Walking Tall
1973’s Walking Tall directed by Phil Karlson; courtesy of AFI

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The most shocking thing about 1973’s Walking Tall is that the film is based on a true story. Buford Pusser really was an ex-Marine who became a professional wrestler after he returned from Vietnam, and after a few years of that, he did move back to his hometown in rural Tennessee, where he quickly became a target of the Dixie Mafia. After realizing they had the law in their pocket, he really did run for sheriff and win. Pusser then launched a war against the criminal enterprise that resulted in the tragic death of his wife. There are dramatic licenses aplenty taken in Walking Tall, but the broad strokes of the story, amazingly, are true.

Much like its hero, the film carved out a unique path to success. Made independently on a $500,000 budget, it rolled out in theaters slowly and systematically, premiering to huge crowds in rural areas and eventually making its way to the cities. In the end, it brought in more than $40 million, making it the seventh highest-grossing film of 1973. Besides its gratuitous violence—always a draw—what surely resonated with its original audiences was its parable of an ordinary man rooting out wrongdoers in a deeply corrupt system. After Watergate, Kent State, and the political assassinations of the 1960s, Americans were ready for pop culture that reflected their mass disillusionment with institutions. Besides Walking Tall, in 1973 alone, they got Serpico, The Last Detail, and The Exorcist, which between them portray a fundamental loss of faith in the military, the justice system, the police force, and the Church. 

Structurally, Walking Tall has more in common with Death Wish, which came out a year later and transposed the gnarly revenge plot to an urban landscape, but in 1973 the rural setting stood out. Pusser (Joe Don Baker) is a country boy who has seen the world and decided to return to his hometown, do some farming with his father, and raise his family. Worldliness, however, has found its way home; since he left, an amorphous syndicate has opened a brothel and casino on the outskirts of town. When Pusser gets dragged there by an old friend, the trouble starts. There’s a brawl in which he gets the better of his opponents. The syndicate responds with violence. Then things really escalate.

Walking Tall screens at AFI Silver as part of a series curated by locally raised author George Pelecanos. The crime novelist has a soft spot for gritty B-movies of the ’70s, “which,” he writes on AFI’s website, “were originally looked upon as disposable entertainment to many in the cinema’s critical establishment.” You can see why Pelecanos, who worked with David Simon on The Wire and co-created We Own This City, connects with this film. It chronicles not just an abuse of power but a knotted criminal ecosystem that leaves individual citizens helpless to pursue their own destiny. 

Pusser is technically a lawman, but he’s more like a vigilante; even when he becomes sheriff, he never wears the uniform, and his choice of weapon—a four-foot wooden club—is rudimentary. “There’s more to upholding the law than swinging a big stick,” one character tells Pusser.

I’m not sure the film agrees. I’m also not sure it doesn’t. Even as it lionizes Pusser, Walking Tall subtly probes the blurred line between justice and revenge, ultimately settling on a chronicle of the toil they both exact on the human soul.

Half a century after the film’s release, its politics seem muddled. The way Walking Tall largely sidesteps racial injustice stands out, particularly for a film set in the American South. Pusser hires a Black deputy (Felton Perry) whose ambivalence in doling out justice to Black criminals is gestured at but never explored. Walking Tall lacks a sophisticated understanding of political justice and instead opts for the catharsis of seeing bad guys punished over and over and over again. That it ends in a place of nihilism—with Pusser wearily watching a mob set fire to the casino that started it all—seems almost accidental, as if the film itself lost conviction in its values as the production rolled on. Nevertheless, it lands on a point that feels authentic to its times: Justice can be served, but it takes a long time and might not be worth the cost.

The film is orchestrated masterfully by Phil Karlson, a workhorse director who got rich off Walking Tall—he negotiated a percentage of the profits—and retired shortly thereafter. And the film is just as ruthlessly efficient as its protagonist. The fight scenes are sturdily choreographed, and the story zips along nicely, while Karlson’s camera finds a few grace notes in life’s simple blessings, like a Christmas morning with your family or the expansive Southern skies. Ever a craftsman, Karlson resists the urge for any lyrical flourishes, and instead lets the rural beauty speak for itself, painting a portrait of an idyllic place sullied by the bloody mess of humanity. That’s a message that never gets old. 

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Walking Tall, part of George Pelecanos Presents, opens with an intro from George Pelecanos at 7 p.m. on March 31; it screens again at 3:30 p.m. April 3 and at 6:45 p.m. on  April 5 at AFI Silver Theatre. silver.afi.com. $11–$13.