Friday, October 19, 2012

Another Look: THE BORN LOSERS starring Tom Laughlin

I saw this 1967 film when it first came out, as one half of a drive-in movie double bill. I don't recall having seen or heard anything about it prior to the viewing, nor can I recall what other movie was playing with it. So I suspect it was probably just another "biker flick" (which was how Born Losers was originally promoted, part of a sub genre that was quite popular during the mid/late 60s) double feature. Which meant neither the titles or stars really mattered, you went to see the action, the bikes, and some gratuitous sex and violence.
In retrospect, the best of these were pretty bad, the rest were downright terrible. Yet the studios (American International primarily) kept cranking them out—eternal classics such as The Glory Stompers, The Mini Skirt Mob, the enticingly titled Chrome and Hot Leather, etc.—and we ended up seeing most of them over the three or four year period they remained popular. (I say "we" meaning my wife and I; in most cases she obligingly went along with whatever movie fare I selected and it was only years later that I found out how much she actually loathed these violence-laden, particularly-abusive-to-women turkeys—which was one more example where her maturity and good taste far exceeded mine, especially in those early years of our marriage.)
But there was something different about The Born Losers. I recognized it right away. Yeah, it had all the trappings of your typical biker film, so it wasn't lacking in any way for those who came merely for that. But it also had more—primarily in the form of its protagonist Billy Jack, the half-breed former Green Beret who only wanted to be left alone but continued to get inadvertently drawn in to a series of confrontations with the Born Losers, a local biker gang led by Danny, a boyhood acquaintance of Billy's. The subtle depth of characterization for these two and the acting skills of those portraying them (Tom Laughlin as Billy; Jeremy Slate as Danny) lifted the film to another level. The rest of the cast mostly turned in performances ranging from wooden to barely adequate. Three additional exceptions were: None other than Jane Russell in a gritty, memorable cameo; the quirky interpretation of Elizabeth James as the college girl targeted by the bikers and subsequently rescued by Billy; and Jack Starrett as the psychotically macho sheriff's deputy. ("All I need is for one witness to identify you—and I'd settle for a liar," he threatens Danny at one point.)

In the end, though, it was the introspection and ultimately reluctant heroics of Billy that, for me, made the film a cut above what I expected to see. Basically, Born Losers is a Western utilizing motorcycles instead of horses. Billy is the lone gunslinger wanting to mind his own business and stay on the periphery of things; Danny and his Losers are the rowdy outlaw gang shooting up the town and terrorizing its innocent citizens, thereby not allowing the loner to just ride away and ignore the situation. There is even a scene in the middle of the film where the Losers are gathered in a pack, getting ready to ride out, when Danny leads the charge, so to speak, by whirling his cap above his head and shouting, "Losers—yeeoww!" to which each of the other bikers gun their hogs in turn and give out with their own yells before roaring away. To me, it was instantly reminiscent of the famous "yee-hah!" scene in Red River when the cattle drive is first starting out.
For the anti-hero enthusiasts, Jeremy Slate's portrayal of Danny fills the bill nicely, giving the character his own strengths and (minimal) values, even though he is destined to come up short at the end. And his slow-motion death scene at the climax (hitting the screen months ahead of the slow-motion death dance in Bonnie and Clyde that was so widely heralded when Warren Beatty's film debuted nearer the end of the year) was truly jolting.
For all that, The Born Losers may have faded away with little fanfare other than from the handful of viewers like me who recognized it in passing as something special. Also, there was the little-known fact that it stood as American International's top box office earner until 1979's The Amityville Horror.
But everything changed when Tom Laughlin released his 1974 follow-up film, titled simply Billy Jack, in 1974. Although he used pseudonyms on the screen credits, Laughlin was the co-writer (along with Elizabeth James, who later had success as a mystery author), director, and producer (along with his wife Delores Taylor) of The Born Losers. According to one account, it was James who created the Billy Jack character and later sold it exclusively to Laughlin when he recognized its potential. The more popular version of late is that Laughlin created the Billy Jack character and the basic plot of Billy Jack as far back as the mid 1950s but couldn't get any studio interested in doing a story that touched on the plight of the American Indian. So, at the suggestion of his wife, he took the character and melded him into a biker gang actioner that would be more marketable, then took the profits from Born Losers to finance Billy Jack on his own. Although not without some initial struggle, Billy Jack of course turned out to be a phenomenal success. So much so that it resurrected The Born Losers, causing it to be re-released with claims of: "The film that introduced Billy Jack" and "The original screen appearance of Tom Laughlin as Billy Jack".

After that, Billy Jack established the ranks of popular cinematic heroes (leading the way for the likes of Dirty Harry and Rambo) whose mere name, when mentioned, carries universal impact and meaning to the point of becoming part of our popular language—such as: "You don't watch out, I'm gonna go all Billy Jack on your ass!"
I'll refrain from commenting much more on Billy Jack, the film, except to say I was one of its biggest fans when it first came out and for some years thereafter. This was partly due to the validation it gave my Billy Jack, the one from The Born Losers, I'd first recognized as something special seven years earlier.
I wasn't yet thirty when I first saw Billy Jack. It seemed like great stuff then. Now, from the perspective of thirty-five added years, it no longer holds up as well for me. It still has some fine moments and Delores Taylor (Laughlin's real-life wife, going before the cameras for the first time) turned in a truly Academy Award-worthy performance that got completely overlooked. But too many aspects of the "hippie school" sub plot, particularly many of the bratty, disrespectful kids who populate it, tend to make me feel annoyed, even pissed off, rather than sympathetic these days. Chalk it up to cranky old age perhaps, but, for whatever reason, much of it now falls flat for me.

The Born Losers, on the other hand—which I watched again for the umpteenth time the other night on TCM—still holds up pretty damn well. If you haven't seen it in a while or maybe have never have seen it at all, I recommend giving it a try. If you can't catch it on cable, you can buy a DVD copy fairly cheaply on Amazon. You can even buy the whole "package" of Billy Jack films (The Born Losers, Billy Jack, The Trail of Billy Jack, and Billy Jack Goes to Washington). The package deal might be worth your time strictly as a scholarly excercise. It saddens me to say this, inasmuch as I greatly admire the creativity and gumption Laughlin showed in getting his initial films made, but the franchise grew progressively worse (Washington is barely watchable) due to an ego left unrestrained as the result of Laughlin's early success.
My advice is to watch The Born Losers for the sake of seeing Billy Jack at his best; and then Billy Jack to see what struck a chord with the public and made the character an American folk hero. Skip the other two, you'll thank me.


Thomas Pluck said...

I never got to see Born Losers- I have been looking for it. Billy Jack was one of my favorites as a kid, but yes, I completely forget the hippies. I remember that scene in the Corvette like it happened yesterday, though!
I just wrote a story for Johnny Shaw that is heavily influenced by Billy Jack and Shaft. We'll see if he accepts it.
I think any post-60s view of the hippies is tainted by the excesses and failures of the "revolution," which became a fashion statement and an excuse for behaving without accountability. Having not lived in the 60s, I see it as growing pains for the country. Maybe I'm completely off base, but we gained and lost with the rebellion of that era. It's not entirely good or bad, and can't be demonized or glorified as a whole.
We're still fighting over the 60s. I guess it won't ever end, since we're still fighting the Civil War in a sense, in some parts of the country, and the Indian wars in others. It's just another facet of the imperfect but brilliant diamond of America now.

Chad Eagleton said...

I saw Billy Jack on Channel 4 when I was a kid. We lived out in the sticks then, and only got three channels on the big rusty antenna. Channel 4 was a local station out of Indianapolis. It showed tons of B movies--Sunday afternoons were Kung Fu flicks.

I remember seeing the ads for Billy Jack first--you know, "This Friday Night Billy Jack comes to Channel 4."--and thinking, Whoa! I watched it when it came on, stayed up way past my bedtime and it affected me deeply. (The first Black Belt I earned was to Hapkido and I blame Bong Soo Han). My mom told me about Born Losers. I got the VHS from the library and watched it. Honestly, I was probably too young to see either; though Billy Jack would have been edited for Channel 4.

I've never watched either since I've been older. I'm too afraid of seeing something as an adult that would tarnish Billy Jack as an avenging cowboy hero. Cause, man, the avenging cowboy quote Bill Hicks, "I always wanted to be the avenging cowboy hero—that lone voice in the wilderness, fighting corruption and evil wherever I found it, and standing for freedom, truth and justice. And in my heart of hearts I still track the remnants of that dream wherever I go, in my endless ride into the setting sun."

Richard Prosch said...

Great post, Wayne. I feel the same as you about both films, though BILLY JACK has the memorable lines about going "...berserk!" and "I'm gonna put the right side of my boot on this side of your face...etc."

If I recall correctly, the hippie stuff has to do with some kind of contractual obligation/investor relationship with Howard Hessman's improv group. That same group also did some TV variety shows, I think --so that part of it was strictly commercial from the get go.

wayne d. dundee said...

I think you're dead on about the Sixties, Thomas. I grew up during that turbulent period, graduating high school in '66 (to show you what an ancient old dog I am). Through the filter of time, I see it now as "the establishment" getting a good shaking-up that it probably needed, but at the same time the irresponsibility and brattiness of some of the shakers left some things to be disired also ... Still, an impactful period that can be neither ignored or denied, partly because some of the ideologies we are struggling with yet today came out of it.
As far as Billy Jack being "the avenging cowboy hero", Chad, I agree that's exactly what he is. And, as far as any disparaging remarks I may have made toward BILLY JACK, the film, and those that followed --- Billy himself remains pure and true to his original concept. My problem is the overly preacy rants creator/director Laughlin insists on inserting more and more of into his storylines.
And yes, Richard, there was at least a verbal commitment between Laughlin and Hessman's improv group that kept the latter such a big part of BILLY JACK. Laughlin defended it by saying that removing those bits would have turned the film into just another "action melodrama" ... Curiously, from all the comments I've scene so far, it is the action sequences (driving the Corvette into the lake, the "I'm gonna whop you on THAT side of your face" fight in the park, the "... I just go BERSERK!" confrontation in the ice cream parlor, etc.) that viewers remember and relate to.

Thomas Pluck said...

That's some great writing advice straight from the audience's mouth.

Peter Brandvold said...

Even as a kid I liked BORN LOSERS best. That one really stayed with me. But I loved BILLY JACK, too. So much so that I bet I saw it seven or eight times, twice when it first came out and then later when it was shone on television. For some reason, I never saw the others. Maybe they just didn't come to our little town and I of course would have had no idea they even existed, since there was no Net and only two snowy tv channels. I've seen both movies since and BORN LOSERS held up a little but BILLY JACK was pretty awful. Wooden acting and embarrassing dialogue all the way around. (Cute hippie girls, though.)

Peter Brandvold said...

I meant to mention that the scene in the Corvette was the closest I'd come to seeing bare-nekkid titties until WALKING TALL II with Bo Svenson. In other words, it was a landmark event! I probably choked on my Hot Tomales!

Anonymous said...

what brand of motorcycle was used in born losers

scotty moir said...

Can someone tell me if scenes were cut out of the original Born Losers and if it changed the movie rating? I also did see the Born Losers in the late 60s at our local Drive-In, and seen the other Billy Jack moves when they were released. I have recently seen the rereleased Born Losers and it seems to me to not have the nudity and violence I remember in the first production.