Walking Tall Trilogy (1973, 1975, 1977)
Stars: Joe Don Baker, Bo Svenson, Elizabeth Hartman, Bruce Glover, Forrest Tucker
Directors: Phil Karlson, Earl Bellamy, Jack Starrett
Released by Shout Factory
Reviewed By Steven Ruskin
When Walking Tall came out in 1973 it was a huge hit. One of the advertising lines claimed that audiences stood up and cheered. The TV trailer showed people actually standing up in the movie theater and applauding. Truth be told, that did happen. There was something in the air just beginning to brew and Walking Tall tapped right into it. It was partially an update on the old western movie staple of the town tamer. It also blended in a strong dose of the vigilante as hero theme, that would later become a juggernaut for Charles Bronson thanks to Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel, Death Wish. It was among the first to ride the resurgence of interest in the American South that what would become an entire subgenre unto itself. Deep fried southern films like Macon County Line, Buster and Bille, Jackson County Jail and The Great Texas Dynamite Chase all revved onto screens starting in 1974. Walking Tall even beat the terrific Burt Reynolds vehicle, White Lightning out of the gate by a few months. What’s more this was based on a true story.
The exploits of real life Tennessee Sheriff Buford Pusser struck a nerve with the country. This man took no crap, carried a big stick and was not afraid to use it. He cleaned up a corrupt and decadent rural county almost single handedly. Walking Tall also tapped into that model that Billy Jack established in 1971. This was a people’s picture. Though this one was not aimed at the hippies. Walking Tall proudly played to the core middle American values that had had it with crooked politicians. It may have driven down the same roads as Robert Mitchum’s moonshine runner in Thunder Road, only this time the moonshiners were the bag guys and they had to go! This was for the balcony, the cheap seats, the drive-ins and the real people. It was populist entertainment that aimed to please. Who wouldn’t want to see a film about this big tall sheriff who actually busted up moonshine stills and threw crocked politicians out on their ass.
The man who directed this was Phil Karlson. Karlson had made a string of tough as nails crime and film noir pictures in the fifties that all packed a whallop featuring some of the most brutal action sequences to date. He had a down and dirty no nonsense style that was a perfect match for this rural vigilante tale. Joe Don Baker was also the kind of tough tight-lipped laconic actor that he made shine on the screen. He’d also made a very similar movie before with The Phenix City Story (1955). That was based on another true story of a corrupt rural town that elects a man to office who has to defeat the sleazy politicians and clean up the gambling in a series of bloody confrontations. This was his most popular film and he delivers a good strong action picture. Joe Don Baker has the formidable look that fits the character. He’s very affable on screen and easy to like. He needs to carry what is essentially a pretty low budget picture. Sets are dressed with a minimal look. The gambling infested clubs have cement floors, cheap tables and chairs and a few rock posters on the wall. There are a few pool tables and juke boxes. Any offices seem thrown together in minutes. This truly has the feel of a cheap exploitation picture. It’s heavy on the action and strong on tough confrontations. That style suits the material and drives the film very well. Occasionally the sentimentality gets out of hand. The overly melodramatic scenes are plentiful and don’t always fit well. Poor Buford is always getting beat up, sliced up and shot up. It does get a bit much when his nine-year-old son totes his birthday rifle into the hospital to stand guard over his dad as he brushes back tears. There are plenty of recognizable characters actors to be spotted like Gene Evans (Giant Behemoth), Kenneth Tobey (the Thing, Billy Jack), Judo Gene LeBell, Bruce Glover (Diamonds are Forever, Chinatown) and future teen idol Leif Garrett as Buford’s son (the one with the rifle).
At 125 minutes, Walking Tall does overstay its welcome. There is repetitiveness to the sheriff being left for dead and making miraculous recoveries more than a few times. The last one leaves Buford in a cast that covers him from the eyes down with little holes for his ears and mouth. He spends a lot of time in that get up and when you think the film is over there is yet another epilogue followed by a coda. Forgiving that, Joe Don Baker walks tall here and you’ve got a pretty solid southern action film. While it never quite makes up its mind whether it wants to be an exploitation, action or Hallmark TV movie style biopic, there is more than enough here to enjoy and have a great time with.
Walking Tall Part Two (1975) Watching these three back to back is a little like watching the same movie over and over again, only it gets worse each time. This one is easily the worst of the bunch. There is a paucity of action this time around. The film picks up where the first one ended and kind of tells the same story over again. We see the same streets, sets and many of the same exact cars. Grandpa and Grandma and the kids are back for the sequel, only this time Buford is played by Bo Svenson. Bo is one huge guy, who looks pretty tough, only he can’t act all that well. Much of the film has to ride on his shoulders and they are not up to it. The other two are rated R and this one is only PG that means the even balance between exploitation and wholesomeness rests maybe too far in the wrong direction this time out. It’s a dull outing with nothing much to recommend about it.
Final Chapter: Walking Tall (1977) Bo Svenson, Grandma and the kids are back but there are a couple of changes this time out. Forrest Tucker (F Troop, Crawling Eye) plays Grandpa and he is very good, as always. We get to see Buford do a bit more sheriffing around town. The film’s rating is back up to an R rating which provides another uneasy mix of sadism and sentiment. At one point a hooker who is suspected of aiding the sheriff is stripped, tied to a chair and shocked to death with car battery cables. That tough sordid scene never balances with the family values tone that permeates most of the picture. One interesting aspect in this one is that we get to see how the fame from the first film affects Buford the person in the rest of his life. There is a movie premier right in town and Hollywood is set to star Buford in the sequel. He dies in a very suspicious car accident. That this one has a bit more punch than its predecessor is likely down to director Jack Starrett who did the Cleopatra Jones films and the Warren Oates devils in the dessert flick, Race with the Devil. For those fans of the hops, the first two films are loaded with cans of Miller. There are hundreds of them in the first one alone. In the last installment, only one paltry can of Bud stands out on the bar.
All Three films are 1.78:1 and look excellent. Shout has done a fine job here. Earlier editions have been chopped into full frame or cropped in the wrong ratio. Walking Tall gets a striking upgrade and is likely the best the film has ever looked. The sequels look fine, too. Grain is present and all three still look like films. None of these will ever be a candidate for best looking film of the era, however if you are going to look this is by far your best bet. There are no chapter stops. Each film gets its own disc.
All three sport a mono track in English with no subtitles. While dialogue is always clear the mix on each varies. Music is sometimes overwrought but never that distracting. It gets the job done.
Vintage featurette for The Final Chapter, trailers and TV spots. The TV spots show people standing and applauding the screen. Definitely worth a look. The featurette is dull. There is a booklet with poster reproductions.
The main extra here, Walking Tall, The Buford Pusser Story is on the second disc though it has much more to do with the first film. It is pretty useless. We see several members of the cast taking turns all basically saying the same thing. No matter who they are asked about the answer is, “He was great to work with, a sweetheart. We still keep in touch.” Joe Don Baker, though not seen, does a very stiff reading of his thoughts about the film. Phil Karlson is not mentioned once. For shame.
On a scale of Poor, fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:
DVDs – Good/Excellent
Movies – Walking Tall – Good, Walking Tall part 2 – Poor, Final Chapter: Walking Tall – Fair