Requiem For A Pusser
Buford T. Pusser would’ve turned 75 on December 12... had he lived another four decades. Instead, the sheriff who inspired the Walking Tall movies was killed when he crashed his Corvette into an embankment, on August 21, 1974. The vehicle burned up so badly that it was impossibly to prove sabotage, but given that he’d survived being stabbed seven times and shot eight times while on the job, it’s not unlikely.
Any lawman who survives that much bodily harm is probably worthy of having a movie made about him, but Pusser became a Southern folk hero because he earned those wounds standing up to the local criminals who were tainting his stomping grounds of McNairy County, Tennessee with illegal gambling, prostitution, moonshine and other crimes befitting organizations with names such as the Dixie Mafia and the State Line Mob. The towering 6’6” Pusser – a former football and basketball player, and marine – returned home and decided to clean house, particularly the Shamrock motel and restaurant, which was a hub for good ol’ boy criminal activity. The lawman became known for carrying around a big stick (hence the title Walking Tall) to help keep people in line, and eventually gained national media attention when his wife Pauline was killed during an assassination attempt, which saw him take three bullets.
Pusser also had a reputation as brutalizing “fascist cop,” and may have hired a hit-man to avenge his wife’s murder. He also enjoyed being famous, serving as the technical advisor on Walking Tall. (The day before he died, he’d even travelled to Hollywood to sign a contract to star as himself in the sequel to the film.)
But that kind of stuff doesn’t make for a good movie mythology, so instead his story was embellished to the point of being absolutely bonkers, and thank the redneck gods for that because there’s no movie like Walking Tall. Joe Don Baker, who’s best known for supporting roles in Cape Fear, the Dukes of Hazzard remake and two Bond movies, plays Pusser, a man looking to leave behind his days as a wrestler and settle down in his hometown with the wife and kids. His Tennessee farm, which boasts not one but two catfish ponds (!), is idyllic, however, there’s something rotten going on in town. Corruption has taken hold like a cancer – gambling, prostitution, moonshine and police who look the other way are all tied to a roadside restaurant/bar/motel called The Lucky Spot. When Buford visits and calls them out for cheating at craps, he’s beaten, cut up and left in a ditch for dead.
But that’s like trying to fell a redwood with a steak knife, and after our steely hero realizes the cops won’t help him, he whittles himself a piece of hickory and starts 'a smashing. Before long he becomes the new sheriff and, along with his deputies, goes to war on the local crime ring, which fights back all kinds of muscle. Thus goes the plot, a series of escalating attacks and counter-attacks results in deaths on both sides, including Buford’s wife. By the end of the film, Pusser, wearing a Hannibal Lecter-like face cast after taking a shotgun round to the face, goes after the Lucky Spot itself.
The violence in Walking Tall is wonderfully absurd, as Buford cracks open heads with his stick, gets carved to a bloody pulp, uses wrestling movies to toss polyester-clad gangsters through poker and craps tables, and even shoots a woman in the face who fires on him. The liberally-applied, garish stage blood is almost as loud as Baker’s wardrobe, which is mostly fashion boots, tight polyester pants and mustard or ketchup-coloured shirts. It’s uproariously funny to watch a guy dressed like a ‘70s-era Sears catalogue model get in fights, shoot-outs and car chases. (On a personal note, it’s even stranger when he looks a fair bit like your dad did when you were a little kid!). And the way director Phil Karlson (known for making tough guy gangster movies) shot Walking Tall, it often looks like a cross-between a sitcom and a Dukes of Hazzard episode. Baker gives an emotionally-charged, fist-clenching performance, which makes it all that much more fun.
I discovered this Southsploitation classic during my video store days, when fans of the series would drive across town to rent it, and earlier this year Shout! Factory put out a special edition Blu-Ray with all three films (the second movies star Bo Svenson, who also played Pusser in a short-lived T.V. series), great cover art and some choice extras. The highlight bonus is a doc on Pusser, which, bizarrely has no pictures of the man himself in it, but does has former child star Leif Garrett (who played Pusser’s son in the movie), acting like he crawled through a bong to get to the interview. Funnier is Pusser’s daughter, who wears more makeup and jewellery than Tammy Faye Baker and has turned her father’s legacy into its own cottage industry. Her daughter also appears, looking like a she’s just come from a porn star beauty pageant. I’d speculate as to whether or not Buford is spinning in his grave but I assume he was buried with his stick and therefore can’t rotate much.
So, happy birthday, Buford Pusser, and thanks for inspiring such wild ride down a dirt road kinda film. May you be smashing angels ‘til your heart’s content and walking tall with wings on.