FINAL CHAPTER: WALKING TALL: The Gothic/Tragic Epilogue Of An American Hero Story

The filmmakers behind Final Chapter: Walking Tall did not have an enviable task to pursue.  The first two films had claimed the most commercially exploitable action and revenge-film elements from Buford Pusser’s life.  All that was left was the slow fade-out part of his story and its tragic ending.  Despite these challenges, Final Chapter: Walking Tall provides a fitting finale to the series, providing a surprisingly involving epilogue that distinguishes itself from the prior chapters with a style and a mood all its own.

If you want a clue as to that mood, the tagline from one its posters lays it out: “He showed all America how to walk tall and they called him a hero for it. Now see what America does to her heroes.” The Buford Pusser of Final Chapter: Walking Tall, played once again by Bo Svenson, is quite different from the hero in previous films.  He is a tragic, haunted figure who is weighed down by the loss of his wife.  His arch-nemesis John Witter (Logan Ramsey) is in self-exile in the North for his own protection but remains obsessed with trying to take down Buford for destroying his criminal empire.  It seems that no one escape the orbit of McNairy County – even former prostitute/informant Luan (Margaret Blye) returns to town after a failed bid at life in the city.

However, the biggest foes that Buford have to deal with are the passage of time and a shift in values.  This is represented by Martin French (Taylor Lacher), a crusading defense attorney who clashes with Buford over his old-fashioned approach to justice and works to get him removed from office.  French succeeds when Buford loses his next election and ends up being stripped of his sheriff’s badge.  Buford’s fall from grace is interrupted when Hollywood comes knocking to make a film about his life – but there’s still the matter of John Witter to be dealt with…

The end result is a fascinatingly odd combination of the action/revenge fare that Walking Tall fans are accustomed to and a character study with an almost gothic tinge of the tragic to it.  The script, penned by Walking Tall Part II author Howard Krietsek with Samuel Peeples, works in the expected car chase, fistfight and shoot-out elements but its real interest is exploring the final arc of the Buford Pusser story.   What they come up with is not unlike the “death of the Old West” films that were so popular in the 1970’s, portraying a character whose vintage values and approach to life fall out of fashion before he makes a final bid to reclaim his legend status.  It’s also worth noting that the third act goes into “meta” territory before anybody knew what that meant – and it actually uses the concept to emotional instead of ironic effect.

This is heavy stuff for a film aimed at the drive-in/exploitation market but Final Chapter: Walking Tall manages to beat the odds.  Part of this comes from the fact that the acting here is way better than you might expect.  Svenson gives the best of his multiple performances in the Pusser role, responding to the script’s demanding treatment of the character with a committed, Method-style performance.  The scenes where he talks aloud to his wife at her graveside are particularly impressive, bringing a vulnerability to the character that you wouldn’t imagine in this kind of film.

The supporting cast gives Svenson excellent backup.  Forrest Tucker replaces Noah Beery in the role of Carl, Buford’s father, and brings an effortless folksy charm to his work while Sandy McPeak brings a solid yet subtle presence to his work as Buford’s concerned lawyer pal, Lloyd.  Lacher makes a worthy philosophical adversary as the ambitious lawyer and Blye is touching in a few scenes as the ex-lady of the night with feelings for her old friend.  Even the small roles boast memorable performances: Clay Tanner steals a few scenes as a gleefully nasty convict and Morgan Woodward is menacing in a soft-spoken way as Witter’s boss.

That said, the best of the non-Svenson performances here comes from Ramsey in the role of John Witter.  Though he never interacts directly with Svenson, he makes his presence felt throughout the film via his handful of scenes.  His work is scary and darkly humorous all at once as he paints a vivid portrait of a man going mad from his desire for vengeance.

The final and most important piece of the puzzle is strong work from director Jack Starrett.  He was a veteran of the drive-in film scene by the time he made this film and brings the steady craftsmanship of a studio system-era director to his work here.  As noted above, he gets the cast to go the extra mile in a way that Walking Tall Part II did not.  Better yet, his direction of action – always a Starrett specialty – is fantastic here.  The highlight of the action category is a beautifully executed siege-on-a-roadhouse sequence with some bravura brawling and a fiery finale.

In short, Final Chapter: Walking Tall is an unusually gutsy closing chapter for this popular series.  Svenson gives his definitive performance in the Buford Pusser role, the script takes a variety of interesting chances and Starrett’s direction makes it all work.  It’s a film deserving of rediscovery by exploitation flick enthusiasts and a bookend to the series that is well worth the time for anyone who loved the first film.

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