Walking Tall (1973) Carries a Big Ol Hickory Stick Back Home to Tennessee

By Crue Smith

Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser in Walking Tall
Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser in Walking Tall

Walking Tall is the story of the legendary Tennessee lawman, Buford Pusser, who with the help of his deputies cleared McNairy County of crime and corruption with nothing but character, integrity, and a four-foot, hand-carved piece of hickory that he used to crack skulls and bash apart moonshine distilleries. The locals who knew the real Buford Pusser would tell you that even though the film is largely fictional with just a sprinkle of truth, he was in fact a larger-than-life character . Nevertheless, Walking Tall helped launch Tennessee into the cultural zeitgeist. It’s a modern American myth that became an iconic part of southern culture and staple of the state of Tennessee. 

The film was directed by Phil Karlson and stars Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser. The plot functions like a modern day American Western. After a three year stint as a professional wrestler, Buford returns to his home town in the heart of Tennessee to live a quiet life with his wife and two kids. However, Buford realizes that the once wholesome McNairy county is now being exploited by a criminal syndicate. Therefore, Buford runs for county sheriff and starts an all-out war against the underworld, busting up gambling parlors, brothels, and moonshine distilleries with his stick of hickory. However, this comes with a hefty toll, as the more Buford puts pressure on the criminal underbelly, the more the criminals lash out, putting Buford’s family’s life in jeopardy. The main theme being, the price a man pays for keeping  and integrity. 

However, it’s important to realize that this film, though based on a true story, is mostly fictional. The film condenses pieces of Buford’s life and legacy into a tight-knit plot and obviously embellishes these aspects for maximum entertainment. Nevertheless, this is how most American myth came to be and the story stuck with viewers, turning Buford Pusser from a regional icon to American icon. 

The film was a box office smash for Paramount Pictures. Having a budget of $500,000, it made over $23 million domestically. It turned Joe Don Baker into a household name and watching his performance it’s easy to see why the audience, especially in Tennessee flipped for him. He was neither caricature or a stereotype. He felt authentic.     

Walking Tall is one of Phil Karlson’s best and most important films. It plays like an ultra violent revenge fantasy mixed with a Frank Capra film. It is as earnest and wholesome as it is brutal. Karlson started his career in the mid-forties, directing a whopping sixty one features to his name and in many ways Walking Tall reflects the values of his earlier Hollywood films while feeling somewhat contemporary for the time, fitting in with similar films like Death Wish, The Born Losers, and Dirty Harry. 

Walking Tall Poster

Karlson shot the film with a more practical, but effective style, only using a handful of camera set-ups per scene and shooting in daylight that contrasts the low key and neon lit gambling dens and brothels. A straightforward style for a film about a straightforward protagonist. However this could be looked at as a double edged sword. The aesthetic can come across as bland at times, and I have to wonder if a different director with a more personal vision had made this movie if it would have better stood the test of time.

After rewatching the film, I would say that some of its aspects do not hold up to today’s standards;  both in cinematic style and culturally. Yes, I think one could shave twenty minutes off the film, the aesthetic can come across as bland, and some of the political subject matter can feel a little too right-wing sometimes. However, I found myself enjoying this film much more than the majority of Southern crime thrillers from the last decade. What Walking Tall doesn’t do is talk down to its viewer, but instead presents the majority of the citizens of the county as good folks; maybe behind the times and susceptible to vice, but redeemable. I see the opposite today. Television and Filmmakers using the phrase “Southern Gothic” to exploit poverty and a skewed version of the Southeast as nothing but meth addicts and idiots living in shotgun shacks and trailer parks. The sky is always grey and the movies have oversaturated color correction. I have grown tired of these aesthetic conventions and subjects and I look back on a film like Walking Tall. Though it takes too many creative liberties with the narrative, I understand why it was such a big deal for people living in the southeast and Tennessee.

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