The Born Losers
||This article may be written from a fan's point of view, rather than a neutral point of view. (April 2008)|
|Directed by||T. C. Frank (Laughlin)|
|Produced by||Delores Taylor
|Written by||Elizabeth James|
|Music by||Mike Curb|
|Edited by||John Winfield|
|Distributed by||American International Pictures|
|Running time||113 min.|
|Box office||$36 million|
Born Losers is a 1967 action film and the first of the Billy Jack movies. The film introduced Tom Laughlin as the half-Indian Green Beret Vietnam veteran Billy Jack. Since 1954 Laughlin had been trying to produce his Billy Jack script about discrimination toward American Indians. In 1967 he decided to introduce the Billy Jack character in a quickly written script designed to capitalize on the then-popular trend in motorcycle gang movies. The story was based on a real incident from 1964 where members of the Hells Angels were arrested for raping five teenage girls in Monterey, California.
Billy Jack is introduced as an enigmatic, half-Indian Vietnam War veteran who shuns society, taking refuge in the peaceful solitude of the California Central Coast mountains. His troubles begin when he descends from this unspoiled setting and drives into a small beach town named Big Rock (Morro Bay). A minor traffic accident in which a motorist hits a motorcyclist results in a savage beating by members of the Born Losers Motorcycle Club. The horrified bystanders (including Laughlin's wife, Delores Taylor, and their two children in cameo roles) are too afraid to help or be involved in any way. Billy Jack jumps into the fray and rescues the man by himself. At this point the police arrive and arrest Billy for using a rifle to stop the fight. (The irony here is that, unknown to Billy, the motorist is the one who starts the fight by inexplicably insulting one of the bikers.)
The police throw Billy in jail and fine him heavily for discharging a rifle in public. He is treated with suspicion and hostility by the police. Meanwhile, the marauding bikers terrorize the town, rape four teenage girls (Jane Russell plays the mother of one of the girls), and threaten anyone slated to testify against them. One of the girls, played by Susan Foster, later recants, saying she willingly gave herself to the biker gang. (Foster would go on to play a larger supporting role in Billy Jack.)
Co-scriptwriter Elizabeth James plays Vicky Barrington, a bikini-clad damsel-in-distress who is twice abducted and abused by the gang. The second time, she and Billy are kidnapped together. After Billy is brutally beaten, Vicky agrees to become the gang's sexually compliant "biker mama" if they release Billy. At the police station, Billy is unable to get help from the police or the local residents and must return to the gang's lair to rescue Vicky by himself.
Billy, armed with a Springfield rifle, captures the gang, shoots the leader (Jeremy Slate) between the eyes, and forces some of the others to take Vicky, who's been badly beaten, to the hospital. As the police finally arrive, Billy abruptly rides away on one of the gang's motorcycles.
The anti-authority sentiment continues up to the end when a police deputy accidentally shoots Billy in the back, mistaking him for a fleeing gang member. He is later found, nearly dead, lying by the shore of a lake. He is placed on a stretcher and is flown to the hospital in a helicopter as Vicky and the sheriff give him a salute.
The movie was filmed on location in California at Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Rancho Palos Verdes, University of California, Los Angeles, Big Sur, Morro Bay, and other coastal locales. The bikers' lair in Seal Beach was once owned by silent film star Rudolph Valentino as a hideaway from Hollywood.
According to Laughlin's DVD audio commentary, filming was completed in just three weeks on an operating budget of $160,000. To cut costs, a stunt scene of a biker crashing into a pond was taken from American International's 1966 comedy The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. The movie was not released until 1968.
Despite its formulaic premise, it hit a note with audiences, and resulted in Laughlin being able to raise the funds to make its successful sequel, Billy Jack. In 1974, after the sequel proved financially successful, American International Pictures re-released The Born Losers with the taglines "The film that introduced Billy Jack" and "Back By Popular Demand: "Born Losers" The Original Screen Appearance of Tom Laughlin as Billy Jack". This re-release helped cement The Born Losers' honor of being the highest grossing American International release until 1979, when The Amityville Horror was released.
Although the screenplay has all the trappings of a typical motorcycle-gang exploitation film, director-writer-star Tom Laughlin added a layer of social criticism and a skeptical, anti-authority tone to the story (a formula he would expand upon in his next film, Billy Jack.) Here, bad parenting results in teenage girls cavorting with bikers and getting brutally assaulted. The police are ineffective in dealing with career criminals and protecting the innocent—and the local citizens lack the courage to take action themselves. It is up to the lone hero, in the form of Billy Jack, to stand up to the gang and restore some sense of order.
Themes and format
The story is reminiscent of a traditional Western, particularly High Noon and Shane. A lone hero stands against a gang of outlaws in a town where both lawmen and townspeople are unable or unwilling to help. This image is reinforced by the cowboy hat Billy wears (his trademark Indian hat was introduced in the 1971 sequel, Billy Jack). Billy's half-Indian heritage also leads to gang members taunting him with racial slurs (racial intolerance, especially toward Indians, will become the central theme of Billy Jack).
Here and in its three sequels, Laughlin adopted the format of violent exploitation and martial arts films to comment on a variety of social and political issues. Although highly successful at the box office, critical response has been generally negative. A characteristic remark from film critic Leonard Maltin takes Laughlin's films to task for "using violence as an indictment of violence." The inescapable irony is that while his films center around a message of peace, tolerance, and understanding, the Billy Jack character spends an inordinate amount of time karate-kicking his opponents into submission in order to make his point.
In 1967 the film earned an estimated $2,225,000 in North American rentals.
The movie was re-released by AIP in 1974 to take advantage of the success of Billy Jack. AIP issued ads which proclaimed "THE ORIGINAL BILLY JACK IS BACK!", which led to a lawsuit from Laughlin. Following Laughlin's lawsuit, the advertising for the re-release of "Born Losers" was changed. All newspaper advertising had to include the disclaimer "This is a Re-release" to make viewers aware that the film was not the film Billy Jack.
- Hollywood's Only Woman Producer a Born Winner Clifford, Terry. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 20 Aug 1967: g13.
- "The Born Losers, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved March 8, 2012.
- Gary A. Smith, The American International Pictures Video Guide, McFarland 2009 p 32
- Mark McGee, Faster and Furiouser: The Revised and Fattened Fable of American International Pictures, McFarland, 1996 p252
- "Big Rental Films of 1967", Variety, 3 January 1968 p 25. Please note these figures refer to rentals accruing to the distributors.
- 'Losers' Ad Results in Suit Murphy, Mary. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 28 June 1974: f24.
- Weiner, Mike, Motorcycle News, Review of "The Born Losers"
- White, Rusty, Entertainment Insiders "1967 films : The Born Losers"
- Laughlin's official Billy Jack web site
- The Born Losers at the Internet Movie Database
- The Born Losers at AllMovie
- The Born Losers at the TCM Movie Database
- The Born Losers at Rotten Tomatoes