Walking Tall (1973)
By: Stuart Giesel on October 7, 2012  | 
Warner Brothers | Region 1, NTSC | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 5.1 | 124 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Phil Karlson
Starring: Joe Don Baker, Elizabeth Hartman, Gene Evans, Noah Beery Jr., Bruce Glover
Screenplay: Morton Dowling, Mort Briskin
Country: USA
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Vigilante and revenge films made a big splash in the 70's thanks to films like Death Wish, Taxi Driver and Dirty Harry; men who don't say a lot and let their guns do the talking, cleaning up the scum of the streets. But Walking Tall sometimes gets left out of the mix when you think about the best 70's revenge movies, and it's almost as satisfying a film as those three I've just mentioned.

Sheriff Buford Pusser (what a name!), played stoically by Joe Don Baker, has left his wrestling career behind to start a new life in Tennessee with his wife Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman) and two children. However, no sooner has he arrived in town when he's mixed up in a bloody fracas at the local gambling den. He's beaten, cut up and left for dead on the side of the road. Turns out the den is run by local mafioso types who don't look kindly on Pusser's meddling into their dodgy gambling, prostitution and moonshine liquor selling operations. Pusser vows revenge with a self-carved length of wood, and soon makes a name for himself in the community, so much so that he ends up running for local sheriff. That's when the bloodshed really starts.

Apparently Walking Tall is based on the real-life exploits of Sheriff Buford Pusser. Holy hell! If even half of what happens to Baker happened to Pusser in real life, then the man makes RoboCop look like a cub scout selling cotton wool at a pixie convention. Pusser must have had balls made out of stronger stuff than the club he likes to wield. But ultimately his is a tragic story. He's noble and strong-principled, even when it is to his detriment. Baker portrays Pusser as a quiet bear of a man who seems more at home having a picnic with his wife down by the lake, but when he's pushed, has no qualms about caving in some heads.

In truth, Walking Tall is probably a little overlong for the story it tells, and it does get repetitive. Pusser gets beaten, heals in hospital, goes out for some revenge, gets beaten again; rinse, wash, repeat. But it's to Baker's credit that we're spellbound the whole way through the film's lengthy two hours. Forget the toothless 2004 remake with Dwayne Johnson, which had some merits but was pretty forgettable. This is the real deal. What's quite surprising is that even by today's standards, Walking Tall packs a mean punch. The fights are sloppy, bloody and brutal. People are shot, stabbed and cut and left to die in the rain. Pusser himself sheds more blood than any seven Saw cast members put together. Every punch feels like it actually hurts, and when Pusser gets to working the bad guys over with his wooden club, you get the feeling that even Charles Bronson would shake his head and mutter something about it being too much. Even in these days of horror films strewn with body parts and jettisoning fountains of blood in the air, the violence of Walking Tall still carries weight, and for that reason would probably warrant an Australian R rating even today.

Maybe the violence has more of an impact because Walking Tall feels authentic. Sure, there are some dopey moments (a car that's about to crash into a river suddenly bursts into flames for no reason) but it's grounded by Baker and a cast who look like they're all locals. And Baker, who's six-foot-something and built like a lumbering bear-man hybrid, certainly looks capable of taking on a bunch of scumbags.

I honestly don't know how much of the film mirrors what happened to Pusser in real life, and in some respects I really don't want to know. Credit to director Phil Karlson, the writers and the entire cast and crew for making a film that happens to be set in the 70's but one that doesn't feel like a product of that decade. Maybe it just comes down to the fact that you're spending most of the film rooting for Pusser to break his club off in someone's arse to care about the film's imperfections. Like its revenge-themed kin, Walking Tall works best when you're vicariously living through the hero's actions, and there's nothing quite like the cathartic thrill of seeing someone like Pusser stand his ground. The villains are all pretty one-dimensional, which makes it easy to take sides in something like this. Perhaps a little bit more background into their operation and their characters would have made Pusser's moralistic decisions a little more interesting, but that's not the intent of this film - it's pretty black-and-white stuff.

There are two sequels (not to mention a TV series and remakes/spinoffs with The Rock and - gasp! - Kevin Sorbo) that are Joe Don Baker free which I never got around to seeing, but rewatching Walking Tall the other day has compelled me to seek them out, if for no other reason than to see how the adventures of Buford Pusser pan out. I know it doesn't end well - and the original Walking Tall gives you that sense - but you have to give a man like Pusser his dues; he doesn't take the easy way out, only the right way, the honest way. Hopefully an Australian release on DVD or Blu-Ray is forthcoming, but until then there's this US DVD to satisfy fans, and even a Blu-Ray set of the trilogy for completists.
You know the deal; a 70's low budget revenge film, the picture quality isn't going to amount to much, right? Well, in truth, the picture is a little soft but surprisingly clean and vivid, and the colours (especially the blood) come through strongly.
The 5.1 surround soundtrack doesn't especially shine, but it provides enough solid thwacks and grunts to satisfy the bloodthirsty. The dialogue is clear and the music - what little there is - is effective.
Extra Features
No special features are present on the disc.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Teddy Roosevelt once said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far". And Joe Don Baker, as Buford Pusser, certainly does that, cracking heads and breaking noses with zest. Walking Tall has aged remarkably well, because it tells a simple story well, and makes no bones about involving the audience in Pusser's bloody, satisfying retribution.

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