Walking Tall (1973)


*. Ugh. As in “ugly.”
*. Or maybe not so much ugly as crude. But did being crude ever hurt a film like this? As Pauline Kael noted, “the picture’s crudeness and its crummy cinematography give it the illusion of honesty.” I’m not sure what Kael means by “honesty” but in any event it’s a movie that’s meant to whack you in the head like the hero’s big stick. It’s as crude as the professional wrasslin’ school of narrative, with Buford the Bull getting the shit kicked out of him but then rising from the near-dead and opening a massive can of whoop-ass on the evil-doers.
*. Basically what we’re getting here is a down-market and backwoods version of Dirty Harry. Instead of big-city bureaucrats and Italian gangsters we have sweaty, pettifogging lawyers and the Dixie mafia. Sheriff Buford Pusser doesn’t play by the rules — hell, he doesn’t even seem to have a uniform or a badge — but he gets results. The system can’t abide him (the only good line in the whole movie comes when the judge tells him to set a gang of moonshiners free for violations of their rights “or I’ll hold you in contempt, which I do anyway”). But even so, or perhaps for this very reason, the people have his back all the way.
*. I said down-market, which refers both to the target audience and the low budget. This movie was shot on the cheap ($500,000) and really looks it. Which means it looks like shit. The sets are crude jokes and equipment is clearly visible throughout. Honestly, they weren’t even trying very hard on this one.
*. It was directed by Phil Karlson and was one of his last films. Because he had invested in it personally and it was a ginormous box office hit he made bank big time. I don’t know much about Karlson. The film he did before this was Ben, the sequel to Willard. I really liked Kansas City Confidential, but that had been twenty years earlier.
*. I don’t think Karlson brings anything to the table here, and indeed aside from Baker’s performance I can’t think of anything good about this movie at all. The fight scenes have some of the worst choreography I’ve ever seen, and there’s no point to this movie aside from the ass-kicking.
*. Baker actually isn’t that big a man. He’s listed as being 6’2″ and he doesn’t appear to be very muscular. His arms in particular are pretty skinny. I doubt both of his biceps combined could stretch the sleeve of his t-shirt with the same girth as just one of the Rock’s guns. But then maybe this just the rear-view mirror effect, judging husky heroes by the same standards as action stars from the steroid era.
*. I guess you could call it a cult film, as it does have a following. There were a couple of sequels (with Joe Don Baker being replaced by Bo Svenson), a short-lived television series, and a remake in 2004 starring Dwayne Johnson (back when he was billed only as The Rock), a real-life (I mean, professional) wrestler. The Johnson movie was then followed by a couple of sequels of its own starring Kevin Sorbo. So there’s a franchise there, no question.
*. The appeal of such a story is pretty basic. The hero is a stern authoritarian redeemer who stands up for the little guy, family values, and the principles of “real” law and order, in opposition to crime, degeneracy and the corrupt system. Like Dirty Harry he is a law unto himself, carrying his warrant in his shoe (which means he just kicks down doors that are closed to him).
*. So you can view this as a movie with a social and cultural message that has some resonance, but overall it’s a dismal piece of filmmaking and I don’t see why it’s lasted. Sure, you could say the same thing about the Friday the 13th franchise, but the thing about Walking Tall is that it’s not very entertaining even at the most basic level. I found it a real chore just to sit through. When a genre film like this is crap you should still be able to have some fun with it. Or at least more fun than this.


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