Wednesday 15 August 2007

The Born Losers (1967) Tom Laughlin

One film that my wife knows well but that I don't know at all is Billy Jack, starring and directed by Tom Laughlin. I'd heard of it and knew there were sequels but both of us were surprised to find that it was actually a sequel itself, to 1967's The Born Losers. It's a counterculture film made in the Summer of Love. It's a biker film made a year after The Wild Angels and the same year as Hells Angels on Wheels and for American International no less, but with bikers very much as the bad guys. Not least it's one of a number of underground films released that really hammered the nails in the coffin of the newly dead Production Code, killed off the very same year.

Laughlin plays Billy Jack, a half Indian Green Beret back from Vietnam, and out of place a full fifteen years before John Rambo in First Blood. He finds himself in a small town where a gang of bikers are having their fun with a young local idiot. He helps out and saves the guy, but at the cost of a thousand dollar fine or 120 days inside. The bikers themselves are given the choice of only $150 or 30 days, for assault. So much for helping people. Of course the bikers carry on terrorising the town and it's up to Billy Jack to do something about it. That puts him well ahead of the urban vigilante films too.

Beyond the mild stuff, Danny and his bikers are getting heavily into gang rape. They've taken four young ladies, three of them locals and the fourth a visitor to town called Vicky Barrington, and had their wicked way with them. As you'd expect from brutal rape victims, especially young ones, they don't want to testify, and just to make sure the bikers are doing everything possible to ensure that they don't, not stopping short of repeating the job.

Billy Jack is calm and composed and polite. If it wasn't for the level of calm and composed that he exudes, he'd be pretty inconsequential, which is exactly what he's looking for. He takes care of Vicky, who believes she's a coward but is actually pretty tough and heroic in her own way, and does what he can to take care of the biker menace in the absence of any viable response from the authorities. Billy Jack may be a hero or a vigilante or a tough guy or plenty of other cliched terms that really don't mean much any more, but more than anything he's a refreshing voice of sanity, both against the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys'. He's an early seventies anti-hero.

Tom Laughlin is restrained as a director and he's pretty restrained as an actor. He lets the bikers strut their stuff and hog the limelight. He even lets Vicky's toughness shine through and make itself worth far more because of that. Beyond Laughlin himself, the acting is interesting if not always great. Some of the actors in smaller parts are simply terrible, and that's not just the young girls either. Jeremy Slate is memorable as the lead biker, Danny, with his bizarre white sunglasses. There's also a peaceful William Wellman Jr, son of the famous director, bitch mom Anne Bellamy and even Jane Russell, looking a little worse for wear. Best of all tough is Elizabeth James as Vicky Barrington. She may not be a great actress but she was very believable indeed.

At the end of the day, the film still seems very much out of place in any of those categories I came up with, because it's tough but also sensitive in ways that you don't expect this sort of film to be. Of course, the problem there is the definition of 'this sort of film'. Like its lead character, it walks its own path and as much as it deals with things like gang rape, it's the most respectful of women that I've ever seen a vigilante film or a biker film or action film or whatever you want to call it. Very impressive indeed. Now I need to see Billy Jack and the further sequels to see how they hold up.

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