Posted by Richard Harland Smith on September 3, 2015
Turner Classic Movies comes roaring back into town this weekend after an absence of 400 weeks (well, feels like) with a rip-snortin’ double feature of 60s biker films that will make you want to hit the open road or hit somebody in the face while wearing dirty jeans and a Devil-may-care grin. Inspired by a pair of high profile 1964 news items — the slaying of New York bar manager Kitty Genovese and the Hells Angels intimidation of teen rape victims in Monterey — THE BORN LOSERS was the first movie to feature the character of Native American ass-kicker Billy Jack. Conceived and self-financed by actor Tom Laughlin (who would reprise the character in three more films, most notably 1971′s BILLY JACK) and his wife Delores Taylor, THE BORN LOSERS ran through its $150,000 budget mid-production and was rescued only through the intercession of Samuel Arkoff of American International Pictures, who put up $300,000 in finishing funds. THE BORN LOSERS would be AIP’s biggest moneymaker until THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979) but its box office success cuts the film little slack with cult film fans for whom BILLY JACK, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK (1974) and BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON (1977) err on the side of preachy bloviation and subpar martial arts. Assessed on its own merits, however, THE BORN LOSERS has aged remarkably well at the distance of nearly 50 years. A central concern with the value of family haunts the script, which opens not with the eponymous outlaw biker gang riding into a strange town to wreak havoc but rather returning to the hometown of leader Danny Carmody (Jeremy Slate), with whom ex-Green Beret Billy has some past history of unnamed grievances. Although he is the villain of the piece, Danny is nicely shaded as a charismatic group leader, surprisingly slow to retaliate against a teen driver whose VW bug bumps his bike until the idiot unwisely lips off; later, Danny saves his kid brother from a beating by their brutish father and is also shown to keep a wife and son in a conventional (and seemingly happy) suburban home. However sociopathic to a man, the Losers represent the film’s only functional family while Billy Jack and sardonic heroine Vicky Barrington (Elizabeth James, spending half the film in an Ursula Andress white bikini) are depicted as alienated, disenfranchised, going it alone and suffering for it. However heroically etched, Billy has given up on life and it takes the Born Losers to draw him out.
Dennis Hopper was well on his way to becoming a New Hollywood auteur when he signed on to play the leader of an outlaw biker gang in THE GLORY STOMPERS (1967), shot two years before his breakthrough as the writer-director of EASY RIDER (1969). By Hopper’s own account, his micromanagement of what should have been an easy two-week shoot, his insistence as the film’s star on multiple retakes, and his need to oversee every aspect of his performance drove first-time director Anthony Lanza to a nervous breakdown… resulting in Hopper taking it upon himself to finish the film. Made on the heels of Roger Corman’s THE WILD ANGELS(1966) – which had featured Hopper’s EASY RIDER costar Peter Fonda - THE GLORY STOMPERS is little more than a western retrofit for Harleys, with Hopper and his MC crew kidnapping another biker’s girl and the requisite pursuit of the bad guys (The Black Souls) by the good guys (the eponymous Stompers, fronted by Jody McCrea and former movie Tarzan Jock Mahoney) stretching out over hundreds of miles of Southern California blacktop into the Mexican high desert. Writing in The New York Times in March 1968, critic Howard Thompson derided THE GLORY STOMPERS as “just about rock bottom, with two groups of filthy, lecherous young animals… warring against each other, with time out for orgies.” Thompson’s condemnation was a veritable welcome mat for the drive-in and grindhouse trade, who turned the grimy little $100,000 programmer into a $3.5 million succes.
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