Walking Tall | Varied Celluloid

Walking Tall

Posted by Josh Samford On May - 14 - 2012

Walking Tall (1973)
Director: Phil Karlson
Writers: Mort Briskin, Stephen Downing, John Michael Hayes
Starring: Joe Don Baker, Felton Perry, Elizabeth Hartman, and Leif Garrett.



The Plot: Bufford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) is a former professional wrestler who has recently given up the limelight and decided to retire home to the countryside state line between Tennessee and Mississippi. His parents and old friends are excited to see him back, but there is a certain atmosphere that brews beneath the surface of the serene world that greets Buford. It seems that his one-time simple hometown has become a haven for organized crime! Moonshine liquor and underground gambling dens are the biggest forms of criminal activity, but with these small forms of crime come much larger acts of violence. When Buford attempts to stand up for the local citizens, he is nearly beaten to death. Eventually, he discovers that the criminals that run his small town have even forced their powers into the highest offices of local government. With anger building within the citizenry, Buford decides to stand up to the law and run for Sheriff himself. Once he is inevitably elected, he replaces the entire staff with handpicked men who feels that he can trust. With his new crew, Buford heads out with the intent of putting an end to the local mob. However, with this war against crime also comes a war against Bufford, and he will have to find a way to survive in this violent era.

The Review
There are many things to be said about Walking Tall, but it seems as if the series has been well covered throughout the years. Although these movies are relegated to specific minorities, they are especially indented within select cultures. I am of course speaking specifically about Southern culture within the United States. Growing up as a poor Southern boy, I was aware of Buford Pusser’s legend from a very young age. My parents would tell me stories about his exploits while fighting the Dixieland Mafia (commonly known as the Dixie Mafia), and how he carried a large stick with him which he would use to bash any would-be mafioso who tried to hustle within his territory. I was in my early teenage years when I first sat through the Walking Tall series back-to-back, and these movies quickly became favorites of mine. The original feature that we are looking at today is to be considered one of the very best pieces of true Southern stoicism from the seventies. In recent years, some others have tried to add a title to these movies (“hixploitation”), but in reality these movies tend to have very little in common with each other, outside of their proud Southern heritage. Walking Tall is the idealized Southern view of machismo, and it is required viewing for any fan of 1970s exploitation.

When you look at the differences between this film and the remake of the same name featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, you have to notice the tonal differences between the two movies. Although the remake had its doses of serious drama, it was by and large a much more humorous affair. And while this film most assuredly has some key comedy factors playing in its favor – it is a very somber affair for the most part. I won’t say that comedy isn’t a very integral fixture within this film, it most certainly takes a back seat to both the action and the nefarious activities taking place around Buford Pusser. This of course means that the violence is amplified, but so is the nudity and general adult activities. The violence is a mostly bloodless affair, but there are select sequences that should still be relatively shocking for mainstream audiences. To see a woman shot in her face, twice, in expert detail, is not an everyday occurrence for most viewers. During another sequence that focuses on a woman who has been kidnapped and stripped nude, we watch as she is beaten across her back with belts until she is left bloody. Walking Tall can be a relatively gruesome affair at times, to be honest. However, it can also be a very serene movie with family ideals at its core. The levels of depravity that are to come during the film are rarely hinted at during the quintessentially “southern” introduction to the film. Then, during key moments, the filmmakers provide the perfect balance of nostalgia and wonder while stoking the fires that will inevitably come. This buildup to total depravity is part of the reason why the movie walks a very slim line between exploitation and general drama.

Joe Don Baker was never a fantastic actor, for the most part, but he was an actor with great charisma and screen presence. Although his range was essentially mocked as being “tough, funny, and even tougher,” he managed to carve out a very interesting place within the world of cinema. Known better today for his string of b-movies during the latter part of his career, he was an actor who could command a great deal of authority when necessary. Starring as a young man in this film, Baker looks spruce and very able. Although the majority of the movie requires him to be a quiet and reserved toughguy, Baker is given a few very tough scenes to hash out some very real drama. There is a sequence revolving around the death of a pet that is both unnerving due to Baker’s commitment to the intensity of the scene, and also slightly humorous because it is one of the few moments where Baker drops his shield of invulnerability – and it is over a dog. Ultimately, this is Joe Don Baker at his most accessible to audiences, and although he would become an even more rugged man during his later years, it is perfectly understandable how he fit the ideal of a leading man when it came to casting Walking Tall. He carries a charm to him that compliments his slightly brutish appearance. You can believe that this man was once a pro wrestler, and yet he doesn’t intimidate the audience. He’s a big man that can be seen as an “everyday guy,” and most of this comes down to Baker’s ability to charm the pants off of his audience.

Walking Tall may not be the most faithful depiction of Buford Pusser’s life, but it does serve as a greatest hits album detailing his most notorious moments. To get into the small details would spoil the movie, but it is important to note that what makes the man legendary, as well as what makes the movie almost hard to believe, is the insanity that this man managed to survive. Although he would inevitably die under strange circumstances, Pusser managed to live through more in his life than some men who have survived in overseas war zones. In real life, he was shot three times, stabbed seven times, ran over, and even survived a shotgun blast to his face. Most of this is covered throughout Walking Tall, even though many of the facts and events are entirely fictionalized. This seems to distract from the film a bit, because ultimately the unusual circumstances become mundane within the cinematic world. In the cinematic world, our heroes are expected to survive these horrible things. Although the movie tries its best, it rarely takes the time to remind the audience of the frightening reality behind this story. The most notable sequence that displays the harsh reality of Buford Pusser’s life comes near the dramatic close of the movie, where Joe Don Baker spends several key moments within the movie wearing a cast that completely covers his face. The audience is reminded that in real life the heroes don’t always walk away without aching joints or broken bones, sometimes the heroes are regular people just like us. This means that sometimes our heroes actually die.


The Conclusion
To be blunt, I likely look upon Walking Tall with rose-tinted glasses due to my cultural investment in the movie. Still, for those of you who love seventies exploitation, I can promise that the movie is guaranteed entertainment. I am actually giving it my highest award, because in my opinion it is a landmark for exploitation cinema. This is one of the “greats,” and although I can acknowledge that it has faults, I think it is so incredibly entertaining that it more than makes up for any slipups along the way. Highly recommended, so pick up the Shout! Factory combo pack as soon as possible!




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