Dir: Tom Laughlin (credited as T.C. Frank), 1967
The sixties were a breeding ground for biker movies. Carrying titles like The Glory Stompers and Hell’s Angels On Wheels, filmmakers seized the opportunity to cash in on the exploitation the genre offered, with Easy Rider being, arguably, the most famous.
Wanting to make a film about the plight of American Indians in society, director Laughlin (here, using the names of his children as a pseudonym), jumped at the chance to incorporate what many saw as a growing problem; hoodlum bikers.
A rowdy motorcycle gang, terrorise a town and rape four girls. Because the girls are too scared to testify, it’s up to half-Indian, ex-green beret Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin) to settle things.
Made on a low budget of $160,000, Born Losers shows its deficiency in funds but is still a rather fun jaunt.
The script is hammy and amateurish, and the actors wooden. Aside from Laughlin as the hero, the cast perform their roles with an over the top flamboyance, creating a campy and, ultimately, laughable series of scenes.
As the writer and director, Laughlin has the characterisation all wrong. Outlaw bikers struck fear and terror into people with their violent antics and raucous behaviour. Here, he has them flapping about effeminately, kissing each other and suggesting that they all shower together.
None of the bikers look anything remotely like an Hell’s Angel, with the gang leader (played with camp relish by Jeremy Slate) wearing a pair of hippie sun glasses.
Co-writer Elizabeth James, is the silver spoon-fed damsel in distress. However, there is no fear in her performance. Portrayed as a smart mouthed young girl, James brings a lot of the trouble on herself and creates highly unrealistic scenarios.
It’s difficult to get a grasp on what Laughlin is trying to get at. The premise of the film is a good vs evil story; the peace loving Indian against the riotous violence seeking cherishing bikers. But, so many of the characters cause the trouble in the first place.
The mayhem is sparked by a motorist accidentally running into the back of the gang leaders bike. Happy to let the prang slide, the bikers attempt to set off on their way before the motorist begins insulting them and acting tough. This behaviour causes an irony, as the innocent victims are the instigators.
The film now has a confusing morality and sense of justice. It presents a garbled message. Is Laughlin trying to say that nobody is innocent or did he just lose his way with the story?
As a whole, the first in the Billy Jack series of films isn’t sure which side of its bread is buttered. It tries to be an anti-violence film but aims to achieve this point by using graphic violence at any opportunity, much like Sam Peckinpah did, four years later, with Straw Dogs.
Whatever sentiment he is trying to convey, doesn’t stop Born Losers from being an enjoyable romp through a hippie filterered lens of sixties cinema.
Cheap and, quite possibly, unintentionally exploitational, Laughlin’s debut feature is akin to that of Roger Corman films. But where Corman held no bones about the type of pictures he made and embraced it, Tom Laughlin believes he’s making a worthy statement and valuable contribution to cinema.
It’s fun, but a tad too long and Billy Jack looks nothing like someone who’s half-Indian.
Worth a shot but very lityke value to justify a re-watch.