Southern Movie #17: “Walking Tall”

OK, let’s get this straight right off the bat— pun intended. I’m not writing here about the stupid remake from 2004, the one with The Rock in it. (Shame on Hollywood for that movie and for the remake of “Shaft” with Samuel L. Jackson in it.) I’m writing about the original 1973 film “Walking Tall,” the one with Joe Don Baker. The real one.

When I was growing up in 1980s Alabama, there were movies that all boys talked about: “Smokey and the Bandit,” the original three “Star Wars” movies, the three “Superman” movies with Christopher Reeve. Those were the ones we talked about that we had actually seen. “Walking Tall” was one we talked about . . . that we had not seen. All we knew was: the badass dude in it beat the hell out of people with a big stick. Before Netflix or DVD players, even before VCRs and Movie Gallery stores, this violent movie was virtually inaccessible. Every once in a while, a severely edited version would come on one of the cable channels, but back then you had to catch it when it was on, and we didn’t just sit around flipping channels.

The original 1973 “Walking Tall” is still hard to find. When I went on Netflix and put it in my DVD queue, it went straight to Saved list, meaning that it is unavailable. When I got on my Roku and tried to find it that way, Netflix doesn’t even have it listed, nor does Amazon Video, nor does Hulu. Interestingly, Amazon Video has the 2004 remake and the old stupid sequel to the original, “Walking Tall 2,” but not the real thing. Trying to find “Walking Tall” through a regular video provider is like trying to find Pappy van Winkle on a liquor store shelf— it just ain’t gonna happen.

“Walking Tall” is based on the real story of Buford Pusser, professional wrestler-turned-sheriff in McNairy County, Tennessee. Pusser quit the ring in the early 1960s and returned home, ostensibly to lead a peaceful life there. But it didn’t work out that way.

“Walking Tall” opens almost like a placid afternoon-school special. We see a man and his family in a brown station wagon, pulling an old trailer, with the kids and the dog hanging out the open windows. They are barreling down a one-lane blacktop, surrounded by green and accompanied by Johnny Mathis’ crooning. As they pull up in the driveway of a white two-story farmhouse, an old man and his wife come over to see who is honking the horn so wildly. It’s Buford the Bull, their son, who is leaving that foolish wrestling business behind and coming home to do logging work with this father.

Now that Buford is home, everyone is happy! Buford has washed his hands of “being a trained animal in somebody else’s circus.” His wife is happy that they won’t be living on the road anymore. The kids are happy to be with their grandparents. The grandparents are happy to have their son home. And it will just get better. Soon, Buford has sold the old trailer and bought a nice new white house. The Pusser family has come to stay.

After the legal paperwork is done, Buford, his mother, and his wife are leaving the courthouse downtown, when he is spotted by his wacky old pal, Lutie McVeigh. After some shouting from his truck followed by a few crazy U-turns, Lutie incites Buford to come along to have a few beers and catch up on old times. There are some new places to go and have fun, Lutie tells him, just come along see . . .

The two old friends pass by the Pine Ridge Club and end up at The Lucky Spot, a white-and-red cinder-block club surrounded by little trailers. We see in his face that Buford is immediately suspicious, but Lutie is bent on some shenanigans. What Buford finds inside is a bar littered with prostitutes – those are their trailers outside – and they smell fresh meat. Buford sips on a High Life tall boy, while they circle him, but one in particular catches his eye, mainly because he can’t help it: the dark-eyed beauty is wearing see-through clothes!

Lutie can tell they’re getting to the good part way too fast, so he takes Buford back to the gambling tables. When Lutie is losing immediately, Buford sees that the dice are rigged and grabs the thrower, making them fall out of his hand and exposing the trick. A fight breaks out, and Buford kicks nearly everyone’s ass in the place, but finally their numbers get the best of him. He is beaten badly, and his chest and back are carved up with a switch blade knife.

The next frame shows us where Buford ends up: lying the weeds by the side of a country road, at night, in the rain, covered in blood, and barely able to crawl. He is passed over by a few drivers, before a trucker stops and picks him up.

Buford does recover – of course he does, he’s Buford the Bull! – and while he is convalescing, the sheriff comes to see him, but not for the reasons that Buford would hope . . . The brawl, it seems, was all Buford’s doing, and every witness said so. The growling, red-haired Sheriff Al Thurman tells Buford to learn his lesson, drop the issue, and move on with his life. Nope, Buford replied, that’s not how it’s going to happen. And when he pleads with the deputy, Grady, another old friend, Buford Pusser learns the harsh truth: everybody’s on the payroll.

Having regained his health, Buford goes back to working at the sawmill with his father. Then another old friend arrives: a young black man named Obra (Felton Perry) who comes to the sawmill looking for work. Buford’s father tells him that Obra is troublemaker who got educated and now agitates for civil rights, but Buford hires him on anyway.

Though, work is not the only thing on Buford Pusser’s mind. There’s that revenge thing. The folks at the Lucky Spot kicked his ass, stole his car, and emptied his wallet. The question here, which gets answered in one symbolic object, is: what do you do in mid-1960s rural Tennessee when local thugs cheat you, assault you, steal from you, leave you for dead, and buy off the local law man so he won’t help you? You get a big stick and go crack some skulls.

And that’s what Buford Pusser does. Buford peels the bark off a tree branch that Gandolf would be proud to tote, heads out to the Lucky Spot, and waits until they’re closing up for the night. The first poor bastard to get it is Bozo, the bartender, who Buford busts in the back of the neck and goes down bleeding, as that same dark-eyed beauty watches. Next are the gambling-operation goons who beat him up. (This scene is one of the hard ones to watch.) After making his presence felt, Buford goes to the cashier’s window and tells the wizened old man politely that he wants $3,630 for his car and his other losses. Buford even hands him a yellow receipt, asking the man to sign it. The frightened old man tries to give Buford stacks of bills, but Buford declines, saying that all he wants is $3,630 and for the man to sign the receipt. As far as Buford is concerned, they’re square.

But the Sheriff Thurman sees it differently. He comes squealing into Buford’s front yard the next day to arrest him on charges of assault and robbery, and then we find out how deep the corruption goes. The judge gives Buford one day to prepare for trial, citing his decision to defend himself, and soon he is in the courtroom, surrounded by battered men in casts and slings. After they testify, it’s Buford’s turn. And in a blast of working-class rhetoric, he rips off his red shirt to reveal the multitude of switch-blade wounds, declaring to the jurors that any of them could be next! The on-lookers are aghast, the judge freaks out, but the jurors return in five minutes with a verdict— not guilty!

As Buford is getting congratulated in the hallways by a small throng of people equally tired of the corruption and sin, Obra makes a suggestion, pointing to a re-election poster for Sheriff Thurman: Buford, why don’t you run for sheriff!

It sounds like a terrible idea, but for the short time we’ve watched Buford Pusser, we already know that he has a penchant for terrible ideas. As he begins to campaign, Buford finds out that the corruption extends to the black community, too. While hanging up posters, we meet local bar owner Willie Rae, who is wrapped up in the scam with the sheriff, The Lucky Spot people, and the operators of another club called The Pine Ridge Club. At Willie Rae’s club, where we see an all-black clientele, Sheriff Thurman confronts Buford, taking down his posters, then begins to chase him (with Grady in tow) for reckless driving. Though Buford first refuses to pull over, he does so near a small bridge, grabbing his big stick for the fight that’s coming, but the angered sheriff tries to run Buford over and crashes his car into the creek. Buford runs down the embankment and saves an unconscious Grady from drowning, but cannot pull his nemesis from the fiery wreck.

The situation is now dire for the mobsters. Buford was acquitted on the trumped-up charges, and now he is the only candidate for sheriff. They try to buy off Grady, who refuses since Buford saved his life, and then they send an emissary from Nashville: a pudgy asshole in a baby-blue double-breasted coat and white shoes who explains that a Johnny-Come-Lately like Buford Pusser has no idea how deep the machinations run. Ever defiant, Buford tells the smarmy messenger with the scheming eyes that he can shove it.

Buford Pusser’s real problems begin when he is elected sheriff. Mainly, he has to contend directly with a violent group of pimps, madams, bootleggers and racketeers. Secondly, he has said he can clean up the county, so now he has to do it! On his first day as sheriff, he gets a call from another sheriff who welcomes him into office by calling him for help: they have eight dead civil rights activists who drank poisoned moonshine. Buford knows who he has to go to— a reluctant Obra, who gets enlisted as a deputy, and the pair head to the still to bust the killers, among them Willie Rae and one of the thugs from the Lucky Spot. But being totally ignorant of the law, Buford and Obra make huge mistakes: no warrant + no Miranda rights = everyone goes free.

This will be harder than Buford thought. It will take more than busting skulls with a big stick.

Once Buford is installed as sheriff, the plot moves along pretty quickly. The problems are many. Buford is working all hours of the day. The far-reaching corruption extends to the local judge and one local deputy. Obra must gain respect as the county’s first black deputy. For a while, we see the small force and its fearless leader play a game of tit for tat with the bad element, neither willing to budge, but with Buford whittling them down little bits at the time. Luckily, Buford Pusser has someone on the inside, too: that dark-eyed beauty.

As “Walking Tall” moves toward its ending, we think that Buford Pusser will secure his victory after possibly another fight or two. But there is one more tragic part of this story. One early morning, called anonymously to a supposed moonshining site, Buford gets up to do his thing. This time is different though: his wife, now feeling secure after all of her husband’s hard work, asks to ride with him, to see what it is that he does. He obliges her, and the two cruise merrily along, discussing the possibility of going to lunch later, when two cars speed out of nowhere and chase them. When the furious chase is done, Buford’s wife lays bloody and dead beside the wrecked car, and Buford, whose body is once-again nearly demolished, cannot save her.

In the movie’s final scenes, Buford Pusser is wearing a plaster cast that covers the lower half of his broken face. The governor has sent help, but Buford doesn’t trust them. No, this is personal! After his wife’s funeral, complete with his sobbing children, Buford loses it. He heads out to the Lucky Spot, which is almost deserted in the middle of the day, to finish off the bastards by ramming his sheriff car straight through the front door, killing two of the last (and most insidious) villains. As he emerges symbolically, having let the daylight into The Lucky Spot, crowds of funeral mourners are close behind. The credits roll, as the small group of a couple-dozen carry the tables and chairs out into the red-dirt parking lot and set them on fire.

After re-watching “Walking Tall,” I know why we weren’t allowed to watch it when we were kids. For its time, the violence was startling, and the nudity and depictions of prostitution would have easily prevented most parents of pre-teens from allowing a screening at a sleepover. Yet, despite its low production value, cheap gore, and somewhat plastic characters, “Walking Tall” captures a moment in time in the South. Slightly less hokey than 1958’s “The Phenix City Story,” this clean-up movie shows us the grittier parts of the gritty side. Back in the day – and really, still today – the men, husbands included, had a little place out in the woods to get into some trouble; everybody knew it was there, and everybody claimed not to go there, but somehow it stayed in business anyway. This was the South that earned its reputation as a place where people didn’t fuck around. And sometimes, if you drive down a rural highway, deep in the Deep South, you’ll see the remnants of one of those places, all covered over by weeds and kudzu.

Both in the opening and the closing to “Walking Tall,” the filmmakers are emphatic that this film is “fictionized,” being only based the stories about the real Buford Pusser. If you’re interested in the man himself, there is a museum dedicated to him in Adamsville, Tennessee. Pusser died in 1974 in a one-car crash, when his corvette hit a tree. And if you’re a music fan, and don’t already know the song, there’s “Buford Stick” by Driveby Truckers, on their “Dirty South” album.

So where can you find “Walking Tall,” if you wanted to watch it? For about $20 on Amazon, you can buy a three-DVD set of the original 1973 movie, the 1975 sequel, and 1977’s “The Final Chapter: Walking Tall” in it . Or you watch it for $2.99 on Google Play, which is where I finally found it after some searching.

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