Walking Tall: The Trilogy (1973 - 1977)
By: Stuart Giesel on November 20, 2012 | Comments
Shout Factory (USA) | Region A | 1.78:1, 1080p | English DTS-HD MA 2.0 | 345 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Phil Karlson; Earl Bellamy; Jack Starrett
Starring: Joe Don Baker, Bo Svenson, Elizabeth Hartman, Leif Garrett, Luke Askew
Screenplay: Mort Briskin, Stephen Downing, Howard B. Kreitsek, Samuel A. Peeples
Country: USA
External Links
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Rewatching the original Walking Tall not so long ago reminded me of how much I liked the damn thing, and I quickly sought out this U.S. Blu-Ray release which puts the original Joe Don Baker starrer with its two sequels both starring Bo Svenson, Walking Tall Part 2 and Final Chapter: Walking Tall. Not only that, but I read a little behind the story of real life Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser - including The State Line Mob by W. R. Morris - surprised to find that some of the methods he used to dispatch the so-called "State Line Mob" were skirting the edges of the law, to put it politely. Still, a lot of Pusser's decency, passion and righteous anger came through in these three films, though Joe Don Baker's portrayal of Pusser in Walking Tall seems to be the one that rings truer from what I've read.

Regardless of the films' liberal stretching of the truth (for example, a lot is made of Pusser's length of hickory which he uses to bash people's heads in, when in reality he would only occasionally brandish a tree branch) you can't argue the fact that they put the viewer solidly in Pusser's court, anxiously awaiting the next scenes where he lays down the law and teaches the gangsters who's in charge. Shout Factory's Walking Tall: The Trilogy two-disc Blu-Ray set is perfect for fans of the series, providing superior picture quality and some respectable extras. But first, the films.

Walking Tall (1973)

Rather than rehash my earlier review of Walking Tall, let it be said that this is easily the best out of the three (we shall not mention the remake with The Rock, nor the TV series or... ugh... Kevin Sorbo starrers) and that's mostly down to two things: the performance of Joe Don Baker and the sort of seedy, bloody atmosphere that you typically get in 70's thrillers that works so well here.

Ex-wrestler Buford Pusser (Baker) moves to McNairy County with his wife Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman) and two children, where criminals known as the "State Line Mob" run gambling houses, prostitution rackets and illegal whiskey distilleries. Pusser is severely beaten when he calls out some crooks for cheating at the local gambling house "The Lucky Spot" and vows revenge; the best way he can achieve this is by running for local sheriff. With the help of some loyal deputies and a length of hickory, he sets about disrupting the mob's endeavours, which earns him some unwanted attention that soon turns extremely nasty, and Pusser soon learns that no one is off limits, including his family.

Walking Tall straddles the fine line between cathartic vigilante film and accurate portrayal of real events that took place in McNairy County in the 60's. The film is pretty brutal, but Baker's fiery - yet at times tender - portrayal of Pusser anchors and humanises the film and prevents it from turning into something like Death Wish 4. The other actors are no slouches - Hartman (who tragically committed suicide years later) is excellent as Pauline Pusser, the baddies are all despicable, and Bruce Glover as Pusser's deputy Grady is a standout. But Baker looms large over all, and not just because of his physicality. Although some of the events have been changed to suit the picture, the film gets the tone just right. It does get repetitive, bouncing between a Pusser beating to his revenge and back again, but you'd have to be made of concrete not to get some sort of thrill to see Pusser stand up to the mob. Indeed, a lot of the advertising was based around the question "when was the last time you stood up and applauded a film?" and damned if it wasn't right on the money.

Walking Tall Part 2 (1975)

Some of the cast returned for this continuation of the Pusser saga, though not some of the bigger players such as Felton Perry as Officer Eaker (who's played by RoboCop fave Robert DoQui here), and most notably - of course - Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser. In his place, ex-athlete and marine Bo Svenson, who if nothing else is certainly at least as physically imposing as Baker, if not more so. Following the murder of his wife, Pusser continues his crackdown on the State Line Mob, which seems to be run by fat rich man John Witter (Logan Ramsey), who sets his two main goons (including a loathsome hitman played by John Chandler) out to dispatch Pusser once and for all.

This is a pretty by-the-numbers sequel with some solid car stuntwork and a few interesting scenes (Pusser confronting a violent and intoxicated member of the public, and his creative way to execute a search warrant on a hot rod come to mind) but hardly any of the spirit or the grit of the original. Svenson does a decent job as Pusser, but the shadow of Joe Don Baker looms large over the picture and you feel that Svenson is never able to make the role completely his own, even though he proves he can handle his physical scenes well enough. Where is the fury and the passion that Baker brought to the role? Svenson's hardly sleepwalking through the picture, but when you watch the two films side by side it sometimes feels as if he is by comparison. His Pusser is a more contemplative and easygoing sort, and certainly less bluster and aggression than Baker's.

It's hard to determine how much of this film is fiction or not but certainly there is little in this sequel that is based on the material I've read about Pusser's life. Also, Pusser's somehow miraculously able to recover from the horrible wounds he suffered in the first (in the original, and in real life, Pusser got his jaw almost blown off) and all he has to show for it in Part 2 are a few piddling scars. Sure, it would be a bit weird having Svenson shamble around in Elephant Man makeup, but it feels the filmmakers have gone too far in the other direction, like Pusser is some sort of human plasticine figure able to soak up bullets and blades. It's also worth quickly mentioning that the film ends with a poorly-timed summation of Pusser's real-life demise that's entirely at odds with the final scene; an extremely inappropriate choice indeed, especially considering that the third film in the trilogy would spell it all out in greater, and more emotional, detail.

Also hamstringing the picture is its US PG rating which neuters the raw violence of the first film (though there is a bit of nudity which you definitely wouldn't get in a PG film these days). Instead of the visceral nature of the first, we get something that's just a little too staged and generic to truly make an impact. We also get an unbelievably context-heavy opening scene - you know the sort, where characters introduce themselves by saying, "well, as Buford's father, I think...". Walking Tall Part 2, though a commendable continuation of the first film that contains some solid scenes and good performances, feels a little too "TV-movie-of-the-week" to truly succeed. It's by no means a failure, but coming off the bone-crunching fury of Walking Tall it falls well short of expectations.

Final Chapter: Walking Tall (1977)

This is more like it. The oddly titled Final Chapter: Walking Tall is a more fitting sequel to the original, and brings to the table a decidedly more cinematic quality than Part 2, as well as far meatier material that allows star Bo Svenson to exercise his acting chops more than his swinging arm.

Final Chapter sees McNairy County as a fairly clean county compared to the one infested with blatant criminality as depicted in Walking Tall; Pusser is still sheriff, though his re-election is looming, and is feeling pressure from a so-called 'liberal lawyer' to tidy up his act, stick to the law and stop with the cruel and unusual punishments he dishes out to crooks. It seems the people of the county are turning against Pusser, forgetting all he did to clean up their town. At the same time, scumbag boss John Witter (Logan Ramsey) has set up a new gambling house. When Buford closes the house using his signature methods, he loses the election and struggles to support his family. That's when Hollywood comes knocking, interested in filming a movie about his life.

Final Chapter is the least action-centric film of the trilogy, instead focusing on a more intimate look at a Pusser still dealing with the loss of his wife, his frustration at being unable to bring the big crooks to justice over her murder, and struggling with shifting county perceptions that he is no longer the right person to be sheriff in the changing times. Svenson does some excellent work here, bringing far more emotional involvement to the character than he was able to in Part 2, and really sells the character in one key (and very meta) moment where he's watching Walking Tall in the cinema and reliving the death of his wife. Interestingly, it turns out that in real life Pusser was offered the chance to play himself in the Walking Tall sequel, which certainly would have been fascinating to see, but alas was not to be...

It's not all character development. Svenson does get a chance to wield that big hickory stick a few times, dispensing justice the only way he knows how. But it's a testament to the actors, writers and director Jack Starrett that Final Chapter doesn't succeed simply because of the big *thwack* and *crunch* scenes, but because we're so emotionally invested in Pusser's story even though the entire film is building towards a devastating ending. It's the sort of film that wouldn't get made these days, or would have a happy ending tacked on. Thankfully gone is the PG rating of Part 2, so Final Chapter feels a bit less sanitised and more like the original in that respect.

Admittedly, Final Chapter runs a little too long and too leisurely - some decent editing is needed to really sharpen the material - but this is still a fitting send-off for the legendary Tennessee sheriff who walked tall and carried a big stick.
Video
All three Walking Tall films are presented in extremely fine fashion, with vivid clarity, colour and a dearth of visual imperfections (though there are still some, but they rarely intrude). These are fairly low budget movies from the 70's, don't forget, but Shout Factory has given them an extremely handsome presentation in this Blu-Ray set. If I had to pick a winner out of the three, I'd say Part 2 is the cleanest picture of the lot, though all three are commendably presented here.
Audio
The audio is something of a disappointment, especially compared with the picture quality on all three films. None of the films will win any awards for sound quality, but Walking Tall is the best of the three, with a perfectly adequate 2.0 lossless soundtrack that brings forward the speech and sound effects admirably. I noticed a few pops in Part 2, but otherwise the audio quality was acceptable, if nothing outstanding. As with Part 2, Final Chapter's sound quality is perfunctory, but there are a few pops as well, and some of the dialogue recordings are wildly uneven compared to other scenes - presumably they were added in post-production.
Extra Features
Features are spread across the two Blu-Ray discs.

Disc One contains the films Walking Tall and Walking Tall Part 2, along with trailers and TV spots for the films. The main feature on Disc One is the half-hour Walking Tall: The Buford Pusser Story feature which has interviews with Joe Don Baker (voice only) and other cast members, as well as Pusser's daughter, granddaughter and various law enforcement officers. They speak about Pusser, his untimely death and his legacy. There's a lot of interesting information here for viewers intrigued about Pusser's life, but probably half the feature revolves around cast members speaking well of other cast members. More background on Pusser himself, in more of a documentary style, would have been appreciated.

Disc Two contains Final Chapter: Walking Tall, a trailer and TV spots, and a ten minute "vintage" feature that covers some of the filming of Final Chapter, and interviews with locals who knew Pusser (as well as Pusser's mother). It's an interesting, if extremely dated, making of featurette, and just a shame it doesn't run longer.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Shout Factory's Walking Tall: The Trilogy Blu-Ray set is a fantastic release for fans of Walking Tall or anyone interested in Sheriff Buford Pusser's story, especially considering that no local releases seem to be forthcoming. The original Walking Tall benefits immensely from Joe Don Baker's commanding performance, and is a bloody, cathartic tale of revenge. Walking Tall Part 2 sees Bo Svenson in a middle-of-the-road sequel that feels less a big screen return and more a bridge to the final act. Final Chapter: Walking Tall is a stronger, more satisfying sequel that plays truer to the original, and isn't afraid to end on a downbeat note. As a whole, the Walking Tall trilogy is a must-see for 70's movie buffs, and the fascinating real-life story of Sheriff Buford Pusser shines through regardless of the liberties the filmmakers made to bring his story to the screen. Thoroughly recommended.

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