In The Underworld, we adore vintage movie stars, but what we adore even more are the late-career films that once-hot cinema actresses felt the need to make as their place in the limelight shifted from glaring to dim. (Think Ava Gardner in The Cassandra Crossing or The Sentinel, Lauren Bacall in The Fan or Joan Crawford in I Saw What You Did or Trog, among countless other examples...) A real curio is the 1967 film The Born Losers, a biker gang flick that first introduced the world to the character of Billy Jack and which also provided a brief role for one-time movie sensation turned bra spokesperson, Miss Jane Russell.
The genesis of The Born Losers is rather fascinating. Tom Laughlin, a stocky young man for whom controversy was routine almost from the start, had been a college football running back before settling on a career in show business. He not only acted, but wrote and directed material, first penning a screenplay about his character Billy Jack way back in 1954. (Billy Jack was a part-Indian, ex-Green Beret peacemaker who happened to keep the peace by kicking the shit out of anyone who was stirring up trouble!)
As an actor, he worked in low-budget films such as The Delinquents (1957) as well as expensive studio fare like Tea and Sympathy (1956), Lafayette Escadrille and South Pacific (both 1958.) Always desiring to make his own movies and retain creative control over them, he saw many projects come and go without fruition, though occasionally one would be made (for precious little money, often his own.)
He temporarily gave up show business in order to run a Montessori school with his wife since 1954 (Delores Taylor) from 1960 until its bankruptcy in 1965. He then, after a few more stops and starts, wanted to bring Billy Jack to the screen. However, in the mid-'60s there was a huge call for biker movies such as Wild Angels (1966) with Peter Fonda and Devil's Angels (1967) with Dennis Hopper, both released by American International Pictures. In order to ensure success, he helped concoct a biker movie called The Born Losers, but inserted the character of Billy Jack in it. This meant that the money earned from Losers could help to finance his ultimate dream project of the movie Billy Jack. (The iconic hat shown here would appear in movies after this first one, in which he sported a more traditional cowboy hat.)
Taking its cue from a real life 1964 incident in which some Hell's Angels were arrested for the rape of five teenage girls, Laughlin assembled a gaggle of gritty, hairy character actors to play a band of marauding motorcycle riders who butt up against the quietly strong and righteous Billy Jack in a small coastal town in California. Injustice escalates through the movie until it explodes into a climactic showdown, very much like a classic western, but with the outlaws as bikers and the hapless townspeople as... hapless townspeople.
The movie (which Laughlin directed himself using a pseudonym) starts off with picturesque views of the sunset, the forest and a waterfall (which features a naked Laughlin showering under it!) He is then seen wandering the countryside where the ugly side of nature is revealed (in this case, a rabbit being torn apart and devoured by a predatory bird...)
In a town called Big Rock (actually a series of locations including Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Big Sur and others), tourist season is in full swing and the streets are crowded with cars, wayward teens and a biker gang called The Born Losers. Things turn ugly fast when a young man in a Volkswagen accidentally bumps into the back of a cycle and then ignorantly refuses to apologize, even instigating a problem by insulting the rider (the gang's leader, Jeremy Slate.)
Slate begins to pummel the heck out of the defenseless guy, who crawls from car to car, hoping for help that never comes. (This part of the story takes its cue from the infamous Kitty Genovese case in which neighbors heard and partially saw a murder taking place, yet refused to lift a finger in order to remain uninvolved in it.) By the way, I am convinced that this kid is played by familiar '70s face Sam Chew Jr, but there is no documentation about it anywhere that I could find!
Eventually, he stumbles into a service station and asks the owner for a dime to call the police with, but is swiftly shown the door, even with the band of bikers hot on his trail. Laughlin happens to be in the waiting area and gives the kid the money, though it's not long before the bikers come in and drag their victim to a nearby alley for more punishment.
Laughlin is unable to tolerate seeing any more of this abuse and retrieves his shotgun from his jeep in order to put a halt to the incident. Just as he has squared off with the bikers, the police finally show up and arrest him for using the firearm! He's placed in jail and later is informed by a lawyer that he has to either serve 120 days in jail or pay a $1000 fine while the original perpetrators were given either 30 days in jail or a $50 fine!
He is then tormented by The Born Losers by having a sign that reads “No Indians Allowed” placed in his Jeep while it's parked in front of the gang's favorite watering hole, followed by one of his tires being slashed.
Slate, the otherwise vicious leader of the Losers, has a soft spot for his little brother Gordan Hoban. When he suddenly finds out that their father (Hoyt Clegg, a veteran of many TV and movie westerns) has been beating Hoban up again, he tears off on his cycle to the house where he encourages his brother to leave with him for good. Clegg in a fit of fury spits directly into Slate's face and Slate demonstrates his kinky loathing of authority by wiping the spit with his finger and then sucking it off!
Little brother Hoban now begins to hang out with the gang regularly. Their chief idea of fun, however, seems to be squeezing snugly into a banquette and listening to music on a stolen reel-to-reel tape recorder! They also play a fair amount of pool.
Meanwhile, pert college student Elizabeth James (who also wrote the film's screenplay!) is excited to be flying from school to California where she plans to meet up with her absentee father. She is crushed to find out when she arrives at the airport that he is unable to be with her. She instead decides to ride her own motorcycle to the beach (resulting in the hilariously incongruous vision of a bikini-clad girl in a white kerchief zooming along the roads.)
She has the terrible bad luck of attracting the gang during a road race they are taking part in. They pursue her relentlessly, even using that old west trick of switching the direction of a sign so that she'll end up heading down a dead end street and be cornered by them. Like much of the rest of this movie, this segment has a particularly western feel as she turns on her bike to see a whole row of threatening bikers facing her down.
They cause her to fall down a hill into the sand, but she is rescued by a biker chick whose intentions aren't particularly clear. Half out of naivete and half out of plans to go along with them until she can get clear of them, she accompanies the gang back to their headquarters, a multi-room dive with plenty of beer and plenty of mattresses. There, the various members describe to her how she can become one of their “mamas.” This initiation involves sleeping with every single male on the premises, one after the other!
During this, a couple of the local girls are shown either screaming, running or zoning out on drugs, having been picked up beforehand for the same sexual purposes. By now, James is duly petrified, but puts up a brave front in order to plot her escape. She acts as if she's got some great drugs in her bike and asks to go outside and fetch them. Even though she's given a burly escort (Edwin Cook as a character called “Crabs”), she manages to get away, taking flight on her cycle.
Trouble is, Cook fiddled with the mechanics of the bike and it quickly begins to sputter to a stop while the bikers are in hot pursuit of her. She takes to the hills in her bikini and go-go boots (and just as with the first guy is turned away by disinterested residents) until a couple of the gang members find her and rape her.
In the wake of all this debauchery, news footage reveals that four different girls, including James, were assaulted and charges have been filed against the bikers. Unless the girls agree to testify, however, the charges won't stick. Whether it be from shame or fear or illness, the girls are generally averse to testifying in court, a situation the bikers see fit to exacerbate by terrorizing them all further!
Here we finally get to meet Jane Russell as the flowsy, flunky, floozie of a mother to one of the victims. Russell, in a deliciously tight and tawdry dress, which, like her, is fraying along the edges in spots, is shown getting ready for a night of “work” at a local restaurant. She's got it all going on, from thick false eyelashes to massive rhinestone earrings to strappy CFM shoes.
While she's getting herself together in the ramshackle house she shares with her daughter (Janice Miller, who looks more like a young Demi Moore than Demi Moore herself did!), she's surrounded by tacky framed pictures of faded beauty queens and boxes of leopard print undergarments.
Miller, in a chief example of Russell's motherly attributes and influences, is sitting in a chair reading the covers of record albums with titles such as “Music for Strippers” and “Music to Strip By!” She gets a big sloppy goodbye kiss from Russell that leaves a gargantuan lipstick stain on her cheek.
Then once alone, and like all recent victims of rape, she puts on one of the bump 'n grind albums and begins to gyrate around the room. The electricity suddenly goes out, but she goes outside to fix that, then comes back in to perfect her stripper moves. Once down to a bra and lacy black panties, she turns around to be confronted by a passel of bikers who have gained entry to the house and are bent on attacking her again!
Next, we see that she is reduced to a catatonic, thumb-sucking simpleton whose mama is fired up. Russell berates the police detectives for their inability to protect her daughter, hilariously removing just one of her false eyelashes during the verbal barrage. Then she takes the remaining one off and tosses it at the sheepish policeman. Finally, she gets so agitated that she demands that they leave her house, orders them to get out and get out NOW! However, when they are railroaded into the bedroom instead of out the front door, she loses it and begins to cackle outrageously at the sheer lunacy of the situation, the camera being careful to stay on her and catch every garish moment of her roaring, tear-stained face.
James, stuck in the hospital after her own assault, is about to be released, but not before encountering a phonily cheery, heavily made-up nurse who she manages to put in her place by calling her out on the baby talk she's been using with her.
Placed in “police protection” in a nearby motel until the hearing can be arranged, James is instead terrorized once more by members of the gang and it is again up to Laughlin to come to the defense of one of their victims. He has a showdown with several of them in the parking lot of the motel/restaurant and proceeds to take the weary James up to his mountain-top airstream trailer retreat.
Next comes my favorite, favorite scene in the movie, one which caused it to be unforgettable to me! The bikers are hanging out in their favorite dive, when Jeff Cooper (as a character called “Gangrene”) comes bursting in excitedly.
He lowers his head in order to give one of his male biker buddies a quick kiss on the mouth before heading over to Slate's table. He's elated over having gotten James out of her “police-protected” motel room and Slate's having cut the wires and put sugar in the gas tank of a police car.
Hurtling himself up onto the table, he relays his news to Slate and gleefully asks for him to “plant one on me.”
Slate is happy to oblige and crouches down to give Cooper (who sports a positively rippled hairy chest) a pretty decent kiss on the lips.
Cooper isn't at all satisfied with this and says, “No man, a big one!” With this, Slate sticks out his tongue and begins a considerable French kiss with Cooper that Cooper is reluctant to end!! Cooper has Slate in a virtual headlock and doesn't want to let go.
When the moment has finally passed, Cooper throws his legs up in the air and whirls off the table, leaving Slate to finish his beer and cigar (his hat having flown off to who knows where!)
The actor Slate had no clue that that second kiss was coming. Cooper and Laughlin had decided to spring it on him to see how it played out and he obediently went along with it. However, he was so taken aback by it that he couldn't help but begin to smile in shock, followed by a moment in which the startled performer tries to take a drink of his beer WHILE his cigar is still in his mouth!
With James now ensconced up at Laughlin's compound, she is approached by one of the victim's parents who wants her to testify. His own daughter is catatonic since the rape and as a result is powerless to do anything herself. James just wants the whole miserable mess to be behind her.
Slate continues to be at odds with the law, with the town deputy Jack Starrett threatening him over the destruction of his police car. In one of many homoerotically suggestive moments in the movie, this shot shows Starett placing a very phallic baton next to Slate's mouth.
The parents of the rape victims are a cross-section of crisply-dressed and coiffed, detached citizens who are too caught up in the quagmire of their own societal issues and personal proprieties to do anything about the increasingly threatening gaggle of bikers who have all but taken over their town.
One night when James is fast asleep by a campfire, Laughlin creeps away and rides into town to let Slate know that he is going to handle things himself. As he enters the bar, Cook asks him a question that he's been asking practically everyone around him, “Why don't we hop in the shower together?”!! Though he does look like he could use a good scrubbing, no one takes him up on it.
Laughlin and Slate then square off over a drink with Laughlin placing one of Slate's ever-present lit cigars in between their forearms to see who can stand the burning the longest without flinching. Once Laughlin exits, Slate rubs his arm in obvious discomfort while Cook sidles up and, once more, asks the men around him if they would like to take a shower together!
Laughlin is attempting to get James out of town and is gassing up at a local station when the Losers come teeming in to stop him. They torment the ostensibly peaceful Laughlin by filling his cowboy hat with gasoline until he snaps and begins to use martial arts moves on Cooper. He next covers Cooper in gasoline, threatening to light him on fire until he and James can escape.
The escape doesn't last long, though, and soon James is back in the bikers' grasp for a violent finale. The gang has not only got her in their clutches, with an eye toward yet another sexual assault, but they also have the catatonic blonde girl again, too. Everything comes to a head as Laughlin struggles to save the girls and defeat the out-of-control biker gang. There's even something of a surprise twist ending regarding one of the rape victims. (Laughlin looks kinda bulgy in his jeans here, so I've added another shot.)
The Born Losers was shot for $160,000 (and taking that into consideration is remarkably attractive to look out, thanks to some very appealing Big Sur scenery), but during post-production Laughlin ran out of money and was compelled to let American International Pictures buy out the initial investors and pour additional funds into the movie in order to get it into releasable shape and promote it. The final tally was about $400,000. Anyone worried about recouping their dough needn't have worried. The flick raked in $5 million in its first release and in time (through second and third releases) would garner $36 million!! (That is NINETY TIMES its budget in returns...) It's record as AIP's all-time money earner stood until 1979's The Amityville Horror.
Is it good? Well, not particularly, but it has the benefit of colorful photography, a simultaneously gritty-campy storyline, some committed performances to help balance out the wooden ones and enough kinky, crazy, oddball elements to make it must-see movie at least once.
Laughlin, buoyed by the success of The Born Losers, began work on his initial project Billy Jack, beginning filming in 1969. Unfortunately, there was once again trouble getting it completed and released, so it was 1971 before the movie saw theater screens. Initially a flop, he pressed to get it released again in 1973 and it was a runaway hit, scoring $32 million on an $800,000 investment. It's theme song, “One Tin Soldier,” became a smash as well. Two more films followed, The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977), with diminishing returns and increased agitation from critics over the heavy-duty martyrdom of its peace-loving character who breaks necks with ease!
Laughlin only appeared in a couple more films after Billy Jack Goes to Washington, disappearing from screens after 1981 (a small role in the mega-flop The Legend of The Lone Ranger.) He became increasingly active in politics, running for President three times, and philosophizing with his wife Delores. (In less than a year, the couple will hit the sixty-year mark in their marriage together!) Delores, by the way, costarred in the second, third and fourth films of the series, but only has a brief shot as a concerned passerby in Losers, with two of the couple's three children (see below.) Laughlin is eighty-two at present.
James only acted on screen once more, in a small part of a police dispatcher in 1974's Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, preferring to author information books for children and contribute material to various computer-based educational programs aimed at kids. She also penned several suspense novels. So little is written about James that I don't even know her current age! Despite her extremely limited career before the camera, she has a certain number of admiring male fans who appreciate her looks and body (Alfred Hitchcock, of all people, liked her a lot!) I think she has a sort of Natalie Wood as Daisy Clover thing going on with a dollop of young Tyne Daly.
Slate had led a remarkably colorful life before becoming an actor. He was present at the invasion of Normandy (D-Day) at age eighteen, a college football player and a public relations man in Peru. Married and with three sons and two daughters, he turned to acting and costarred in The Aquanauts (1960-61) as well appearing in movies like Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) and Wives and Lovers (1963.) As a young man, he had something of a Steve McQueen look, don't you think??
Having worked in 1965's The Sons of Katie Elder with John Wayne, he later appeared in 1969's True Grit with The Duke as well. The success of Losers led him to appear in several more biker flicks like The Mini-Skirt Mob (1968), Hell's Belles (1969) and Hell's Angels '69, which he wrote (and during which he broke a leg in a riding accident, never to get on a hog again.) After his first divorce, he married Broadway star Tammy Grimes for a year and it was her own white sunglasses that he sports in The Born Losers! After retiring in the early-'90s, he made one last TV appearance in 2006, the year he died of esophageal cancer at age eighty.
As one of the few townspeople to attempt any sort of resistance to the gang, deputy Jack Starrett was making one of his very first appearances before the camera. He had played a football coach in his debut, Laughlin's 1965 film Like Father, Like Son, then went on to authority type roles in movies like the low-budget Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) with Jack Nicholson and The Gay Deceivers (1969), though he also popped up in 1974's Blazing Saddles as a stuttering cowpoke and in First Blood (1982) as a tough deputy. He emerged as the director of some awesomely fun, low-rent flicks like Slaughter (1972) with Jim Brown and Cleopatra Jones (1973) with the towering Tamara Dobson. Race with the Devil (1974), starring Peter Fonda, was a big drive-in hit. A heavy drinker, he passed away in 1989 of kidney failure at only age fifty-two.
Among the bikers are William Wellman Jr and Robert Tessier, shown here. Wellman (the lookalike son of the tough, but esteemed director) had appeared in his father's last movie Lafayette Escadrille (1958) with Laughlin and in Laughlin's Like Father, Like Son (1965) as well. He came back for The Trial of Billy Jack and Billy Jack Goes to Washington in different roles. Now retired and seventy-six years of age, he enjoyed a 60-year career working in all sorts of TV and movie projects. Tessier was a highly-imposing stuntman and movie bad guy at the start of his career here. (Oddly, his character is called “Cueball” though the normally bald actor is sporting hair!) He made an impression on me in 1974's The Four Musketeers as a headsman, but had bigger roles in The Longest Yard (1974) and The Deep (1977) and others before dying of cancer in 1990 at only age fifty-six.
Cooper had been working on TV since the early-'60s and would proceed to a featured role in David Niven's The Impossible Years (1968) before proceeding to star in several Mexican and European-made movies. In 1978, he starred in the mystical martial-arts movie Circle of Iron with David Carradine, still sporting a fit figure, then he did time on Dallas from 1979 - 1981 as Linda Gray's calm psychoanalyst. After receding from television in the mid-'80s, he turned to music, carpentry and local theatre in Sonora, California. As shown below, he sported some revealingly flimsy pants in The Born Losers.
Russell was signed for one-day of work on this film, though there was an issue when Laughlin fell ill for close to two weeks and things had to be adjusted accordingly. A sensation from the start of her film career in 1943 for The Outlaw, in which her cleavage was considered a scandal, she maintained a considerable career through the late-'50s with films like The Paleface (1948) with Bob Hope, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) with Marilyn Monroe, Underwater! (1955) and The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956) but things had cooled considerably by this time.
Russell had a rather roller-coaster life that involved an abortion at age eighteen that left her barren (she later married the father and they adopted three children), a serious battle with booze and a second husband who died less than three months after the ceremony! A third marriage lasted twenty-five years until his death. Prior to Losers, she'd done two minor westerns and afterwards her appearances were scarce.
She did, however, work on Broadway in Company for several months (as Joanne) and as a highly popular Playtex bra and girdle spokesperson in TV ads. In 1984, she joined the cast of the faltering prime-time soap The Yellow Rose, but it was swiftly cancelled. She died of respiratory failure in 2011 at age eighty-nine, by then a long-time Born-Again Christian who held much of modern Hollywood in disdain.
Far less preachy and “important” than the sequels that came after it, Losers is nonetheless very direct in its indictment of people who turn a blind eye to unrest, disobedience and violence. It's not going to be a film for everyone, but for those who enjoy the unusual (including the aforementioned campy and kinky moments), it can be quite entertaining!