Running time: 125 mins
Director: Phil Karlson
Starring: Joe Don Baker, Elizabeth Hartman, Arch Johnson
Genre: Drama, Crime, Thriller
Buford Pusser is a name that to this date is held in high regard in small town
for his unflinching stances against organised crime, prostitution and gambling. His legend so large he has had no fewer than four actors portray him in one form or another. Joe Don Baker is the first, and quintessential, representation of small town family man, former Marine and Sheriff who would walk tall and carry a big stick. America
Returning home having retired as a wrestler Buford Pusser sets to work on making a quiet life for himself and his family in McNairy County Tennessee. One night, while frequenting a local gambling spot run by the
Dixie mafia he realises the games are fixed and in attempting to get back the money his friend has lost is savagely beaten and left for dead. Once recovered not only does he dispense his own type of justice but sets about on a one man mission to clear up the County and retire the mob for good.
What’s most striking about the casting of Joe Don Baker is not the uncanny resemblance between him and Pusser though it is remarkable, but how incredibly powerful he comes across in the moments of passivity on screen. Baker’s confidence is remarkable. You can’t play Pusser without a degree of confidence; all you have to do is look a decades down the line to see the type of physical actors who have taken on the modern incarnations to see that, he’s also unbelievably physical. The fight sequence in The Lucky Spot is a perfect example of this; Baker throws not just a realistic punch but hurls a man like a softball. A lot of the other actors in this sequence, and by a lot I mean most if not all, could take note from Baker as they throw pantomime punches and it detracts from the importance of this scene…a lot. Similarly Baker sells the scene by himself that takes place after the mob cut him up and what initially feels like Karlson’s poor timing as the camera lingers transforms into something of an emotional push for the audience as we urge him out of the ditch and for someone, anyone to stop for him. Elizabeth Hartman’s portrayal of Pusser’s wife Pauline needs to have a strong emotional connection, not just with Buford but for her fate to have the impact required with the audience. Sadly she falls short by most marks of measurement in this but it’s not entirely down to her as the character is underdeveloped narratively for the impact to be there though her scenes with Baker are emotionally taut it’s not enough. There’s two great old timers in Walking Tall in Noah Beery Jr. (Grandpa Carl Pusser) who’s probably most recognisable to the child of the 80’s for playing Uncle Ben in Beyond Witch Mountain and Arch Johnson as the awesomely named Buel Jaggers who’s one of the Kapos of the Dixie mafia and lends a serious patriarchal adversary to Baker’s ass kicking Sheriff.
The simplicity in the way the film is shot works to it’s advantage, it’s a small town tall and for it to have the grandiose camerawork of Touch of Evil would be odd, fortunately this isn’t an issue as Karlson is not Auteur and has peaked with Walking Tall (no offense to Elvis fans and Kid Galahad out there). There are some problems with the film, some which can’t be helped like the sound quality as at times Baker is inaudible only for moments later it to be overwhelming. Similarly the colour of the film stock used at times, especially during Buford’s time at the lumberyard, has noticeable differences in its spectrum. The film is also unnecessarily long, at two hours five minutes it’s almost a good three quarters of an hour longer than the Kevin Bray version starring Dwayne Johnson and though it’s understandable why it is the length it is, this is Buford’s story and a tribute to a hero making it difficult to editorialise, but it has wonderful peaks of interest but also troughs and pacing problems.
As great as Baker’s performance is the sequel planned for 1974 saw the production company opt against having him reprise his role in favour of Buford Pusser playing himself. The high speed road accident that killed in on August 21st put the end to those plans and saw Bo Svenson step into the role the following year in Walking Tall Part 2 aka Legend of the Lawman. He would step into Pusser’s uniform again in 77 with Walking Tall: Final Chapter before making a mockery of the meaning of the word ‘final’ by coming back in 1981 with the television series.
It’s actually remarkable that the actions of one man in a small Southern county five decades ago can still encapsulate everything that makes a ‘man with a code’. What’s most likely is that the legend of Buford Hayse Pusser will be bigger, better and more powerful than any film of his life could possibly be but Walking Tall though flawed shows how it only takes one person to stand up and be counted.