DVD Review: The Walking Tall Trilogy

The late Buford Pusser, a onetime professional wrestler and former Sherriff of McNairy County in Tennessee, gained some national headlines in the mid-sixties when he launched a one man war on the local moonshine rackets, with the help of a large hickory stick. His story inspired three films (the first of which was a bonafide box office hit) and a short lived television series in 1981. Shout Factory has released all three films on both Blu-ray and DVD. While I haven’t seen the HD transfers, I can say that Shout! has improved upon Rhino’s earlier DVD release.

Walking Tall (1973)

Recently retired professional wrestler Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) has moved his family—wife Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman), son Mike (Leif Garrett) and daughter Dwana (Dawn Lyn)—to his hometown of McNairy County, Tennessee in hopes of starting a new life. In the process of settling in, Buford is shocked to learn that McNairy County is no longer the idyllic place he remembers. The old gathering place, ‘The Lucky Spot’ has become a den of gambling and prostitution. When he lends a buddy some money for gambling and learns that the table’s cheating, he reveals the crooks, only to find himself in a bar fight. While Buford gets a few good licks in, he’s outnumbered, is severely beaten, and needs 200 stitches throughout his body.

It soon becomes clear that the local police are on the take and have no interest in bringing the hoodlums to justice. Pusser, armed with a big hickory stick, decides to bring his own brand of justice to the hoods. Naturally, the corrupt cops make sure that Pusser ends up in court. However, he’s found not guilty by a jury that’s fed up with the corrupt officials running their town. Now, with much of the town on his side, Pusser runs for and wins the job of McNairy County Sheriff, vowing to clean up the town. However, Pusser’s enemies are just as devoted to doing things their way, so the job won’t be easy.

Walking Tall is definitely a bit cheesy, but it’s always been fun to watch. Joe Don Baker delivers a fine performance, making us feel somewhat sympathetic to Buford’s plight. As the movie goes along, and Buford faces more punishment from the thugs, you’ll likely find yourself rooting for Pusser, a guy who genuinely wants to see his hometown returned to some semblance of the idyll it once was. The supporting cast of Elizabeth Hartman (A Patch of Blue), teen heartthrob Leif Garrett, and Dawn Lyn do fine in their roles, but this truly Joe Don Baker’s star turn.

Shot on a budget of just $500,000, and shot on location in Tennessee, director Phil Karlson does a fine job at making you feel like you’re in the Deep South throughout the film, and pacing things so there’s never a lull in the action.


Walking Tall Part II (1975)

Sheriff Buford Pusser (now portrayed by Bo Svenson) is recovering from his wounds. McNairy County is a hotbed of tension as the next Sheriff’s election looms. Pusser is feeling the stress of town divisions—some don’t believe he’s the right man for the job, while others believe he’s just not fit for law enforcement. However, as those closest to Pusser know, this is a man who never quits, and he wins the election. As promised, he continues his relentless pursuit of those involved in the County’s criminal enterprises. This isn’t easy, since the County’s criminal bosses want Pusser dead, no matter what the cost. With the FBI watching, the bosses realize a low key approach to taking care of Pusser is probably best done in a clandestine manner. As such, they hire a talented local race car driver (Richard Jaeckel) to dispose of the sheriff. When that plot fails, they hope a beautiful woman (Angel Tompkins) will be able to win his heart and subsequently put a stake through it. Facing danger around every corner, Pusser must always remain one step ahead of his enemies while remaining true to his goal of cleaning up crime.

Walking Tall Part II really suffers with the loss of Joe Don Baker. While Bo Svenson looks the part, and does a fine job, but lacks Baker’s commanding screen presence. By this time, Pusser is an emotionally damaged man, but the filmmaker chose to focus on the action in the story rather than the character. Though Leif Garrett and Dawn Lyn return as his kids, Pusser’s family is little more than a footnote as he goes about laying down the law.

Interestingly, the real Buford Pusser had agreed to play himself in the film, but was killed in a car accident in 1974, shortly after the agreement was made. Much of the script feels like the Pusser character is simply going through the motions of busting heads without much thought. This is a man more hell bent on exacting revenge then forcing people to obey the law.

Final Chapter: Walking Tall (1977)

It’s been a year since tragedy struck the Pusser family. The Sherriff (still played by Bo Svenson) still wants justice, but it’s looking like he won’t get it through the proper channels. The man responsible for tearing apart his family, John Witter (Logan Ramsey) is well protected. As if that weren’t enough to worry about, there’s an election coming up, and Pusser’s far from a shoo-in to win, despite getting rid of the whorehouses, gambling, and other criminal enterprises. Even now, there are still folks out to get him. Never mind, the financial problems the troubles of the last few years have caused him.

Buford has a chance at some financial security when Hollywood comes calling. However, selling his story would require him to share some very personal and difficult memories. This third and final film of the series brings back the emotional angle of the first film, as Pusser must decide how much of his family’s life—Leif Garrett and Dawn Lyn are back on board as his children—is he willing to make public in the name of a dollar. At the same time, Pusser is getting older, and he must deal with a town that’s changing with the times. The Final Chapter feels a bit long, but in the end, the final scenes feel like the perfect way to end the story of Buford Pusser.

Presented in anamorphic widescreen, all three films look very impressive for their age. The image looks good, with only a scratch or two on the first film. Colors are fairly bright throughout all three films, just don’t expect them to jump off the screen the way they might via HD.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio tracks show their age a bit. On the first film, you may notice a slight, occasional hiss. Nonetheless, audio is constantly clear and audible across all three films.

No subtitles are available.

The following special features are included:

Walking Tall

  • TV Spot 1 (SD, 0:30).
  • TV Spot 2 (1:00).
  • Photo Gallery

Walking Tall Part 2

  • TV Spot 1 (0:27).
  • TV Spot 2 (0:10).
  • TV Spot 3 (0:32).
  • Trailer (1:54).
  • Photo Gallery
  • Walking Tall, The Buford Pusser Story (29:19): Joe Don Baker and others look back at the film trilogy, the lives of the real people depicted in the film, the differences between Baker and Svenson, the work of the additional cast, the real-life Pusser’s involvement with the films and his untimely death, the themes the films’ legacy, and more. Clips from the movies and interviews with cast, crew, and Pusser family members and friends fill out this piece nicely.

Final Chapter: Walking Tall

  • Vintage Featurette (SD, 8:41): A vintage featurette that has interviews with real-life McNairy County residents, examines Pusser’s legend, takes a look at the making of a scene, and looks at the film trilogy’s success.

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