Retro Review: ‘The Born Losers’
In the 1950’s husband-wife duo of actor Tom Laughlin and screenwriter/producer Delores Taylor created their very own movie hero. A grizzled veteran who lived by a moral code and used his abilities to protect progressive young people from the corrupt system. Being the wholesome 1950’s this idea did not fly with the squares in Hollywood and nothing came of it. As the late 60’s came around, movies began to change so Laughlin and Taylor once again decided to resurrect their character, but this time they decided to ease in. Rather than the original story they had planned, Laughlin wanted to go with a different and more commercial take, which finally got a greenlight from fan favorite studio American International Pictures, or AIP for short. In 1967, the loner/half Native American/Vietnam veteran/ aikido expert, Billy Jack was finally introduced to moviegoers in the Born Losers.
Fresh from a stint in Vietnam as a member of the elite Green Berets, Billy Jack drifts into a small California town hoping to find work as a ranch hand. He finds this kind of work is all dried up, but worse he discovers the town lives in fear of a biker gang, the Born Losers. In particular this gang has a penchant for sexual assaulting young women. The local authorities are desperate for one of their victims to finally come forward so they can finally put them away for good, but the intimidation tactics the Losers utilize ensure that never happens. Eventually tenacious visitor passing through named Vicky is targeted by the bikers and agrees to help the DA and sheriff bring them down. She learns however, that the local law enforcement does not have the power to fully defend her from the Born Losers, but a mysterious loner does. Billy Jack takes it upon himself to protect Vicky from the gang using his uniquely restrained brand of tough talk he can back up with his fighting expertise. Slowly but surely the gang turn up the heat on Billy Jack who remains cool and is ready for anything they throw at him.
Despite co-creating the character of Billy Jack, Delores Taylor did not have a hand in the writing of the Born Losers, though she served as producer and would co-write all the subsequent sequels. Even still this is definitely the character she and Laughlin crafted years before. Seeing as how biker movies were going through a peak in popularity at this time, a gang of violent bikers proved to be the smartest enemy to give Billy Jack in his debut outing. Up against an opponent which had the numbers advantage, Billy Jack got to display his cunning mental prowess in order to stay one step ahead of his enemies. But make no mistake, as Mr. Jack is no egg-head and when he sees the chance, has no problem laying his enemies out with his swift and decisive physical attacks. Given that the Born Losers gang are almost cartoonishly evil we have no problem rooting for him to take them down especially when he does so in violent fashion. Directing the film himself under the pseudonym TC Frank, Laughlin became one of the trailblazers for independent cinema while making this flick.
What sets Tom Laughlin’s portrayal of Billy Jack apart from so many other “takes matters into their own hands”-style movie heroes of the era, is the unusual restraint he displays. He never went out looking for trouble, trouble came to him instead and he did what he felt obligated to do. In every shot, this grizzled antihero projects a certain intensity that shows audiences he is constantly strategizing his next course of action. He is not even above taking a dose of humiliation when he realizes it would not be prudent to get physical, such as when the Losers fill his hat with gasoline and he willfully puts it on for their entertainment (granted he never breaks his stone cold demeanor). When time comes for Billy Jack to throw down he does so with speed and ferocity making for some truly memorable scenes which prove he is not a man to be trifled with. That being said, it is telling that he does not coerce Vicky into the cause of taking down the Born Losers rather he allows her to reach the decision herself while standing firm beside her no matter what. Complimenting him perfectly is young actress Elizabeth James as Vicky. She is just as fearless in the face of the Born Losers as he is, but shows a certain tenacity and tough-talking bravado about it contrasting Billy Jack’s strong silence. It is a shame she never reappeared in any of the ensuing Billy Jack flicks, as she and Loughlin made a good duo. Filling out the rest of the cast are Hollywood legend Jane Russell in what amounts to a glorified cameo, and biker movie mainstay Jeremy Slate as the leader of the biker gang/
As you may expect the Born Losers, and the sequels it spawned, are huge favorites among lovers of cult cinema. The idea of a no-nonsense antihero sticking to the bad guys when the system fails is something which always appeals to moviegoers. In the follow-up film appropriately entitle Billy Jack, expands more on the character and truly cements the legacy which began here.