Joe Don Baker is Buford Pusser, real-life Sheriff of McNairy County, Tennessee, in this violent drive-in classic from 1973. Directed by Phil Karlson, Walking Tall is the fictionalized account of one man’s war on crime in rural America.
After giving up his career as a wrestler and returning home with his wife, Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman), and kids to McNairy, Pusser finds that his home county has been invaded by organized crime. Gambling dens and houses of ill-repute have opened in the once-lazy locale, and Pusser doesn’t hold with any of that. After getting angry and trying to beat up an entire casino, Pusser is cut to ribbons and left for dead on the side of the road. But, the bad folks of McNairy underestimated Pusser’s resolve. Being almost murdered just made Pusser angrier, and he continues going after the criminal element.
This leaves him on the bad side of the county’s current sheriff, Al Thurman (Gene Evans). Thruman makes a pretty good living on the side taking payoffs from the brothel and casino owners, and spends all of his time in this flick countering Pusser’s moves.
Deciding that there’s nothing to be done while Thurman remains sheriff, Pusser decides to run for sheriff in the upcoming elections. He’s no longshot, as the law-abiding citizens of McNairy have had enough of Thurman and his shenanigans. Pusser’s cause is helped when Thurman thoughtfully dies. In the film the death is portrayed as the unfortunate result of an attempt on Pusser’s life, while out in the real world the sheriff’s death had nothing to do with Pusser, although the outcome, Pusser being elected sheriff, was the same.
In fact, this movie bears only passing resemblance to the events that occurred in McNairy County, and which drew enough national press attention to warrant a movie, and that’s just fine. The filmmakers never pretended they were sticking with the facts. In lieu of those facts, we viewers get a whole lot of cliché and melodrama, which isn’t no good. But, since this is a drive-in flick, we get lots of blood, which is good!
The baddies in this flick prefer guns, while, for most of the film, Pusser’s chose of weapon is a big wooden club he whittled from a tree branch. It’s one of the more hilarious affectations I’ve ever seen in a movie. If some real-life sheriff started carrying around a caveman club to show he’s tough on crime, my first thought would be, “Wow, what an asshole.” In movieland, it’s awesome. When Pusser swings his big ole telephone pole it smacks into heads and bodies with a reverberating thump, followed by a spray of blood. He hit one guy in the shoulder, and still there was a spray of blood. He smacks another dude in the arm, and guess what? Spray of blood. Pusser looks at a bad guy and points the stick in his general direction…spray of blood.
After beating his way through the local criminals, Pusser would seem to have things in hand. Only, the baddies aren’t done, yet. The escalations continue. Back and forth they all go. More beatings, more shootings, more blood, until the climax near the end of the film makes things a little too real. Up until the final scenes, Walking Tall had been a rollicking festival of absurdity. Joe Don Baker as a leading man is far from what audiences raised on Hollywood leading men have come to expect. The look on his face when his character gets angry conveys confusion as much as it does anger. And that’s about it for range. Baker is just a big lunkhead of a dude, who happened to be perfect for the role.
There’s a lot of ham-handed attempts to address the social injustices of the day, which makes sense. This flick did take place in the south in the shadow of the civil rights movement. I applaud the effort, but it is, thankfully, peripheral to the glorious moments when Pusser is bringing the law to the lawless.
Walking Tall is about as close to stupid as a fun movie can be without tumbling over the edge. It has simple moralizing and also a fair bit of naivete, but director Karlson threw in enough exploitation techniques to keep it watchable. At over two hours, this would have been an interminable flick were it not for a decent pace, and a decent amount of ass-kicking. There’s even some nuance to be had in the film, were one to look closely. I don’t recommend doing that, however. Rather, just sit back and enjoy watching one of film’s top ten mumblers beat the crap out of people with a log.