The Born Losers
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Having stumped without success to sell their screenplay Billy Jack, Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor dropped their half-breed hero into the middle of a quickly-written script tailored for the exploitation market. With the success of Roger Corman's The Wild Angels (1966), biker flicks were all the rage and more than a few bright lights of the nascent New Hollywood toiled in the requisite leathers and dirty denim. The Born Losers came early in the cycle, in the boom year of 1967, alongside Hells Angels on Wheels with Jack Nicholson and Devil's Angels with John Cassavetes. Its unexpected success that summer wrought The Glory Stompers (1968) with Dennis Hopper, The Cycle Savages (1969) with Bruce Dern, The Rebel Rousers (1970) with Dern and Nicholson, and Angel Unchained (1970) with Don Stroud, to name but a few titles in this surprisingly expansive subgenre.
Based on a pair of high profile 1964 news items - the slaying of New York bar manager Kitty Genovese and the Hells Angels alleged intimidation of teenaged rape victims in Monterey - The Born Losers was distributed by American International Pictures and wound up being their biggest moneymaker until The Amityville Horror (1979) a decade later. Despite its basis in fact, the film quotes from the granddaddy of all biker films, The Wild One (1953) before branching out to straddle the rape/revenge/vigilante drama typified by Walking Tall (1973) and Death Wish (1974). With minor alterations, The Born Losers could easily have been rewritten as a standard western, with Billy Jack recast as the archetypal Outsider who must defend Civilization from the caprices of Disorder. Back in the day, its seemingly reactionary civic mindedness was no doubt good for business.
Independently financed by Laughlin and Taylor for $150,000, The Born Losers ran out of money mid-production and was rescued by Samuel Arkoff and American International Pictures, who put up $300,000 to finish the film. The San Fernando motorcycle club The Devil's Disciples filled out the ranks of the film's make-believe gang and extra motorcycles were loaned out by Sears, which Laughlin hid behind the Harleys.
Although Jane Russell was contracted to work for one day only, Laughlin was forced to shut down production for ten days when he suffered a burst appendix. In order to get the proper emotion out of Russell for one scene, Laughlin called for a meal break just before shooting it, hoping the delay would drive the actress into a rage. The ploy worked and Russell thanked Laughlin, calling him a "clever son of a bitch."
Its box office success cuts The Born Losers little slack from cult movie aficionados, churlish over the film's association with the mega-successful Billy Jack (1971) and its preachy sequels, The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977). To this day, kung fu fans remain chuffed that Tom Laughlin was doubled for all displays of hapkido by karate master Bong Soo Han. On the performance front, Laughlin has also taken his share of lumps for his stoic acting style. However studied in Steve McQueen cool, Laughlin pulls it off and is an engaging and understated leading man - particularly in The Born Losers, which isn't as weighed down, as were the subsequent Billy Jack films, with the burden of Importance.
The Born Losers has aged better than a number of the subgenre's "classics." A central concern with the value of family haunts the script, which opens not with the Born Losers riding into a strange town to wreak havoc but returning to the hometown of leader Danny Carmody (Jeremy Slate), with whom Billy has some past history of unnamed grievances. Although he is the villain of the piece, Danny is nicely shaded as a charismatic group leader, surprisingly slow to retaliate against a teen driver whose VW bug bumps his bike until the idiot unwisely lips off. Later, Danny saves his kid brother from a beating by their brutish father and is also shown to keep a wife and son in a conventional (and seemingly happy) suburban home. However sociopathic, the Losers represent the film's only functional family while Billy Jack and sardonic heroine Vicky Barrington (Elizabeth James, spending half the film in an Ursula Andress white bikini) are depicted as alienated, disenfranchised, going it alone and suffering for it. However heroically etched, Billy has given up on life and it takes the Born Losers to draw him out.
Producer: Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor
Director: Tom Laughlin (as T. C. Frank)
Writer: Elizabeth James (as E. James Lloyd)
Music: Mike Curb
Cinematography: Gregory Sandor
Assistant Director: Jonathan Hayes, Delores Taylor
Editing: John Winfield
Cast: Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack), Elizabeth James (Vicky Barrington), Jeremy Slate (Danny Carmody), Jane Russell (Mr. Shorn), William Wellman, Jr. (Child), Jack Starrett (Deputy Fred), Stuart Lancaster (Sheriff), Paul Bruce (District Attorney), Robert Cleaves (Mr. Crawford), Robert Tessier (Cueball), Jeff Cooper (Gangrene), Paul Prokop (Speechless), Gordon Hoban (Jerry Carmody), Janice Miller (Jodell Shorn), Julie Cahn (LuAnn Crawford), Susan Foster (Linda Prang), Anne Bellamy (Mrs. Prang), Edwin Cook (Crabs).
by Richard Harland Smith
Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor audio commentary, The Born Losers DVD.
Tom Laughlin radio interview by Doug Basham, May 11, 2005
Jeremy Slate interview by Nelson Basden, Psychotronic Video No. 36, 2002
Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants by Sam Arkoff with Richard Trubo
Jonathan Haze interview Psychotronic Video No. 27, 1998
Gary Kent interview by Robert Plante, Psychotronic Video No. 31, 1999
Billy Jack, Delores Taylor, Tom Laughlin: The Official Website, www.billyjack.com
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