“Walking Tall,” 50 Years Later

Released fifty years ago this week, the classic film Walking Tall, starring Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser, was widely hailed in our youthful circles as a must-see, despite it being hard to find because of its extreme violence. The film came out when the oldest GenXers were still small children, so its title lingered in our midst from our earliest days. But alongside the more palatable portrayals of outlaws in Smokey and the Bandit and The Dukes of Hazzard, Walking Tallwas the hard stuff. The movie’s small-town Tennessee setting and plot contained backwoods bars, prostitutes in trailers, bloody brawls, and violence against law enforcement— not exactly family entertainment. This time, the bootleggers were not friendly, smiling goof-offs in search of a good time but instead were men who would blast a country sheriff with a shotgun while his wife was in the car with him. It took most of us a long time – well into the 1980s – before we would see this movie, but it still helped to develop our sense of Southern-ness as the coup de grace of what a badass was. And we learned that a badass carries a big ol’ stick.

The first the wider world knew about Buford Pusser came in the early 1960s, when his name and image could be found in professional wrestling advertisements in the newspapers. Leaving show business behind, he soon became the police chief in Adamsville, Tennessee then the sheriff of McNairy County. As a small-town lawman, he had federal men helping him to raid moonshine stills and combat crime. By 1963, his name was appearing in newspapers for different reasons as he led the charge against illegal liquor producers and other criminals. It was rough going, and retaliations were common. In one report in The Tennesseean from January 1965, Pusser and the FBI returned to their cars to find them destroyed, along with all of their equipment. Two years later, it got much worse, and his mythology began.

On August 12, 1967, 29-year-old Pusser was the target of an assassination attempt. He was riding in his car with this wife when it was riddled by gunfire. Sheriff Pusser was wounded, but his wife Pauline was killed. The attack was brutal. Law enforcement officials found bullets or casings from a 30-30, a 30-06, and a .44 magnum. One witness called it “the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” The ambush appeared to have been set-up by an unknown person who called Buford’s father to request that he be sent on a call to a home. Initially, the young sheriff said no, that he would not go out there, but the person called the Adamsville Police Station and insisted that he come “right away.”

In the early days of Pusser’s fame, country/rockabilly singer Eddie Bond made his contribution to the mythology with the song “The Legend of Buford Pusser.” 

And that one was followed up with the country music gem “Buford Pusser Goes Bear Hunting with a Switch.” 

Pusser’s fame grew even more when Tennessee native WR Morris wrote an account of the lawman’s story called The Twelfth of August, which was a bestseller in its day. Morris was born in Reagan, Tennessee in 1934 and served in the Air Force in the mid-1950s. His book sold well but, unfortunately, it did not receive universal acclaim. After its release in November 1971, Nashville’s Tennesseean said it was “as exciting as Pusser’s life,” while the Memphis Commercial Appeal‘s reviewer wrote: “If there’s an award for the undefinitive biography of 1971, The Twelfth of August would win it hands down. It’s a downright shoddy account [containing] silly dialogue, misspellings, and oozy hero-worship.” 

Walking Tall came out shortly thereafter, in 1973. But Buford Pusser wouldn’t live long enough to really enjoy his fame. On August 21, 1974, he was killed in a fiery car crash. Coming home from the county fair in his new Corvette, he swerved off the road then was thrown from the car, which burned up. In yet another tragic twist to his life story, his daughter was in the car behind his and watched him die by the side of the road. Buford Pusser was 36 years old.

Though the man at the center of the action was dead, this heavily mythologized story must have been too interesting (or too lucrative) to walk away from. Made by a different director and starring a different actor, Walking Tall 2 came out in 1975, then there was Walking Tall: the Final Chapter in 1977. But that third movie wasn’t the final anything. It’s possible that enough people wanted to see a movie about Buford Pusser, but the Walking Tall movies were just too violent. The 1978 made-for-TV movie A Real American Hero, starring Brian Dennehey, could have been the answer to the problem. WR Morris later wrote another book on the subject, The State-Line Mob, which was published in 1990. And sadly, the original movie was (sort of) remade in 2004 with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, then someone cast Kevin Sorbo in Walking Tall: The Payback in 2006, but no one with any self-respect cares about those.

These days, as action films are churned out, the original 1973 Walking Tall is not as well known as it should be. That could be because its core audience – young men in the early ’70s – are now in their 70s and may be more interested in Matlock reruns or their grandkids. The good news is that Joe Don Baker is still with us, hanging in there at age 86. Thankfully, a new generation of fans – those who value the classics – can still find the film on various streaming services, like YouTube Movies and Vudu.