Retired wrestler Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) returns to his hometown to settle down with his family, as his wife Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman) wished him to give up his life of violence. So the first thing they do when they reach there is go to see his parents, and they are delighted to greet them, yet while they are happy that the Pussers will be close by, his mother warns him things are not quite the same as what they were before Buford left the first time. A meeting with an old friend who invites him out to a tavern just out of town appears to confirm this...
Buford finds his boyhood idyll has been overrun with gambling, prostitution and general corruption, and the rest is history, even if it didn't exactly play out the way that the fictionalised version did here, although it was perfectly true that he decided to run for Sheriff and clean up the town. Loosely based on a true story, Walking Tall was sort of like Dirty Harry set in the country, and although not as well recalled as the Clint Eastwood classic, it was a huge hit in its day, mostly at the drive-ins of the world where its capable but brutal hero could strike a nerve with the same crowd who would make Death Wish the success it was.
We could tell Pusser is basically a decent fellow because he loves his wife and kids and makes his black friend Obra (Felton Perry) a deputy - indeed, the social conscience that in many other "clean up this town" movies would take a back seat to the action was very prominent here, so that the filmmakers, who funnily enough were backed by Bing Crosby, could appeal to the audience's sense of justice both criminal and social. In action movies of the seventies there was a marked tendency to make sure the viewer was taught a lesson in doing what was right and standing up to the evildoers of the world, and few felt that more deeply than was in evidence here.
The villains, on the other hand, in contrast to a practically one man crusade, were everywhere, whether they're trying to run Buford's car off the road, making sure criminals get off on technicalities, or running illegal casinos and moonshine; once he's elected Sheriff he certainly has his work cut out for him. The film's strongest asset was in its casting of Baker, for the conviction he set about the role sold it in a production that was rather rude, crude, rough and ready otherwise. There is a certain amount of satisfaction to be gained from watching him beat the hell out of the baddies, in an "it's the only language they understand" kind of way, but no one takes a bigger beating than Buford.
Which did mirror real life to an extent, for regular attempts on Pusser's lfe and those of his loved ones were all too indicative of the kind of routine the Sheriff had to put up with in his drive to keep the crime out of the county, one of the poorest, and therefore most prone to criminal exploitation, in the United States. Buford himself died in suspicious circumstances the year after Walking Tall made him a worldwide name to be reckoned with; he might have been murdered, or it may have been a car accident, whatever the case it did prevent us from seeing him play himself in the sequels, of which there were two for the movies, as well as a watered down, semi-remake starring Dwayne Johnson. Like his home-made baseball bat, the original was primitive, but effective. Watch for: the old sheriff's car exploding before it crashes, the reading of the rights scene. Music by Walter Scharf, and listen for the theme song sung by, erm, Johnny Mathis (why not Bing?).