The Origin of Billy Jack: BORN LOSERS (AIP 1967)

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The character Billy Jack, star of the wildly popular 1971 film (and its two sequels), made his debut in this 1967 exploitation flick about a sociopathic biker gang and the lone man who stands up to them. Tom Laughlin, a minor figure in Hollywood at the time who had appeared in GIDGET and THE DELINQUENTS, conceived the character way back in 1954. Unable to get his original screenplay produced, he and co-star Elizabeth James banged out this motorcycle drama and he was given the opportunity to direct by American International Pictures, always on the lookout to make a quick exploitation buck.

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The Born Losers are a degenerate gang of outlaw bikers terrorizing the small town of Big Rock. Ex-Green Beret Billy Jack, a half-breed Indian back from ‘Nam, saves a local kid from getting an ass kicking by breaking out his rifle, winds up the one locked up and given 120 days in jail or $1,000 (plus court costs, of course!). Billy and the gang’s leader Danny go way back, and there’s animosity between the two. Local Deputy Sheriff is also at odds with the bikers.

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College girl Vicki (James) rides her own bike, and the Losers chase her down and take her to their clubhouse. There she finds other local coeds being raped, but she escapes before being “turned out” herself. Vicki runs out of gas though, and is brutally raped by two members of the club. Vicki ends up in the hospital, and six of the Losers wind up arrested for the rapes.

The victims are threatened by Danny and his gang, coerced into not testifying. Vicki’s in protective custody, but the Losers try to kidnap her. They’re stopped by Billy Jack, who takes the girl to his forest hideaway. The Losers then sneak into his encampment and, though the pair aren’t there, they steal Billy Jack’s $600. He confronts them at a gas station, beating the crap out of their biggest dude, and gives them 24 hours to return the money. The gang grab Vicki and another victim, and the local authorities do nothing, so brave Billy Jack goes it alone against the Born Losers, seeking revenge for the girls and himself.

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The Billy Jack character isn’t quite fully formed here, but we’re given a good preview of things to come. He’s a hero to the underdog, a peace-loving man who’s unafraid to use violence to combat the evil in our midst. His martial-arts skills are touched on in this film, though not as much as in the 1971 movie. Laughlin does well in the role and, though never a great actor, has a charming screen presence. His direction (under the pseudonym T.C. Frank) is more than adequate, aided by some fine camerawork from Gregory Sandor.

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Classic film star Jane Russell  appears about halfway through the film as Mrs. Sloan, stripper mom of one of the victims. Russell’s given “Special Guest Star” status in the credits in what amounts to a cameo. She naturally gives the movie’s best performance as a tough-as-nails dame who wants justice for her daughter. This was one of the former RKO star’s last films, and she makes good use of her limited screen time.

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BORN LOSERS is filled with biker genre veterans, including Jeremy Slate as gang leader Danny, who was in THE MINI-SKIRT MOB, HELL’S BELLES, and HELL’S ANGELS ’69. Other biker flick vets are Jack Starrett (HELL’S ANGELS ON WHEELS, ANGELS FROM HELL, HELL’S BLOODY DEVILS), Robert Tessier (THE GLORY STOMPERS,  RUN ANGEL RUN, THE HARD RIDE), and Paul Prokop (THE PEACE KILLERS). William Wellman Jr. , son of the legendary director, appears as second-in-command Child.

Tom Laughlin is rightly hailed today as a pioneer of indie filmmaking. Most of his movies were self-financed, in the days before things like GoFundMe existed. Billy Jack remains an iconic character, his anti-establishmentarianism as popular with young audiences today as it was almost half a century ago. Critics like Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin called Laughlin’s fighting violence with violence stance Fascism, but I see him as an American hero, breaking down the false constructs of legalism in the cause of true justice. There are times when one is forced to make a stand. If you’re interested in the origin of Billy Jack, start here with Laughlin’s low-budget masterpiece BORN LOSERS.

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