Hollywood code breaker

Achieves much by daring more

Published: Sep 18 2017, 01:01:am

Tuesday, December 10, 1974

BORN LOSERS. Co-written by James Lloyd (Elizabeth James). Music by Mike Curb. Co-written, produced and directed by T.C. Frank (Tom Laughlin). Running time: 112 minutes. Restricted entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: a very violent picture.
NOT EVERYONE LIKED BILLY JACK the first time around. Consider, for a moment, this voice from the past:
    “The most brutal cycle story to date and, indeed, perhaps the most brutal film (ever) . . . In this sorry exploitation of blood, flesh, implicit sex and explicit violence, motion picture tastelessness reaches a new low. Not a single character approaches being sympathetic, let alone heroic. Not a single performer could act to save his listless life . . .”
     (Excerpt from the Toronto Telegram, Sept. 7, 1967.)
    A more recent assessment appeared in Friday’s Province [1974].
    “Made . . . as the ultimate motorcycle picture (Born Losers) marked a turning point in the history of sex and violence on the screen. It may someday be remembered as one of the most significant films of the 1960s.”
    Yes, friends, I wrote them both.
    What it proves is that times change, and so do reviewers. With the film’s return, I have to be honest and admit that my opinion of it has, uh, evolved over the past few years.
    It began to change in July, 1968, in Budapest. At that time there were posters all over the Hungarian capital advertising a film called Halálfejesek. The artwork was unmistakable.
    It was Born Losers.
    I scrounged a ticket, not an easy task because all seats were reserved and the showings were sold out two weeks in advance. The Pushkin Theatre was an elegant 700-seat auditorium, a mahogany and marble culture palace that looked as if it had been designed for grand opera.
    Unlike the Toronto audience, which had been teenaged, the Pushkin’s patrons were more adult, and considerably more serious. They had gathered together to view a significant foreign film.
    What they saw was the first screen appearance of Tom Laughlin (an actor whose screen presence is a handsome combination of Robert Blake and Rod Serling) in the role of Billy Jack, a part-Indian Vietnam veteran who returns to his home town on the California coast to find little work and lots of prejudice.
    Billy is heavily fined when he uses his rifle against the Born Losers, a motorcycle gang led by Daniel Carmody (played with cheerful malice by Jeremy Slate, who went on to star in at least three more biker epics, but who is best remembered as Sgt. Patrick O’Neill, the Canadian Army judo instructor in 1968’s The Devil's Brigade).
    Thereafter the Losers rape three local girls and a wise-cracking college student named Vicky Barrington (Elizabeth James, a pretty Liza Minnelli look-alike who co-wrote the screenplay). Vicky was just passing through, but her bikinied body proved irresistible to Carmody, and her tiny Yamaha was no match for the gang's Harleys.
    To get the Losers, the local DA needs the victims' testimony in court. The last half of the film is taken up with the terror campaign the outlaw riders carry on to insure that the raped girls will remain silent.
    As might be expected, Billy Jack emerges as the hero, and violated Vicky his heroine.
    It was a rough item in 1967. A year later, when I saw it in Budapest, it had been severely cut by the Hungarian censor. Now. after six years in storage. Born Losers is back, intact.
    My 1967 opinion notwithstanding, I was glad to see it again.
   Born Losers was a pace-setter, a radical film by a radical director (Laughlin under the name T. C. Frank). Not only was it the longest motorcycle feature ever released (112 minutes vs 79 minutes for 1953’s The Wild One, 83 minutes for 1963’s The Wild Angels and 94 minutes for 1969’s Easy Rider), but it dared more, and by the force of its daring achieved more than virtually any other film of its time.
    The first time I saw it, I was shocked.  Never before had a movie paid so much attention to the bloody effects of physical violence. Two years before the potent shocks of The Wild Bunch, Laughlin showed us a pretty girl's face being beaten to a bloody pulp as a prelude to rape.
    Never before had I seen a screen hero calmly and cold-bloodedly murder a villain, an explosion of gore that was recorded in the kind of deliberate slow motion that later would make Sam Peckinpah famous.
    In one sense-numbing film, Laughlin showed us police brutality and introduced victims who were nearly as guilty as their violators. He had a heroine who was an adept sexual politician, and a hero whose minority resentment was both noble and savage.
    His movie attempted to expose society's craven public indifference and private corruptions. With a kind of crusader's zeal, Laughlin ignored Hollywood’s codes and conventions to blaze a trail.
     In the late 1960s, his trail turned into a highway that has borne vehicles as artful and elegant as director Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Godfather,  and as trashy as Phil Karlson’s rednecked Walking Tall.
    By comparison with its current competition, Born Losers is a mild, moderate and, on reflection, a surprisingly moral motion picture. It is also a vivid testimonial to the speed with which social attitudes are changing.
     The shocker of its day, Born Losers could probably now get by on TV.
*    *    *
    Following his experience making Born Losers for American-International Pictures (AIP), Tom Laughlin and his co-producer Delores Taylor (Mrs. Laughlin) collaborated on an independent production called Billy Jack (1971).
    The new film featured an embittered Billy (Laughlin again) fighting bigotry in Arizona, and defending progressive school teacher Jean Roberts (Taylor). Released through Warner Brothers, the film was so indifferently handled that an embittered Laughlin decided that he could do better distributing it himself.
    He could and did, making Billy Jack one of the 50 top-grossing films of all time [as of 1974]. The next year, the Laughlin clan went to work on a sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack, which was released last month. [November, 1974]
    In the meantime, AIP, who still own the original Born Losers, decided to rerelease its film. When Laughlin found out that Billy Jack’s fans had the impression that AIP’s picture was his long-awaited sequel, he cried foul.
    In every city where Born Losers opened, Laughlin took out full-page newspaper ads proclaiming that it was not the sequel to Billy Jack. As the result of a legal action, AIP was forced to feature the word “re-release” prominently in its advertising.
    It’s hard for Laughlin to deny Born Losers. He co-wrote, directed and starred in it. But he’s right. It’s not the sequel to Billy Jack. It’s the original.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1974. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: While working as a supporting player on TV and in the movies, Tom Laughlin made his debut as a writer-director with a low-budget teen drama, The Proper Time. Filmed in late 1957, it finally was released in 1960, the year that he filmed his second feature, another teen angst picture variously known as Among the Thorns, The Young Sinner or Like Father, Like Son. Laughlin’s breakthrough came in 1967 with the surprise success of Born Losers, the world’s introduction to the relentless Billy Jack. The character would appear in three sequels — Billy Jack (1971), The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977) — and in scenes filmed for the never-completed The Return of Billy Jack, footage shot in 1986 in Toronto. Tom Laughlin died in 2013 at the age of 82.