The Walking Tall Trilogy (DVD)
Directed by: Phil Karlson / Earl Bellamy / Jack Starrett
Starring: Joe Don Baker / Bo Svenson
Advertised as the “original revenge film,” Walking Tall is a ’70s classic that I’m not sure would appeal to today’s audience even though there seems to be a resurgence in the popularity of heroes in revenge films with films like Taken. The movie was popular enough to spawn two sequels in the ’70s, a television movie, a television series (albeit short-lived) and eventually a remake with its own two direct-to-DVD sequels. This review covers the ’70s theatrical films that have been released as a trilogy in a single package.
When Walking Tall was originally released in 1973, I was only eleven years old, but for some reason, I have a strong memory of this film’s impact. The movie was R-rated, so neither I nor any of my friends nor even my older brother saw the movie in the theatre on its initial release. Perhaps it played at the drive-in, but I don’t recall seeing it then. As far as heroes go, my admiration was growing for Bruce Lee, whose death in 1973 is something I remember vividly even though I didn’t realize its significance; however, Buford Pusser, the real-life hero whose life Walking Tall is based on, was not someone with whom I identified. But television commercials for the film probably ingrained into my brain the image of a large man clobbering people with a large stick.
Basically, the story of Walking Tall is of a former wrestler, Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker), who retires with his family to live a simple life with his parents, but is instead drawn into a battle trying to clean up corruption and crime with gambling, prostitution, and illegal distilleries being the three main targets. The ending title scroll of the film says that the film is a fictionalized account of Buford Pusser’s life, but I understand that he actually did carry a big stick around with him for a while. I have always associated this with an adage attributed to American President Theodore Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.” Supposedly a West African proverb, the word “speak” has occasionally been replaced with “walk,” and the adage shortened by omitting the understood “you will go far” part. I have no idea if Buford Pusser was inspired by this adage, or a big stick was simply handy to use.
Since the story does take place in a modern age, you can imagine a big stick will only get you so far, and Pusser eventually has to resort to using firearms especially when he gets himself elected Sheriff. While watching how Pusser learns the rules of being an official lawman, you have to wonder how many elected officials do mess up during their learning period. In the beginning, Pusser seems pretty ignorant in that he doesn’t even know that you need a search warrant! I would hope the filmmakers are taking poetic license in this case.
I don’t know why Walking Tall would be called the “original revenge film” other than a result of hyperbole exercised by the promotion department. It did precede Death Wish by a year, so it may have inspired a spate of other revenge films. But many Asian films have revenge as the main theme with a training montage involved to show how the hero becomes powerful enough to exact revenge. (Buford Pusser was a former wrestler, so Walking Tall dispenses with showing Pusser training, but we do get to see Pusser creating his big stick.) And I believe many previous films including Westerns have used the stock plot of a villain killing a family, but overlooking a child who later grows up to seek revenge.
The violence is tame by today’s standards, but there is still one moment which surprised me that I won’t ruin for you. As for the brawls, I don’t think I recognized too many wrestling moves used by Pusser. I think his size is his main advantage. He does seem to be lucky beyond the stretch of imagination, but at least he does get injured. The car chases are your standard Dukes of Hazzard fare.
I saw an edited version of Walking Tall on television in the 80s, I think. Seeing it again after all these years, I can’t say I was bored at any time even though there are really no outstanding scenes. This film does have the quickest courtroom scene that I’ve ever seen. This is surprising since the film clocks in at just over two hours.
Actually, one scene did seem unusual. Pusser’s son (Leif Garrett, later to become a teen heart-throb), who must be like 12 years old, carries a rifle into the hospital to see his dad. Everyone just feels pity as they witness the son visiting his dad. Apparently, it was okay for kids to bear firearms back then. Maybe it still is in Tennessee.
The success of Walking Tall resulted in a sequel, strangely titled, Part 2: Walking Tall. Not Walking Tall: Part 2, although it’s also known by that name. For some reason that is not readily available, Joe Don Baker passed on the opportunity to reprise his role. Then the real-life Buford Pusser was offered the role. (Apparently, the producers didn’t think acting ability was required.) He accepted, but then died in an auto accident that some people suspected was a result of foul play.
Eventually, Bo Svenson , an ex-Marine, took over the role of Buford Pusser for the second and third films. He had been a judo champion in the U.S. Armed Forces. He was more muscular than Joe Don Baker, and had the height as well, so he seemed well-cast. Before being cast, he was a Ph.D. candidate in meta-physics at UCLA! After release of the second film, some people thought he was a “most promising actor.” Recently, Quentin Tarantino seems interested in reviving his career.
In Part 2 Walking Tall, Buford Pusser has to deal with hitmen since the local villains failed to “get him out of the picture” in the first film. Unusually, one of the hitmen is a race-car driver who kills people by running them off the road. Also a temptress is hired to seduce him. The scriptwriter is obviously trying to find ways to corrupt our hero.
Along with The Walking Tall Trilogy, I was sent a recent Hong Kong film called Accident. That film involves hitmen killing people by staging elaborate accidents. In my review of that film, I mentioned that the paranoid protagonist used a leaf in order to tell if someone had opened his door. In order to determine if someone has tampered with his car under the hood, Pusser uses a piece of transparent tape applied to where the hood meets the body of the car.
I found this second film less involving than the first one and the conclusion less satisfying. I have a preference for Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser, because he seemed to me to be more unbalanced and therefore more charismatic. Pusser was injured drastically in the first film, and seemed more vulnerable.
Even though Part 2: Walking Tall wasn’t as popular as the original and its ending seemed to indicate that a trilogy wasn’t planned, someone must have thought there was still money to be made. Since making the second film with a parental guidance rating hadn’t increased the box-office, the third film returned to the original’s restricted rating. One of the co-writers of the final installment is Samuel A. Peeples, who wrote the second Star Trek pilot!
With Final Chapter: Walking Tall, Buford Pusser deals with a child-beater, juvenile delinquents, police brutality, civil rights, election politics, obsolescence, financial problems, and helping an abused kid and a prostitute. This film also brings back the big stick, which was missing from the second film. There is one attempt at humour that is missing from the previous two films.
What I found most interesting about this film is the post-modern twist it takes when it depicts the events of Buford Pusser’s life being made into a movie. It even goes into the real-life event of Pusser being cast for Part 2: Walking Tall! Unfortunately, if you’ve been paying attention, I’ve already ruined the end of this film for you.
Given that this film seems to be all over the place in terms of the topics tackled, one might think that it’s a mess, but I enjoyed it. Although the sequels were not as popular as the original, the Hollywood trade paper Variety ranks Part 2: Walking Tall and Final Chapter: Walking Tall among the top fifty highest-earning, independently-produced films of all time.
While the Walking Tall films are seen as inspirational films of an American hero who stood up for what he believed, the deaths of people close to Pusser illustrate the price one pays, and serve as sobering reminders for anyone who might want to emulate him. Pusser stood for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” but he was only human unlike the comic book hero who also stood by this motto. These films erase any doubts as to why superheroes need secret identities to protect their loved ones although surprisingly, all the villains Pusser encounters have the decency to not target his family. Most of the deaths simply occur due to botched attempts at Pusser’s life.
Although the real-life Buford Pusser’s exploits started in the ’60s, the Walking Tall films are reflective of the ’70s when Watergate broke and corruption could be found at the highest level of government. The theme of “one man standing up for what is right” was already popular due to films like Dirty Harry and Billy Jack, both released two years earlier. The Dirty Harry films were more popular, probably due to Clint Eastwood, but I think there was a more apparent reason why the Walking Tall sequels followed the common trend of sequels being less popular. I think because the filmmakers wanted to keep a semblance to Pusser’s real life, the plots of the sequels were constrained.
Concerning the DVDs, I found it strange that there was no Chapter Selections option in the menu even though chapter stops exist. I really wish there was a subtitles option, because the Southern accents made it difficult for me to understand some dialog. There is a new documentary narrated by Joe Don Baker. Some cast members as well as members of Buford Pusser’s family appear onscreen as they are today.
When Walking Tall was remade in 2004 with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the character’s name was no longer Buford Pusser. I assume the filmmakers wanted to take more liberties with the plot. Coincidentally, two sequels were also made with another actor, Kevin Sorbo, in the lead role although playing a different character. I’ve not seen any of these films, but I am curious as to how they compare with the originals.
If someday you find yourself in Tennessee, be sure to check out the Buford Pusser Home and Museum. I wonder if you can buy a replica of his big stick. — Reed
Part 2 Walking Tall:
Final Chapter Walking Tall: