“When’s the last time you stood up and applauded a movie?” That was the question that the newspaper ads for Walking Tall boldly posed to prospective audiences – and for once, it was not drive-in hyperbole. Walking Tall is right up there with Billy Jack as one of the great independent film success stories of the 1970’s. It also spawned two equally successful sequels as well as t.v. movie and series incarnations. It also helped Joe Don Baker make the transition from character actor to leading man. Clearly, there was something here that struck a chord with the moviegoing public.
The root of Walking Tall‘s everyman appeal is that it was inspired by a real-life story. The plot is loosely based on the triumphs and tragedies of Buford Pusser, a small-town Tennessee sheriff who fought off oppressive odds to bring back law and order to his hometown. In the film version of his story, Pusser (Baker) is an ex-wrestler who returns home with his wife (Elizabeth Hartman) and children to lead a quiet life far from the rat race and corruption of the big cities. Unfortunately for Buford, big city corruption has seeped into his small town in the form of a criminal gang that runs gambling and prostitution, with the sheriff turning a blind eye.
Buford tries to confront the crooks when he catches them cheating a friend and he gets a savage beating for his trouble. When the sheriff ignores it, he fashions a massive wooden club from his father’s lumber yard and beats his own version of justice into the thugs. Pretty soon, friends talk him into running for sheriff and when he wins, he vows to clean up the county for once for all. However, Buford has a lot to learn about how the law works as well as the sneaky methods of his opponents – and he will pay a heavy cost to take his enemies down.
The end result is a clever crossbreed of classic Hollywood storytelling values with of-the-moment social concerns: you could argue that Walking Tall is an updated Western, one rebuilt to incorporate a distinctly 1970’s theme of “one man vs. the system.” Both elements have a strong populist pull with moviegoers and writer/producer Mort Briskin makes the most of them in his script. Briskin was a t.v. veteran and he brings a confident sense of structure and pacing to the story, carefully building the characterization of Buford and his philosophy before bringing in the revenge scenarios and action setpieces. Thus, when the action kicks in, it has a resonance that goes beyond pushing the plot forward.
And that action comes through with tremendous raw power thanks to skilled direction from another Hollywood veteran, Phil Karlson. He was a journeyman director with a special skill for gritty crime dramas like The Phenix City Story that presented the fight for law and order in visceral terms. He brings that style into the early 1970’s here, lending a muscular, no-nonsense touch to the fights and shootouts. Whether he’s depicting Buford clubbing his way through a roadhouse full of thugs or staging a bloody shotgun ambush in the middle of a car chase, Karlson brings a physical immediacy to the action that communicates its costs in bare-knuckled style. You don’t just watch the brawls and the shootings in this film, you feel them.
However, there is more to Karlson’s direction than just raw force. Aided by Jack Marta’s cinematography, he brings a stylish yet spartan look to the film’s rural Tennessee locations that fits its neo-Western style. More importantly, he gets appropriately gritty performances from his cast. Baker is obviously the lynch-pin here and he mixes down-home charm with a surprisingly deep reservoir of emotion that the film frequently draws upon. Buford does more than kick ass – the film requires him espouse his anti-“the system” philosophy with great passion and also react to intensely tragic events. Baker throws himself into the performance with operatic fervor and the white-hot intensity of his work acts as the film’s engine.
That said, Baker isn’t working alone here. Indeed, a big part of the joy in watching this film is the excellent cast of character actors. For starters, Elizabeth Hartman is excellent as Buford’s wife, Pauline, bringing a vulnerability to her role that acts as a nice contrast to Baker’s bluster. There is also strong support from Bruce Glover as Grady, who obviously enjoys getting to take a break from playing bad guys to portray a genuine character arc as a formerly corrupt deputy who becomes Buford’s right-hand man. Felton Perry delivers along similar lines as Obra, Buford’s friend who has to put his equal-rights rhetoric to the test by joining the side of the law. Elsewhere, there are villains a-plenty that add color: Rosemary Murphy earns top honors with her darkly humorous turn as grizzled female crime boss Callie Hacker but she gets quality back-up from familiar faces like Kenneth Tobey and Richard X. Slattery.
In short, Walking Tall is a controversial hit that retains its gritty, gut-punch effectiveness nearly four decades after the fact. Critics have written this film off over the years for having a simplistic moral view and being crudely manipulative towards its audience – but no one can deny the visceral power of its attack. The filmmakers and put in the strong work necessary to earn the powerful reactions the film gets. If you like your crime cinema tough and uncompromising, Walking Tall drives that agenda home with bone-crunching verve.