotypes (we know he’s half-Indian from the opening narration, which is written and delivered in a style to suggest Billy Jack comes from a combination of fairy tale mythology and Phil Spector’s Leader of the Pack). Later, Danny lets on that he knows Billy from way back…but that’s news to his gang, so again: how did they know he was an Indian? That may seem like a small matter, but in setting up the conflict between the two groups, it’s an important point to flub through bad exposition.
The Billy Jack character isn’t a particularly original one, either, even taking into account his mixed racial heritage (such characters were all the rage in so-called “adult Westerns” in the late 50s and 1960s, such as Audrey Hepburn in John Huston’s The Unforgiven). Indeed, his largely silent loner cowboy character, living outside the community that fears him and living beyond the times that have now passed him by (the bank manager uses that exact expression, telling him his time has passed; there aren’t any more horses to break up in the mountains), was already long and thoroughly enmeshed in the Western movie tradition.
He only talks when necessary; he’s pragmatic about his chances in a lopsided fight, but when action is called for, he excels at it—none of that is unique to the Billy Jack character or The Born Losers. Even his pleas for the community and the cops to help themselves rid their town of the bikers is right out of High Noon, as is the community’s refusal to pitch in and fight. When Billy starts to look around for someone to blame, though, that’s when The Born Losers starts to get sticky…but again, not too terribly unique.
The Born Losers‘ set-up will be mirrored a few years later in the politics of Dirty Harry: the victims get the shaft while the punks get off scot-free. Billy helps a motorist out of a jam, and he gets a harsher sentence than the bikers who perpetrated the real crime. The system is called “corrupt” and “upside down” and the cops are shown as ineffectual at best, with a cowardly sheriff who doesn’t want trouble and cops who want to make sure a law has actually been broken before they act (when Vicki calls the cops at the gas station and asks for help, they decline because the bikers didn’t actually break any laws).
Of course the irony of a character that liberal critics took to their hearts when Billy Jack came out (while despising Eastwood’s and Siegel’s Harry Callahan) is the fact that the decay of the legal system shown here is surely the result of liberal policies—not conservative (you could even make a case that the permissive, absentee parents shown here are also part of a more liberal, less restrictive time when parents were encouraged to be their children’s “friends” – especially out in The Born Losers‘ laid-back California). The courts and the legal system have been increasingly weighted to favor and forgive the lawbreaker, with cops being hamstrung by increasingly byzantine restrictions, and with the victim’s rights left in the dust.
Laughlin and Taylor, in their DVD commentaries, lament people not getting more involved, but how are they to do that when cops with their hands tied by endless litigation, an unsympathetic court system weighted with judges who legislate from the bench—and most deleteriously, an army of ambulance-chasing lawyers howling for dollars—await the average citizen who says, after watching a Billy Jack film, “Enough is enough; I’m taking the law into my own hands”? If Billy Jack can’t even ward off a biker gang, how can we?
Laughlin’s thoughts about the bikers themselves seems somewhat conflicted, as well. While both he and Taylor in their commentaries offer nothing but ebullient praise for the real-life Devil’s Disciples club they hired to pose as the film’s biker gang (“They were all such nice fellows,” Laughlin says. Okay), in the movie that biker culture is portrayed as one that breeds gangs of psychopathic murderers and rapists who feed drugs to teenagers and then rapes them. That’s a hell of a way to say, “Thank you for your cooperation in making this movie” (apparently some of those bikers who funneled their salaries back into the film’s budget to keep it going…were none too happy with Laughlin later, when the film took in millions).
Laughlin stated that he wanted to get away from “stereotypes” about bikers by showing that Danny had a child, whom he kindly jostles while his gang watches TV and laughs about raping the girls. Laughlin tries to further soften Danny’s behavior by linking the source of his actions to his abusive father, who beats his brother Jerry and spits in Danny’s face. Is Laughlin suggesting we feel sorry for Danny and his thugs, because “Daddy didn’t love me enough; Daddy didn’t hug me enough?” We may buy that argument when Laughlin applies it to the girls who are shown to have neglectful parents, but we certainly don’t accept it for violent, drug-pushing rapists…even if they do have sweet little tow-headed kids around the house.
Laughlin’s concern for disengaged parents is also evident, with one of the rape victims, LuAnn (Julie Cohn), going so far as to enjoy being degraded by the bikers (she even goes back for more, visiting the bikers twice after her alleged rape) because such actions represent everything her mother hates. LuAnn forgives the bikers in her mind, and blames Mommy (calling Dr. Crackerbarrel Freud!). Laughlin and Taylor in their commentaries suggest this kind of behavior was going on all over America during the late sixties (?!), but I would suggest perhaps the character—and Laughlin the screenwriter—saw BUtterfield 8‘s climatic revelation scene one too many times, instead.
I don’t really trust Laughlin’s take on anything related to sex in this film, because he insists on showing all the victims in various stages of undress; whatever serious messages he may have are blurred by the obvious titillation factor. I don’t believe that Laughlin is saying these girls “got what they deserved” because they either dressed provocatively or because they were dumb enough to get in over their heads with the bikers. But he keeps insisting on “dropping his pants and crying rape” at the same time (to paraphrase Pauline Kael’s take on pro-war/anti-war epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai).
Billy’s outrage as what was perpetrated on Vicki and the teen girls is conveyed to the audience in a seriously flawed manner. The most compromised scene in this regard is the further terrorization of Jodell Shorn (Janice Miller), after her first rape. Her mother, played by Jane Russell, has left the house, suspiciously tarted up for her “cocktail lounge” job (is Laughlin saying, “like mother, like daughter”?), so Jodell starts to execute a rather impressive bump-and-grind for the audience, to the accompaniment of music from The Stripper, before she’s drawn outside her house by the bikers.
When she goes back in (thinking it was only a cat in the garbage), she continues her grind for us, stripping down to bra and panties, before she discovers the bikers inside, who apparently rape her again (or at least sexually terrorize her, because she’s left a basket case, sucking her thumb). Now…you tell me what Laughlin means by having the gorgeous Miller dance like that not once but twice for the audience—in perfect full and close-ups shots, with Miller looking right at us—before she’s sexually assaulted? If it’s suggesting anything, it’s suggesting “she’s asking for it.” Laughlin may not have meant that, but how could he and his wife Taylor not know that’s the way it comes off?
Leaving behind the fuzzy, conflicting sexual politics, The Born Losers as an actioner works quite well, moving rapidly during its first half, with Laughlin and editor John Winfield creating a good amount of suspense over whether or not Vicki will escape from the biker gang (it can be tricky assigning credit to either the director or the cinematographer for nicely-composed frames, but someone had a good eye on The Born Losers). Unfortunately, just when we want the film to really pick up, and have Billy swing into decisive action, the plot doubles back several times, with Vicki in and out of the same trouble, with a protracted, awkwardly staged siege scene at the end that fails to satisfy (The Born Losers could have easily lost 20 minutes or more of its relatively long 113 minute run time to tighten up this last half, such as the pointless dinner with the astrologer).
What does help keep our interest during this final section are the characters, particularly Vicki, well-played by the pretty (and pretty hot) Elizabeth James. Unusual for this kind of film, Vicki is admirably articulate about the consequences of her rape when she talks to Billy Jack (you certainly didn’t see scenes like that in other exploitation films at the time—a tribute to Laughlin’s sensitivities), while Slate provides a good deal of weight as he tries to keep Danny within some kind of recognizable character arc. Laughlin is a tougher nut to crack. Physically, he’s perfect as the hard-assed, silent Billy Jack (even his outfit of too-tight jeans and too-small T-shirt and jeans jacket—and even a too tightly crimped cowboy hat—gets across the character’s stiff, constrictive nature). When he’s quiet with his minimal dialogue, he’s fine—but let him try and be “funny/tough,” and it just doesn’t work (the “Goldilocks” taunt is embarrassing).
Even when playing low-key menacing, it’s evident he’s trying too hard. Too many Brando-isms start to creep in (his favorite: smoothing his hair down while grimacing), and the actor’s natural intensity eventually works against him (be honest: would you really want to hang out with Billy Jack? Not exactly Mr. Laughs…). These limitations in both the character and the actor don’t matter quite so much here in The Born Losers, since Laughlin has the better actor/villain in Jeremy Slate to pick up the slack. However, they will be more noticeable in the sequel, Billy Jack, where Laughlin is front and center, and largely on his own.
Our reviews from the Billy Jack series:
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.