Even though the virtues of the first film in the Walking Tall series are quite humble, the franchise provides an object lesson in diminishing returns—and a crass example of Hollywood shamelessly milking a property for every penny. Critical lashings and meager box-office returns for the second and third films did not deter the films’ producers from generating a TV movie, titled A Real American Hero, about the same real-life historical figure from the Walking Tall flicks. Later, a different company picked up the reins by creating a short-lived Walking Tall TV series in 1981. And then, decades after it seemed like the Walking Tall brand was exhausted, a remake of the original film was released in 2004, and the remake begat a number of straight-to-video sequels. Why all the bother? Well, if you believe half the tall tales told about the late Buford Pusser, the subject of all of these stories, he was about as close to a real-life action hero as there ever was. A former wrestler who became the sheriff of Tennessee’s McNairy County, Pusser took on organized crime and won, purging McNairy of moonshiners, prostitutes, racketeers, and so on. Yet justice came at a terrible price. Pusser’s wife was murdered, and he himself died under mysterious circumstances while still serving as sheriff.
The first movie, simply titled Walking Tall, was based on a nonfiction book about Pusser. At the beginning of the story, Pusser (Joe Don Baker) gives up wrestling for a quiet life in McNairy County, only to discover that the area is overrun with crooks. Idealistic and stubborn, Pusser gets into hassles with the area’s criminal element, so he’s beaten and left for dead. After his recovery, he’s unable to exact justice via the legal system, so Pusser runs for sheriff and becomes a one-man vengeance squad. The title relates to Pusser’s signature weapon, a four-foot wooden club that he uses to beat evildoers (as in, “Walk tall and carry a big stick”). One of the most interesting elements of the movie is Pusser’s gradual education about things like search-and-seizure laws and suspects’ rights; he evolves from recklessly kicking ass to slyly trapping bad guys through their own misdeeds. Meanwhile, he tries to build a stable home life with his wife, Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman), and their two kids—but, of course, the grim ubiquity of danger makes that impossible.
As directed by competent journeyman Phil Karlson, Walking Tall moves along at a good clip even though it’s 125 minutes. In fact, it’s arguably the ultimate epic of brawling-redneck movies. Plus, by the time the movie slides into its final act—during which Pusser metes out bloody justice while his face is masked in bandages following a near-fatal assault—Walking Tall becomes just a little bit deranged. (How deranged? The plaintive theme song is performed by, of all people, Johnny Mathis. Seriously, Johnny Mathis.) Baker is in his natural element here, exuding badass ’tude and cornpone charm, so it doesn’t really matter that the rest of the cast is largely forgettable; only crusty character actor Noah Berry, Jr., as Pusser’s papa, makes an impression.
Sadly, the real-life Pusser died a year after the first film was released, casting a morbid pall over Walking Tall Part II, in which the statuesque Bo Svenson takes over the lead role. Lacking Baker’s charisma, Svenson struggles through emotional moments and relies on his intimidating physique to sell action scenes. Further, he seems too gentle to believably play a man who’d rather crack skulls than read suspects their rights. It isn’t giving much away to say that the original Walking Tall ends with Pusser killing the men who murdered his wife, and that Walking Tall: Part II dramatizes his attempts to arrest the gangsters who ordered the hit. The sequel adds swampy flavor, with supporting characters bearing names like “Pinky Dobson” and “Stud Pardee,” and the caliber of the supporting players is a slight improvement on the first film. Reliable actors including Luke Askew and Richard Jaeckel add energy, though leading lady Angel Tompkins is largely decorative as a temptress hired to ensnare Pusser. And while periodic car chases and shootouts keep things lively, there’s too much aimless yakety-yak—not exactly Svenson’s strong suit as a performer. Worse, the way the movie addresses the real Pusser’s death is highly unsatisfying.
The last of the ’70s Pusser flicks, the oddly titled Final Chapter: Walking Tall, is as interminable as it is unnecessary. Fabricating a thin story to depict what happened to Pusser between the climax of the previous film and his death—while, of course, presenting a wholly unsubstantiated conspiracy theory in order to name Pusser’s killers—Final Chapter: Walking Tall mostly features Pusser (Svenson again) fretting about his troubles. A long scene of Pusser weeping over his wife’s grave represents the nadir of Svenson’s acting in the series; he tries mightily but can’t conjure anything genuine. Weirdly, the makers of Final Chapter: Walking Tall often forget they’re cranking out an exploitation flick, instead trying to generate wholesome family drama. Pusser saves a kid from an abusive father, romances a girl-next-door secretary, and generally tries to set a positive example for his kids—yawn. Literally an hour of screen time elapses before serious action occurs.
Anyway, one last item for trivia buffs—two performes who appear in all three ’70s Walking Tall movies are teen idol Leif Garrett, as Pusser’s son, and character actor Bruce Glover, as Pusser’s deputy. Best known for playing a gay hit man in the 007 romp Diamonds are Forever (1971), Glover also sired oddball actor/director Crispin Glover.
Walking Tall: GROOVY
Walking Tall Part II: FUNKY
Final Chapter: Walking Tall: LAME