If you weren’t there the first time around it’s hard to imagine what a cultural touchstone (not to mention financial powerhouse) the Billy Jack movies were. The Born Losers, which introduced Tom Laughlin as the world weary just returned from Vietnam Indian, began a series of films that would make Laughlin an unlikely star and American International a very happy film company. Shot on a threadbare budget of $36,000, much of which Laughlin raised himself in exchange for a percentage of the profits; it grossed an astounding 36 million worldwide. Billy Jack, its 1971 follow up, was even more successful, costing $600,000 to make and grossing over 120 million! Laughlin, who prior to creating the character was a modestly successful television player with supporting roles in Wagon Train, Branded, and other westerns of the time (and even smaller film roles) somehow convinced American International into taking a chance with him as both star and (under the name T.C. Frank) director. It was a relationship that paid off handsomely for all parties involved but eventually dissolved over a series of law suits regarding the marketing and branding of the Billy Jack persona. Much like the character he portrayed Laughlin, who passed away in 2013, was a fierce individualist who refused to compromise his principles.
As to the film itself it’s difficult to judge it as a standalone entity, divorced from the notion of Billy Jack as an edifying force. In truth it’s not particularly well made, the low budget is clearly evident, and as both actor and director Laughlin was perhaps half a notch above serviceable. Nor is the script, by Laughlin and Delores Taylor, his wife of nearly a half century, especially sharp or emotive. But none of that matters. This is a film about a particular time and place; it’s built around capturing an era more than fishing for an Oscar.
The plot involves a malicious motorcycle gang that has been continually harassing the residents of a small California town, intimidating the locals to the point that, even after a series of Easter weekend rapes, no one will stand up to them and bear witness to the exasperated police. As the gang attempts to threaten the women into not testifying at the indictment hearing, one of the women, Vicki (Elizabeth James), comes under the protection of Billy Jack, who has had several previous altercations with the group. The gang escalates their pressure on both Vicki and Billy Jack to keep her out of the courtroom, knowing their testimony would likely result in long prison terms. The lead character is given surprisingly little screen time, which both enhances his loner facade and allows the story to focus on the confluence of events that leads to the inevitable climax. The gang is out of control, the locals are terrified, and even the police are hesitant to fully confront the bikers. In steps Billy Jack who, even though severely beaten, puts a stop to this reign of terror. Elizabeth James, who left acting to concentrate on producing children’s programs, gives a particularly strong performance as a woman who refuses to be intimidated; quite a role model for a time in which women were beginning to assert their rights of equality. And the ending, which finds Billy Jack badly wounded and Vicki coming to his rescue, is a nice set up for the sequels to come.
It had been nearly four decades since I’d last seen The Born Losers and was pleased to see how well it sustains, not as a film per se but as an artifact of a time in which movie companies dared to do something different, as stark contrast to today’s endless remakes and “based on real events” banality. In that alone makes it worthy of reinvestigation.
Did you know?
Laughlin played Billy Jack for the fifth time in "The Return Of Billy Jack" (1985), an unfinished film in which he battled child pornographers. An ardent environmentalist and advocate for worker’s right he waged campaigns for President of the United States in 1992, 2004, and 2008.