The High Strangeness of the Original Walking Tall Trilogy

The life of Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser spawned what may be the most unexpectedly weird franchise ever.

In the early 1970s, the NBC affiliate in Green Bay, Wisconsin, WFRV, offered a program called The Early Show, which broadcast uncut films every weekday afternoon between 3:30 and 5:30. The Early Show became the core of my fundamental cinematic education.

Every day after school I was offered a grab-bag of genres and stars, from war movies and indie horror films to Westerns and ‘30s screwball comedies. A couple of times a year they would set weeks aside to broadcast Toho, Hammer, John Wayne, or Jimmy Stewart films exclusively, and every now and again they would screen recent drive-in hits like The Wild Angels, Dracula vs. Frankenstein, or Macon County Line. It was a damn sight better than that stupid Mickey Mouse Club, which aired at the same time on a competing station. 

I first saw Walking Tall shortly after its initial theatrical run when The Early Show aired it unfathomably uncut on a Wednesday afternoon, and it changed everything. Never had I seen this level of violence on screen before, and it made an indelible impression on me. It was shocking, disgusting, and far more terrifying than anything I could hope to find in a standard horror film.

This wasn’t cartoon monster violence or a winking Herschel Gordon Lewis bloodbath, this was realistic and gut-wrenching human violence. It was violence with believable and tragic consequences. Thousands of rounds of ammunition may have flown in Peckinpah’s widely condemned Wild Bunch, but you didn’t see characters having their chests repeatedly gouged open with a knife, or beaten with a baseball bat, or crawling around the side of the highway soaked in their own blood. Not on TV you didn’t, anyway, at least not in 1974. To this day I still consider it more horror film than drama, and still have no idea how WFRV got away with it, but bless them for it.

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In 1962, Buford Pusser, a professional wrestler known as Buford the Bull, retired from the ring and moved back home to Tennessee with his wife and kids, hoping for a quieter, more peaceful rural life. Unfortunately in the years since he moved away, McNairy County, near the Tennessee-Mississippi border, had been overrun with gambling, prostitution, and free-flowing moonshine thanks to a local crime syndicate sometimes called the Dixie Mafia.

Mortified by what had become of his sleepy and innocent hometown, Pusser ran for McNairy County Sheriff in 1964 and won after the incumbent died in a car accident. Upon taking office, Pusser undertook what was essentially a one-man war against vice and corruption, often with very bloody results, as he tried to drive the mob out of the county.

The often brutal campaign made him a folk hero among the upstanding locals, and also made him the target of over half a dozen assassination attempts, including a 1967 ambush that left his wife dead and Pusser requiring reconstructive surgery after taking a bullet to the jaw. During his six-year tenure as sheriff, it’s said he survived some eight shootings and seven stabbings.

In 1973, smelling money in Pusser’s story, especially considering the exploding popularity at the time of Southern-fried drive-in action films, Bing Crosby Productions (the same people who would give us I Spit On Your Grave five years later) obtained the rights and rushed the Pusser biopic Walking Tall into production. That they would bring in Phil Karlson to direct made a lot of sense, not only because he’d already handled righteous and upright lawmen at war with bootleggers in his work on The Untouchables, but more importantly because he’d already taken on a story eerily similar to Walking Tall’s in the unusually savage 1955 docudrama The Phenix City Story. Karlson could cram plenty of bloody, sweaty Southern violence onto the screen, which is what drive-in audiences of the early ’70s demanded.

The resulting film was ugly and nasty and stupidly entertaining. Despite the standard Hollywood embellishments and revisionism (Pusser, for instance, is portrayed as an early and outspoken proponent of Civil Rights, hiring black deputies and treating all his constituents equally regardless of race), the script did remain fairly true to the facts as it traced Pusser’s career from his initial election to the 1967 ambush. Star Joe Don Baker helps matters considerably, imbuing his charming and (usually) easy-going Pusser with more than a little Elvis, even as he’s shitting on the Constitution, smashing up private property, and crushing sleazy cracker skulls with his trademark wooden club. But the politics of the matter (it was one of countless films deemed “fascist” by the New York critics of the era) is best left to others.

Needless to say the film was an enormous hit despite the critics, boosted in no small part by that unbeatable “Based on a True Story” tagline. Audiences were suckers for true stories involving this much backwoods Southern violence it seems, so it was quickly decided a sequel was necessary.

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Although most of the supporting cast signed on to return, Karlson, the screenwriter, and Joe Don Baker did not. So the producers had a brilliant idea. Why not hire Buford Pusser himself to play Buford Pusser? That’s when things started getting weird, both on and offscreen. 

Unless you’re Mickey Spillane, it’s just never a good idea for a non-actor to play himself in a Hollywood film. But Pusser, who seems to have quite taken to the notion of being a near-mythical superhuman folk hero, was up to the task, and signed a contract on August 21st, 1974. The script would pick up just a few weeks after the first film ended, with Pusser still in the hospital following the ambush, and track him as he sought legal and extra-legal vengeance against the men who’d killed his wife.

As per the rules of standard Hollywood hero-making, it would ignore the fact that three of the four men Pusser had fingered in real life (but could later not identify in a lineup) had all been murdered under mysterious circumstances, rumor had it by hit men hired by Pusser after he left office. No, it would be more of the same, with Pusser doling out violent down-home cracker barrel Southern justice against decidedly slimy and arrogant criminals as he ducked assassination attempts at every turn, It’s what crowds would be itching to see.

Well, a few hours after signing the contract, Pusser went to the local county fair and apparently had a few to celebrate his forthcoming movie stardom. On his way home in his supercharged sports car, he slammed into a median, flying through the windshield before the car burst into flames. He was declared dead at the scene. Despite the reported blood alcohol level (twice the legal limit), to this day more than a few still insist the accident was the result of sabotage.

Walking Tall, Part II nevertheless moved ahead as planned even without its star, especially since now there was that added hook of Pusser’s untimely and mysterious death being all over the news. What’s more, with Pusser no longer hanging around the set, the filmmakers no longer had to worry about cleaving so close to something resembling historical accuracy. The sequel hit theaters in 1975.

As the film opens, Pusser is still hospitalized, his face still encased in the bandages he was wearing at the end of the original, and he still has some trouble talking after the reconstructive surgery. 

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It was apparently some heavy-duty reconstructive job, as when the bandages finally do come off he looks just like Bo Svenson. He’s also much taller, and blond. His parents, children, and deputies all look the same, but no one says a word to Pusser about how much he looks like Bo Svenson all of a sudden. They just carry on as if nothing’s changed, and Pusser does the same, busting up stills and tracking down the men who ambushed him

Now, just to keep track of things here, even though it hardly matters given we’re dealing with a Hollywood biopic. Historically, Pusser spent almost three weeks in the hospital following the ambush. Here they state he was hospitalized for eight months. That would imply the film’s action takes place roughly during the latter half of 1968. During his final two years as sheriff (before being forced out by term limits), Pusser could provide no solid evidence and so could take no legal action against the four men he’d accused of killing his wife. It was only after he left office they began turning up mysteriously dead.

In the film he’s able to nab three of the four while still wearing the badge and with his deputies in tow. One dies when Pusser refuses to pull him from a burning car. Another dies in a shootout with cops. The third is left paralyzed after a police chase. It was all more or less legal and proper.

It was a decidedly less brutal outing, consisting of more car chases and gunshots than gougings and bloody beatings. It’s also a far less compelling film, losing much of its energy by the halfway point.

When a panicking hooker blurts out the name of the man who ordered the hit—a low-level crime boss named John Witter (the always despicable and toad-faced Logan Ramsey)—Pusser hops in his car and speeds away, siren blaring, it seems as if there’s still one act to go. But then the screen goes black. Initially it would seem the standard issue set up for a sequel. An unanswered question, a dangling plot point that would be neatly resolved as soon as they could get a script everyone agreed on. But then the screen cuts abruptly to a police photo of Pusser’s actual wrecked car and a narrator reading the official accident report.

Although not a word is said about the rumors it had been an assassination, given the context of the first two films the implication is inescapable. It doesn’t matter that the car accident occurred some six years after the events just portrayed in the film.

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With the unexpected intersection of cinematic whitewash and revisionism with the hard external reality of Pusser’s untimely death, that would seem to be that. With the protagonist dead, where else can you go? That plot point will simply have to remain dangling there. But given Part II was likewise a hit, there was little choice but to charge ahead. With the hero admittedly quite dead (having died even before the first sequel started shooting) and the “Based on a True Story” hook over and done with on so many levels, it was perhaps out of desperation the producers and screenwriters dove headlong into the unintentionally postmodern, creating what may well be one of the strangest mainstream sequels ever filmed.

The first thing you notice about Walking Tall: Final Chapter (released in 1977 and sometimes called Final Chapter: Walking Tall) is the music. Gone are the lilting strings of the Romantic canned score that marked not only the first two entries, but so many drive-in action films of the early ’70s. It’s been replaced with something much more martial and strident, leaving the film at first blush sounding like a war movie. We then hear what seems to be a recording Pusser made from beyond the grave:

“I had to stand up for myself alone, and you know what they did to me. Until all men stand up for what they believe in, the same damn thing can happen to any one of you.”

Yes, well, it may not make a whole lot of logical sense, but we’ll let it slide considering he’s dead and all. As the action opens, though there’s even far less action this time around, Pusser still resembles Bo Svenson, and we quickly learn it’s the one year anniversary of the ambush that killed his wife. If we take what we were told in Part II at face value, that would mean he’d only been released from the hospital a couple months earlier, but it seems all the events of the previous film are already far behind us.

That gang boss John Witter is still free, but the Dixie Mafia has successfully been expunged from the county. Pusser is still aching for vengeance, but is warned by lawyers he is to take no action against Witter, as there is no evidence against him. This leads to a line which can be found in nearly every so-called fascist film of the era: “There’s just somethin’ wrong about a law that protects the guilty and don’t care about the innocent.”

With nothing else to do, apparently, Pusser turns his frustration on average sleazy backwoods citizens, whipping and beating them before bringing them into the office to be booked on minor offenses.

The screenwriters, who seem a little confused about just where the hell they’re supposed to be going here, wander about shaggy dog style for a bit, dropping in irrelevant and cliched subplots that go nowhere. Pusser half-adopts a young abused boy, has money troubles, is threatened with a brutality suit, and starts up a mild romance with a hooker and informer from the first film who somehow recognizes him even though he now looks like Bo Svenson. 

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He busts up an illegal road house then loses an election and doesn’t know what the hell to do with himself.  It’s very episodic and disjointed, as Pusser meanders from one unconnected Walking Tall-esque scenario to another. Finally completely bereft of ideas, the screenwriters returned to Pusser’s life, and figured since they were making an ostensible biopic, they might as well include the one thing that made him a household name.

So in the last half hour, a movie producer shows up at the Pusser farm with a contract to secure the rights to make Walking Tall, and things, just get baffling.

So we get to see Bo Svenson playing Buford Pusser riding in the back of a camera truck watching as the crew films (thanks to some clips from the original) Joe Don Baker playing Buford Pusser. Then we see Pusser at a screening, watching the scene in which his wife is killed. He buys a bunch of expensive toys for his kids and a fancy sports car for himself with all that new movie money. Meantime, Witter is raging about the success of the movie, how it’s making him look bad, how it’s offering step-by-step instructions as to how to drive a low-rent criminal syndicate out of a small Southern county, and how much money Pusser is making as a result. Then Pusser announces that he will be playing himself in the sequel, and suddenly it makes perfect sense that when the bandages come off at the beginning of Part II he looks just like Bo Svenson, as now it’s Bo Svenson who will essentially be going back in time to play himself

So in short the Walking Tall films become a franchise about not Buford Pusser so much, but the Walking Tall trilogy itself. I’m hard pressed to think of another film franchise quite this self-referential,  in which the creation and building of the franchise becomes part of the story. The closest I can think of is Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, but at least there it made perfect sense.

For the first time in a long time, the final 20 minutes are extremely accurate concerning the events that led up to the fatal car accident. Pusser goes to the county fair with his kids, then hops in his sports car to head home. Nothing is said about any heavy drinking, but that would just get in the way. Unlike the end of Part II, however, this time there is no question his death was the result of another hit ordered by that rotten Logan Ramsey. So the trilogy ends on a fairly discouraging note, with the heroic Pusser dead and the man who ordered his murder free as a bird and cackling. Which may be the most surprising thing of all.

A made for TV movie, a short-lived series, a reboot, and two straight-to-video sequels to the reboot would follow over the next thirty years, but they weren’t nearly as interesting.

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