Friday, June 17, 2011
The Born Losers
The Born Losers
1968 (imdb says 1967, the DVD says '69; seems to have hit theaters in 1968)
D: T.C. Frank (Tom Laughlin, who also co-wrote with wife and EP Delores Taylor as "James Lloyd")
Claim to fame: The first Billy Jack film; one of AIP's all-time top grossers
A motorcycle club rapes four girls, and only a local outcast will stand up to them
Truth be told, I am not the world's biggest Billy Jack fan. Despite the fact that I own the boxed set, I have never seen all of "Billy Jack Goes to Washington," or, to the best of my recollection, any of "The Trial of Billy Jack." While "Billy Jack" is undeniably a drive-in classic (that I still enjoy), it also always left me a bit uneasy. Movies like it --as well as TV shows like Kung Fu-- helped cement my impression that most peaceniks aren't pacifists, but cowards looking for someone to fight their battles for them. For all of the left wing messages, the movies always ended up with an unintentionally hawkish payoff: Turn the other cheek all you want, but the bad guys are only thwarted by a Tony Lama to the ass... And just to be honest, it didn't help, by the way, that the female lead from "Billy Jack" on was Laughlin's unattractive, bad acress wife Delores Taylor... At any rate, before these three sequels (plus one or two that never came out), there was "The Born Losers."
Unable to get the film made that they wanted (released as "Billy Jack" in 1971), Laughlin and Taylor came up with a prequel film, with Billy Jack as a Shane type hero/anti-hero (and this has even more of a western feel than most biker movies, enhanced by Mike Curb's soundtrack) confronting a motorcycle club. Biker movies were really raking in the coin, and the plot was loosely based on a late '64 Hell's Angels rape and witness intimidation case that was still fresh in people's minds (with elements of the Kitty Genovese case thrown in as well), so this seemed a much better way to get the Billy Jack character over.
The Born to Lose MC rides into a small town, mainly to pick up its president's brother. While in town, they generally terrorize the citizens. Only Billy Jack, a loner, ex-Green Beret Indian (who's always recognized as such, despite looking 100% white) stands up to them, and for his trouble he's arrested and slapped with a crippling fine, a harsher punishment than the bikers received.
With no one to stop them, the club ends up raping three girls in their late teens and, separately, a spoiled college girl. Further, they appear destined to get away with it, as the victims are all afraid to testify.
The (mostly leftist) social commentary in this one is non-stop, though not all of it is as heavy handed as Vicky's painful graduate student speeches.
The role of bad parenting in helping turn kids into both criminals and potential victims is laid on pretty thick. Club leader Danny's father is a hard-ass bastard (and in a subtle scence shown later, it's implied that Danny is an uninvolved dad himself), Vicky's is rich and powerful but has no time for her, and the other victims' parents are overprotective, uninvolved, or too busy trying to make ends meet to be the parents the kids need. Adults in general, in fact, let the kids down, as they give in to the cowardly urge to look the other way.
The film is no less tough on the police, with a strong "they can't protect you" message. This is done pretty effectively, by not showing the cops as inept or unwilling; if anything, the deputy in particular would be seen by some as being overly harsh.
Besides all this, they're tossing other stuff at you as well --on racism, the enviornment, the inability of a poor man to get a fair shake, the selfishness of the rich, and on and on, finally padding the movie out to nearly two hours... With all this going on, it would seem to be exactly the kind of film I can't stand, but quite the contrary.
What saves this otherwise overly earnest script is its co-writer, Tom Laughlin. His understated performances rescued the Billy Jack character from ridiculousness, but it's as a director that he really shines. There are some great shots and all that (one of which led to the film's brilliant poster), but the performances he gets from his cast are what impresses.
Jack Starrett is always great, and I sometimes neglect how good Elizabeth James (essentially a stand-in for Delores Taylor) is because I hate her character so much. Jane Russell is often praised for this performance, but for me it feels a little too 1951. But aside from Starrett (one of the best movie cops ever, from these biker films to "First Blood" to "Death Chase"), it's the bikers who steal the show.
Jeremy Slate, who was never better, leads the way here as Danny. The character has surprising depth, which he draws out easily and convincingly. The confrontation with his father is closed out with a brilliant ad lib, and Slate's scenes with Starrett are just outstanding. William Wellman, Jr (son of the respected director) is great as the beatnik-ish Child, Paul Prokop is genuinely creepy as Speechless, and Edwin Cook is funny and very natural as Crabs. But Laughlin also gets solid performances from the rest of the bikers, who weren't actors but members of a small MC called the Devil's Escorts. One of them, Robert Tessier (here as Cueball, despite the fact that he had hair at the time), of course, went on to have a career as a great character actor.
Apart from some corny fake swastika and "13" tattoos, the bikers look great. I love the club's colors, and details like Danny's hands, with small cuts, knuckle band-aids, and a juvie hall type tattoo of his initials. The wardrobe is great, down to Slate's cool newsboy cap and his impressive ability to pull off wearing those outrageous sunglasses.
Which isn't to call the film flawless. Vicky can really get on your nerves at times, and while I enjoyed the hell out of Jodell's strip tease, it's not exactly realistic behavior for a girl who was just gang raped. It's hard to suppress a groan when the bikers trap Vicky by spinning the arrow on a road sign, and the post climax epilogue is pretty bad.
Overall, an even better mix of exploitation and earnesty (yes, I know it isn't a word) than "Angels Hard as They Come," and an MC prez as good as (while very different from) Heavenly Blues of "The Wild Angels" or Anchor in "Satan's Sadists." 4.5 for this bona fide classic.