Appellate Judge Tom Becker walks just below average height.
When was the last time you stood up and applauded a movie?
Buford Pusser (1937-1974) was a real-life sheriff in a small Tennessee burg who fought corruption with an almost monomaniacal zeal. His trademark was a big stick that he used to bust up gambling operations and stills.
His story was made into a book and then a film, with incidents "based on" his exploits. Walking Tall was a wildly successful film in 1973—"wildly successful" in that it was low-budget, hicks-with-sticks drive-in fare that broke out, made back around 50 times its budget, and was the 14th top grossing film of its year.
Pusser's take-no-prisoners approach to keeping the peace made him a controversial figure, particularly locally, but an America that had recently embraced "Dirty" Harry Callahan and "Popeye" Doyle took this rural vigilante-with-a-badge to heart. Pusser became a household name and celebrity, and was even slated to star in the sequel to Walking Tall until his death in a car accident—an incident that even today, some believe was an assassination.
There were three Walking Tall films released between 1973 and 1977, plus a Pusser TV movie that aired in 1978, and a TV series that ran a few episodes in the early '80s. Shout! Factory now gives us the three theatrical films—Walking Tall: The Trilogy—on Blu-ray.
The measure of a man is how tall he walks.
In Walking Tall, we meet Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker, Mitchell), an ex-wrestler who moves with his family back to his home in Tennessee. Since Buford left, his small town has become a mini den of sin. A friend of Buford's takes him to the local hot spot, a run-down bar that features illegal gambling and a whore house—well, actually a whore trailer, this being the back woods.
When Buford objects to the illegal goings-on—particularly a craps game with loaded dice—he gets into a fight. Overpowered, he is beaten, cut up, and left for dead. Unfortunately, no one will testify about what happened, and since the chief of police and the local judge are in cahoots with criminals, there's no legal remedy for our poor, honest, and bull-like hero.
So Buford takes matters into his own hands, returning to the bar with a big stick. He inflicts major damage with the stick, but ends up being arrested for assault. During his trial, he dramatically strips off his shirt, showing his scarred body. This earns him an acquittal, and soon he's running for sheriff in an effort to displace the corrupt officials who support the corrupt criminals.
Buford's effort to rout organized crime and shut down moonshine operations gains him the respect of the citizens and the contempt of the bad guys. He survives a number of assassination attempts—on both his body and his character. Just when he thinks he's pretty much won the war, the State Line Mob pulls out a trump card: paid killers who set out to slaughter the sheriff and end up taking out someone close to him instead.
If anything happens to me, I want you to be sure you finish telling my story.
Walking Tall: Part II picks up where the first film ends, with a hospitalized Buford miraculously recovering from his injuries; only, when the bandages come off, we see that Buford is now portrayed by Bo Svenson (The Inglorious Bastards). Re-elected sheriff, Buford spends his time chasing after moonshiners and fending off a variety of attempted hits. His real goal: find the men responsible for the botched hit that closed the first film and bring them to justice—Pusser-style justice.
Buford Pusser…now there was a man!
Final Chapter: Walking Tall also picks up around the time Part II began, only this time, it pretty much zips through Buford's second term as sheriff, highlighting his unorthodox practices—which, suddenly, make people see him as something of a civil rights violator. When he's up for election again, he loses. Despite all the work he's done for the people, they turn their backs on him, leaving him at the mercy of his long-standing enemies. Buford can't land another job and finds himself in serious straits. A solution arrives in the form of a Hollywood producer, who wants to make a film of Buford's life—the original Walking Tall. Just as Buford's life seems to be back on track, tragedy strikes, bringing the saga to its inevitable close.
The original Walking Tall is a great piece of populist entertainment. The honest hero vs. corrupt establishment theme plays out like something Frank Capra might have made, if Capra had made dark, rural action movies. A title card in the beginning lets us know that the film is "based on" Pusser's exploits, and the film goes farther toward creating a legend than documenting one.
It's slick and simple, but undeniably rousing, particularly the iconic scene in which Pusser trashes a red-light bar and a bunch of bad guys with a stick. It's an incredibly visceral scene, and not only because of the almost nauseating level of violence: there is always something exhilarating about watching bullies get their comeuppance, and the fierce, gruesome, and economical vengeance is very satisfying. It helps that the "bad guys" are all unattractive, unappealing types, usually overweight with excessive facial hair. The film also tackles topics like race (this is Tennessee in the '60s, so it comes up), sex, and class differences in a reasonably (for the genre) straightforward manner.
Joe Don Baker gets one of his best roles here, and he makes the most of it. He's got the larger-than-life hero business down pat, but with enough humanity that he doesn't become cartoonish. Elizabeth Hartman (You're a Big Boy Now) is fine in the somewhat underwritten role as Pusser's wife, with Bruce Glover (Chinatown) and Felton Perry (Magnum Force) turning in solid work as Pusser's deputies, and Brenda Benet (Harum Scarum) very good as a sympathetic prostitute.
The remaining Tall films don't come close to measuring up.
When the real Buford died before starting work on Walking Tall: Part II, Bo Svenson was brought in to replace him. Svenson, with his open, smiling face and bland presence, doesn't command the screen the way Baker did. He plays Pusser in both follow-ups.
Walking Tall: Part II is pretty much a rehash of the first, only without the background stuff, which means it's pretty much wall-to-wall chases and action scenes. Unfortunately, these just don't play out as excitingly as they should. A major subplot here is that one of the bad guys from the first installment, John Witter (Logan Ramsey, Scrooged)—the guy behind the failed hit—is still trying to kill Buford. The whole thing takes on a Wile E. Coyote vs. Roadrunner vibe as Witter keeps hiring yokels to do in the sheriff and Pusser keeps thwarting his plans. Since we know what really happened to Pusser, there are no surprises when the sheriff survives explosions, rigged cars, and a backwoods femme fatale (Angel Tompkins, The Teacher). It's all pretty mediocre—and despite copious bloodshed and a quick shot of Tompkins' breasts, rated PG.
The last installment, Final Chapter: Walking Tall, is not only the worst of the trilogy, but a pretty miserable experience in its own right. Much of it is exposition, re-introducing characters and events from the first film, often in clumsy ways ("It's one year ago today, Buford," Pusser's Ma notes in the beginning, bringing us up to speed time-wise). The ugly villains are even uglier, the speeches about good versus evil are speechier, the performances are so broad they're burlesque, and things like subtlety and characterization have no more place in this Buford's world than a five dollar hooker and a cup of moonshine.
Final Chapter is even more simplistic than the first two. Near the end of the film, a Los Angeles film producer happens to catch a 30-second story about Buford on the news. Since Buford's lost his re-election bid, is no longer sheriff, and is actually almost bankrupt, it seems odd that TV news is doing stories about him at this point; I'm also pretty certain that the movie came about from a book that was written about Pusser (The Twelfth of August) and not some random sound bite on the 6:00 news; even for a '70s drive-in film, this is a ridiculously simple-minded take on events.
It's also a little too creepily self-referencing when, near the end of the film, Buford and his family go to the movies to see—Walking Tall, the original, though the sound we hear from the movie screen isn't from the first film, but something the filmmakers created. It's weird and surreal in the way that the third installment of The Happy Hooker trilogy, which also dealt with the making of the first film, was weird and surreal.
Walking Tall: Final Chapter is also the weakest from a tech standpoint, with a bland looking image—though the whole thing looks like a low-rent, made-for-TV movie—and dreadful audio that sounds tinny and over-modulated. Walking Tall: Part II looks and sounds marginally better, but again, the way it was shot makes it look like a TV movie. Like the third part, the second also boasts lousy audio—it's obvious when someone has been overdubbed, as it sounds completely different from the rest of the audio in the scene.
The original Walking Tall features the best image and audio. The 1080p picture is reasonably clear and film-like, and the DTS mono track sounds fine.
Walking Tall: The Trilogy (Blu-ray) offers the films spread over two discs, with the first two films on one and Final Chapter on the other. Shout! Factory offers up a couple of interesting supplements. The best is a new featurette with interviews from various cast members as well as friends and relatives of Pusser, including his daughter and granddaughter. Leif Garrett and Dawn Lyn (who play Pusser's children in all three films) offer comments, as does Glover and Baker (who doesn't appear on-screen). This is a nice look-back. There's also a vintage featurette that accompanies Final Chapter in which locals who knew Pusser talk about him (glowingly) while the third installment is being made. TV spots, galleries, and trailers (though no trailer for the original, unfortunately) round out the set.
Walking Tall is an iconic bit of '70s pop culture that should be seen at least once; the sequels are the kind of less-interesting crap that pop culture icons necessarily breed. Shout! Factory's set offers acceptable tech and a couple of interesting supplements.
Nobody's going to call Buford Pusser guilty, least of all me.
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• Vintage Featurette
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