Born Losers (1967): Tom Laughlin’s Exploitative Biker Movie, Introducing the Billy Jack Character

In 1969, husband and wife team Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor made Born Losers, a biker action flick that introduced to audience a new type of screen character, Billy Jack, a half-Indian Green Beret Vietnam veteran.

The story was based on a real 1964 incident, in which members of the Hells Angels were arrested for raping some teenage girls in Monterey, California.  The quickly-written script cashed in on the then-popular genre of motorcycle gang movies, while pretending to say something more profound about the discrimination toward Native Americans.

Billy Jack is introduced as an enigmatic, half-Indian who shuns society, leaving in solitude around the California Central Coast mountains.  Descending from this quiet setting, he drives into a small beach town named Big Rock.  A minor traffic accident in which a motorist hits a motorcyclist results in a savage beating by members of the Born Losers Motorcycle Club.

The horrified bystanders (including Laughlin’s wife, Delores Taylor, and their two children in cameo roles) are afraid to help or be involved, and Billy Jack rescues the man by himself.  The police arrive and arrest Billy for using a rifle to stop the fight.

The judge fines him for discharging a rifle and he is treated with suspicion and hostility by the police. Meanwhile, the marauding bikers terrorize the town, rape four teenage girls, and threaten anyone who consider testifying against them. One of the girls(Susan Foster) later recants, admitting that she willingly gave herself to the biker gang.

Co-scriptwriter Elizabeth James plays Vicky Barrington, a bikini-clad girl who is abducted and abused by the gang twice. The second time, she and Billy are kidnapped and Billy is brutally beaten, Vicky agrees to become the gang’s sexually compliant “biker mama” if they release Billy. But unable to get help from the police or the residents, Billy must return to the gang to rescue Vicky by himself.

Armed with a bolt-action rifle, Billy shoots the gang’s leader (Jeremy Slate) in cold blood, and forces the others to take the badly beaten Vicky to the hospital. As the police finally arrive, Billy abruptly rides away on a motorcycle.

Later, a police deputy accidentally shoots Billy in the back, mistaking him for being a gang member. Found nearly dead by the shore of a lake, he is flown to the hospital in a helicopter as Vicky and the sheriff salute him.

Jane Russell plays the thankless role of one of the girls’ mother.

Modestly budgeted at $400,000, Born Losers benefited from a shrewdly exploitative campaign by its distributor, American International, grossing $36 million at the box office.

The film was the highest grossing American International release until 1979, when The Amityville Horror was released.

Despite largely negative reviews, the film was a hugely commercial picture among young students, leading to a whole cycle of “Billy Jack” films in the 1970s.