Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Billy’s not kidding… Born Losers (1967)

Billy Jack is one of those films I vividly recall watching late night on HTV somewhere in my teenage Merseyside… it caused much debate at school the next day when, impressed by the character’s courage and willingness to take on all opposition, he was a man who took on the oldsters and won. We were scally teen-hippies though and had yet to be politicised by Punk.

Tom Laughlin who played Billy here and in all the films to follow, had been trying to get his idea published since 1954… He was a truly extraordinary character in himself who stood for American individualism and indeed the presidency (although he never got that far).

Laughlin was a man as determined as he was principled and finally the time came when the World was ready to see cinematic incarnation of Billy Jack, a half-native American who also happens to be a Vietnam veteran Green Beret…  As the summer of love faded and harsh reality kicked in Laughlin re-wrote the story to take account of the new craze for motorcycle films and the New American Violence. The concept was based on an actual incident when a group of five girls were raped by members of the Hell’s Angels in 1964.

Man with a vision: Tom Laughlin
There’s something rough and ready about Tom’s philosophy but his film was rooted in the same intrinsic belief in fairness as any classic western. It’s also very interesting that the script was co-written by his co-star Elizabeth James who plays Vicky Barrington a disaffected rich kid with plenty of spunk who spends a gratifying portion of the film riding around on her motorcycle in a white bikini. James later went on to pursue a career as a writer but her performance here is very good as she projects an almost innocent bravery in spite of the brutal threats she faces.

Elizabeth James
James and Laughlin clearly shared a world-view and it’s fascinating to see the sixties sensibilities: a belief in decency and the importance of individual actions against a youth set all too free by motorcycles and liberty become licence. It’s a libertarian viewpoint out of step with European left-wing thinking but so very rooted in the free-thinking that enabled America to become so dynamic and powerful. The mistrust of authority – an ineffective police-force and a judicial system hog-tied by legal process – contributes to the flourishing of the motorcycle gang: men who know no limits other than the equal force that eventually pushes back their way.

It’s a story that rings as vaguely true now as it did in 1968… America is broken unless good men (and women) take a stance. I have to say that’s a pretty depressing thought given the constitution of this great nation but, in 2017, more than any year since Nixon, this is very much the case. Bad men can take advantage of freedom as much as good and any system is only as strong as those who get involved make it.

Billy confronts the bikers
Billy Jack is one such man, he can’t walk away and whilst he never loses his dignity he never lets others down. The motorcycle gang, The Born Losers, are truly horrendous and led by a wonderfully charismatic performance from experienced actor Jeremy Slate who oozes menacing complacency from behind his white-rimmed sunglasses as Danny Carmody. His troop are a mix of the disturbed and the deviant all intent on doing just as they like with no respect for the law or fellow human beings.

They’re prevented from cartoon characterisation by some fine performances and the bottom line that they believe they have the right to act as they want. Do as thy wilt shall be the whole of the law… it’s the doctrine of hippy freedom taken too far. Their presence is constantly agitating throughout and ultimately the only thing that can stop them is being met with the same force of will. After parents, police and lawyers fail only Billy stands in their way: a very American Resolution.

Jeremy Slate and Tom Laughlin
Story-wise Billy has returned from Vietnam to his home town of Beach Rock almost broke and with the bikers becoming increasingly untouchable. We see the bikers parading up and down the main drag intimidating the locals and attracting the interest of some local girls. A young man gets beaten up after an altercation with the gang and Billy ends up intervening with his rifle earning himself some jail time while the gang walks free…

Miss rule continues and when Billy is out he’s on his uppers as the bank refuses to extend his credit. Meanwhile Vicky arrives in distracting white bikini and is immediately surrounded by the gang in an impressive scene in which the bikes arrive one by one on the horizon as she turns her bike around. She’s forced to go to their hideout, a rather immaculate house that in reality was once owned by Seal Beach was once owned by silent film star Rudolph Valentino.

Girl on a motorcycle
She manages to escape but as her bike runs out of gas two of the gang catch up with her and she’s raped… Most films would back away from such explicit degradation but not this one, Laughlin’s intent on showing us the dark side.

Moving on, we learn that Vicky is not the only one and the two gang members are being held pending trial for the rape of a number of girls. Surely it’s a clear cut case… but the gang aims to intimidate the witnesses and win by default.

After Billy saves Vicky from further attack the two become close and as he starts to help her you hope for a resolution but it won’t be anything like the usual Hollywood ending.

Dusty Verdict: Born Losers is a strangely-fascinating experience… Laughlin has a distinct charisma that makes Billy calmly compelling and you can understand how the character subsequently had legs. It feels slightly muddled and down-beat because of the failure of the authorities to bring order to the situation and, whilst it may well have been true, you’d hope that justice was more readily available for such a clear-cut crime.

Then again… given 2017, maybe not.

In addition to standouts from the lovely Elizabeth James and grisly Jeremy Slate, there’s also a stellar cameo from Hollywood royalty Jane Russell who gives it everything she’s got as the mother of one of the abused girls (Janice Miller, who was in the next Billy Jack film): she was hired for a day apparently to give the film impact.

Jane Russell gives it some
The film also features William Wellman Jr., son of the legendary film director, who gives a good account of himself as the gang’s second in command.

Born Losers was one of the most successful independent films of the sixties and gave rise to three more Billy Jack films in the seventies. It is available on pricey import DVD from Amazon and others and features an entertaining commentary from Laughlin and his wife who is also featured briefly in the film. He was a man who walked the talk and what stands out through all the years is his intesity of spirit and determination to do the right thing by getting involved!

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