The late Buford Pusser, one time Sheriff of McNairy County in Tennessee, came to some national attention in the second half of the sixties when, with the aid of a big hickory stick, he waged what was essentially a one man war on the local moonshine rackets. His story inspired a few books and more famously, a series of movies, then later a television show. Shout! Factory has seen fit to re-release the first three movies on Blu-ray, improving on the previous DVD releases from Rhino. And if the movies in question aren't always one hundred percent concerned with historical accuracy, well, they do make for pretty good entertainment.
Walking Tall (1973):
Joe Don Baker (a personal favorite of many for his turn in the MST3K fan favorite Final Justice!) plays real life legend Buford Pusser, in this drive in classic mix of biopic and hicksploitation, a veritable drive-in favorite from the seventies. When the story begins, Buford has just retired from his wrestling career (where he was known as Buford the Bull) and has moved back to his sleepy hometown in rural Tennessee with his Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman), his kids Mike (Leif Garrett) and Dwana (Dawn Lyn) and the family dog. But when he goes out with his old friend Marty to get reacquainted, the two of them end up in a bar fight at 'The Lucky Spot' when the bad guys running the tables in the back try and swindle Buford and Marty out of their money. Things get rough, and Buford is sent to the hospital where he gets a lot of stitches. Marty doesn't fare any better; in fact, they find him at the bottom of a lake.
When Buford finds out that the local police are on the take and aren't going to do anything to bring the hoodlums to justice, he takes it upon himself to carve a club out of a piece of wood and bring his own brand of justice to the hoods, Joe Don Baker style. The corrupt cops take him to task for this and Buford ends up in court, where he gets off thanks to the unanimous vote of the jury, who are sympathetic to his situation and sick and tired of the corrupt officials in the town. This inspires him to run for Sheriff himself, but when he does, the current Sheriff will have no part in that and decides to take Buford down himself rather than risk losing the election. Things don't go so well though and when the incumbent winds up dead, the victim of his own mistake, Buford wins the election and decides to fight the corruption in the system and clean up the town.... but at what cost?
While the movie may sound a little hokey, it's better than you might think and Baker is actually pretty good in this role, bringing an unexpected air of sympathy to the character and proving that when given good material that he's a pretty decent actor. As the movie goes along and Buford gets it worse and worse from the thugs, you'll find yourself cheering when he goes in swinging, you just can't help but feel for the guy. Supporting efforts from Elizabeth Hartman and, yes, even Leif Garrett adds to the movie and you get the impression that the members of the Pusser family definitely do care about one another. This is more or less Baker's show all the way through though and this winds up one of those roles that was tailor made for a man of his stock.
The films low budget shines through quite often, but it's the characters and performances that make Walking Tall work, but the effects. Shot on location in Tennessee, it feels like the Deep South because it is and while it may hit almost every 'Southern' cliché in the book, it does it well. Phil Karlson keeps a good pace going and while the movie is a bit longer than your average drive-in picture, it never feels slow or padded and instead the character development we're given winds up paying off very well once the kettle that is the town starts to boil over. Joe Don Baker reunited, a year or so later with director Phil Karlson and writer Mort Briskin for Framed, which was very much like Walking Tall, expect this time it was Joe Don Baker against corrupt cops who framed him for murder. The film went onto spawn two sequels with Bo Svenson taking over the role of Sheriff Buford. Speaking of which...
Walking Tall Part II (1975):
The second film, made two years later, picks up after the events portrayed in the first one with Pusser (now played by Svenson) recovering from the injuries that landed him in the hospital in McNairy County. With the next election for town sheriff just over the horizon, Pusser is starting to stress as there are those in town who feel he's just not fit to run the law and, of course, there are those who would like to see him out of office simply because he is a major thorn in their side. Pusser, however, is not going to relinquish his position without a fight. He runs for and wins the office once again and after recovering from his injuries, hits the streets to finish what he started - breaking the local crime rings wide open and giving those who took from him some serious payback.
Pusser is starting to gain some attention on a broader scale as he takes on all comers, and the crime lords of McNairy County decide to up their game by hiring a professional driver named Stud Pardee (Richard Jaeckel) to take him out. If that doesn't work, they've got a plan B in the form of a beautiful woman named Marganne Stilson (Angel Tompkins) who they hope will be able to win his heart, and then put a knife in it.
Interestingly enough, the real life Buford Pusser had agreed to play himself in this sequel but shortly after that agreement was made, he was killed in a car accident. With Baker out, the role went to Bo Svenson, who does fine in the role but who is obviously not Baker. Svenson has the right build and the right demeanor for the part (he'd play it again in the third film and in the TV series that would follow in 1981) but he doesn't quite have the intensity that Baker does, at least not in this particular part (though Svenson cranked the intensity right up in Bob Clark's Breaking Point the year after this was made). While he's not at all bad as Pusser, watching these movies back to back just makes it more painfully obvious that it's not Baker in the role and as unfair as that may be, it hurts the film.
The story does a decent enough job of walking that line between revenge movie, cop thriller and southern potboiler and throws in a few good twists along the way but this time around the filmmakers put action over character and the movie, while exciting on a superficial level, doesn't even come close to hitting the same emotional depth that the first movie did. We don't get the involvement with Pusser and his family (though Garrett and Lyn both return as his kids) and as such, his anti-crime crusade feels less like the work of a man hell-bent on setting things right and more like that of a typical movie crime fighter. Part of this is due to the script, part of this is simply due to what the Pusser character went through in the first movie being more intense but the fact remains that, while entertaining enough, Walking Tall II is a noticeably inferior sequel in pretty much every way that you'd expect it to be.
The Final Chapter - Walking Tall (1977):
The third film brings this particular chapter of Buford Pusser's life to a close by picking up on the one year anniversary of the horrible events that sent him over the edge at the end of the first movie. Once again played by Svenson, Pusser is still doing his damndest to ensure that justice is served and that those who did him wrong are brought in for their crimes, but the man behind all of this, John Witter (Logan Ramsey), is well protected. Once again, there's an election on the horizon and once again, Pusser is being seen by some voters as a loose cannon, a man more bent on personal revenge than serving the public trust. Though he's done a lot in the town in terms of cleaning up crime, he knows that this election will be more of a challenge than the last one, and on top of that, he and his family have run into some tough financial times.
All of this could change for Pusser when Hollywood comes knocking. With a very solid offer on the table to sell the movie rights to his story able to solve all of his money trouble with one quick signature, Pusser could change all of this. That would involve selling a part of his very personal memories and feelings, however, and he's not sure what to do about it. Of course, this movie wouldn't be here if we weren't able to figure out that angle.
This third film takes a completely different approach to Pusser's story than the second film did and like the first movie, it does a great job of mixing action, drama and character development. There are times where it tugs at our heartstrings a little harder than maybe it needs to but this time around Svenson is game and he gives Pusser a lot more heart than he had in the last go round. With Garrett and Lyn once again playing his kids this movie succeeds in bringing back the 'Pusser Family' element that the first sequel lacked and making us like and care about these characters. We still get a few great scenes of Buford dishing out justice in his own stick swinging fashion but director Jack Starrett keeps a tight rein on those scenes and puts the emphasis on the soul searching that the lead character goes through.
Interesting in that it brings things in a circle so to speak, what with the movie deal being made as the storyline starts to fade into the sunset, The Final Chapter - Walking Tall is a bit of a tearjerker but damn if it isn't a good one. We see Pusser getting on in age and dealing with the changing political climate in the town he has tried to serve and we see the results, and sometimes the lack thereof, of his actions as sheriff stand as his legacy whether he wants them to or not. At almost two hours in length some more judicious editing would have helped here, as there is some obvious padding in spots, but overall this is a completely appropriate way to end the story. It's not without its flaws in terms of pacing and there are moments where it seems like the production crew are trying to get one last drop of blood from the stone but Svenson's performance makes up for it and the oddly poetic finale feels completely fitting.
Each of the three movies in the series debuts on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory in 1.78.1 widescreen in AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfers. Where some of the previous DVD releases were fullframe and showed boom mics and other bits and pieces that probably should have been matted out, the framing here looks quite good. The first movie starts off looking a little rough but by the time the credits are done the print damage chills out a bit and we get to take in a nice, film like presentation that proudly shows off the film's age and origins. Film grain appears quite naturally here so don't expect a pristine, sanitized looking image - rather, things are a little gritty, as they should be, though the increased detail and more lifelike color reproduction does not go unnoticed. Close up shots look really nice, showing off every drip of sweat on Baker's brow (or, subsequently, Svenson's brow in the sequels!) and texture is strong throughout. There are occasional instances where things look just a tad smeared in the first film but we don't see much of that in the latter two pictures. The sequels look quite a bit cleaner and clearer than the first picture does, with less print damage and more detail made obvious in high definition. The later films are a bit sharper and more colorful than their predecessor and fare better on the format for those reasons. Overall, fans of the films should be quite happy with Shout! Factory's efforts on the video front as each of the three films looks quite good and the set offers a very nice upgrade from past DVD presentations.
All three films in the set are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono tracks that show their age and can't hide the roots. The first film does suffer from some noticeable hiss and while it offers a bit more depth and clarity than the DVD versions have in the past, it's not a particularly amazing effort. You can follow the movie easily enough and dialogue is clear but things are periodically a little muddy and it's probably a pretty safe guess that most of this has to do with the original elements. The two sequels fare better and are cleaner sounding with some noticeable increases in clarity and depth over the first film but still don't really impress all that much. They are properly balanced but periodically dialogue sounds canned and thin. These tracks are sufficient but audiophiles won't be all that impressed.
The extras for the Walking Tall disc are slim, limited to a trailer and a pair of TV spots. The disc containing the second film includes three TV spots, an HD trailer and a still gallery but more importantly also contains the documentary Walking Tall: The Buford Pusser Story which is a really good half hour long featurette about the history behind the films with insight from Baker among others. We learn about the cast and crew, the locations and the people behind the story as well as the involvement that the real Buford Pusser had in the first film by way of interviews with his surviving family members. It's quite a good rundown of what went into making these movies the man who inspired them in the first place. The third film, also on the second disc, gets a trailer and a still gallery and a nine minute vintage featurette Walking Tall Featurette that interviews people who lived in the town Pusser rose to prominence in and which also takes us behind the scenes of a part of the movie while it was being produced. It would have been nice to get a commentary or some more in-depth supplements relating to the sequels (Svenson is still around and pops up here and there) but that didn't happen. The half hour documentary is really good, however, and fans should be pleased with its inclusion here. Aside from the trailer for the second film and the still galleries, all of the extras are presented in standard definition. Inside the keepcase is a color insert booklet containing credits for the films and the discs as well as some great advertising art.
Shout! Factory's release of The Walking Tall Trilogy isn't going to blow you away with its audio and video but it does offer a substantial upgrade from the DVD versions that have been released over the years and the movies have never looked better on home video than they do here. Some more extras would have been nice but the inclusions of the two featurettes compliments things well. As to the movies themselves, obviously the most important part of the package, the first is a classic, the second a fairly goofy misfire and the third and interesting and pensive conclusion. All in all, fans of the series should be pretty happy with this release, and the set comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.