Billy Jack is introduced as an enigmatic, half-Indian Vietnam veteran who shuns society, taking refuge in the peaceful solitude of the California Central Coast mountains. His troubles begin when he descends from this unspoiled setting and drives into a small beach town named Big Rock (Morro Bay). 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 too afraid to help or be involved in any way. Billy Jack jumps into the fray and rescues the man by himself. At this point the police arrive and arrest Billy for using a rifle to stop the fight. (The irony here is that, unknown to Billy, the motorist is the one who starts the fight by inexplicably insulting one of the bikers.)
The police throw Billy in jail and the judge fines him heavily for discharging a rifle in public. He is treated with suspicion and hostility by the police. Meanwhile, the marauding bikers terrorize the town, rape four teenage girls (Jane Russell plays the mother of one of the girls), and threaten anyone slated to testify against them. One of the girls, played by Susan Foster, later recants, saying she willingly gave herself to the biker gang. (Foster would go on to play a larger supporting role in Billy Jack.)
Co-scriptwriter Elizabeth James plays Vicky Barrington, a bikini-clad damsel-in-distress who is twice abducted and abused by the gang. The second time, she and Billy are kidnapped together. After Billy is brutally beaten, Vicky agrees to become the gang's sexually compliant "biker mama" if they release Billy. At the police station, Billy is unable to get help from the police or the local residents and must return to the gang's lair to rescue Vicky by himself.
Billy, armed with a M-1 Garand rifle, captures the gang, shoots the leader (Jeremy Slate) between the eyes, and forces some of the others to take Vicky, who's been badly beaten, to the hospital. As the police finally arrive, Billy abruptly rides away on one of the gang's motorcycles.
The anti-authority sentiment continues up to the end when a police deputy accidentally shoots Billy in the back, mistaking him for a fleeing gang member. He is later found, nearly dead, lying by the shore of a lake. He is placed on a stretcher and is flown to the hospital in a helicopter as Vicky and the sheriff give him a salute.
The movie was filmed on location in California at Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Rancho Palos Verdes, University of California, Los Angeles, Big Sur, Morro Bay, and other coastal locales. The bikers' lair in Seal Beach was once owned by silent film star Rudolph Valentino as a hideaway from Hollywood.
According to Laughlin's DVD audio commentary, filming was completed in just three weeks on an operating budget of $160,000. To cut costs, a stunt scene of a biker crashing into a pond was taken from American International's 1966 comedy The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. The movie was not released until 1968.
Laughlin ran out of money during post production, but showed the film to American International Pictures who bought out the original investors and gave Laughlin $300,000 to finish it.
The film was commercially successful, and resulted in Laughlin being able to raise the funds to make its sequel, Billy Jack. In 1974, after the sequel proved financially successful, American International Pictures re-released Born Losers with the taglines "The film that introduced Billy Jack" and "Back By Popular Demand: "Born Losers" The Original Screen Appearance of Tom Laughlin as Billy Jack". The film was the highest grossing American International release until 1979, when The Amityville Horror was released.
Although highly successful at the box office, critical response was generally negative. Film critic Leonard Maltin criticized Laughlin's films for "using violence as an indictment of violence".
In 1967 the film earned an estimated $2,225,000 in North American rentals.
The movie was re-released by AIP in 1974 following the success of Billy Jack. AIP issued ads which proclaimed "THE ORIGINAL BILLY JACK IS BACK!" which led to a lawsuit from Laughlin. Following Laughlin's lawsuit, the advertising for the re-release of Born Losers was changed. All newspaper advertising had to include the disclaimer "This is a Re-release" to make viewers aware that the film was not the film Billy Jack.
By 1976 it had earned $11.5 million in North American rentals.
Born Losers was released in the Eastern Bloc, first in the Hungarian People's Republic as Halálfejesek (Death's-heads). The film is synchronized by cultic Hungarian actors, with Zoltán Latinovits, Gábor Agárdy, Gyula Szabó, or Éva Almási. The film was shocking and very popular in Hungary, the tickets sold out near the cash of the Pushkin Cinema in Budapest. Three days later, the film was banned in Hungary. Forty years later, the film again is prevalent in amateur downloader circles and on YouTube.