vigilante politics

Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser in Walking Tall 1973.jpg

Walking Tall was on television while I was trapped inside during the initial days of 2018. Not the lame PG version starring The Rock but the original gritty 1973 offering with Joe Don Baker in the title role.

That movie was loosely based on former Tennessee Sheriff Buford Pusser. A big stick and some locals claim, a glossing over of the truth, permeated the Hollywood version. America was just coming to grips with horrible liberal ideas like racial equality, respect for working women, and fair treatment to accused perpetrators. Miranda Rights were more likely a movie sub plot than an actual practice, especially in the South.

Death Wish, the Dirty Harry series, The Choirboys were all cop movies taking a political stance. Police Brutality was a new concept and America was still terribly divided by the Viet Nam War.

Movies about heroic law officers valiantly fighting mafia connected criminals while liberal courts, the media, and pantywaist citizens restricted their efforts were as popular as father/son movies where neither understood the other.

Right in the midst of this came Walking Tall, the inspirational story of a Tennessee sheriff that gained fame for cleaning up McNairy County Tennessee. Joe Don Baker was perfect as Pusser and the movie was typical of Seventies grit, a newfound relish for violence, and political messaging.

I never saw the whole movie. Saw bits and pieces in later years as it entered rerun status. I decided against donating my money to the cause after I figured out what the message would be, especially after a series of ads ran on local am radio just before the movie premiered in Tuscaloosa.

The spot featured the local owner of the theater chain enthusiastically endorsing this movie. He said Walking Tall represented what was right with America in those fractured times, and urged parents to take the kids, even though it featured an “R” rating. But the rating was for violence, not sex.

I’ll never forget that last line. It remains the most memorable thing about Walking Tall for me. Walking Tall offered the kids a lengthy ambush of Pusser and his wife that rivaled the ending of Bonnie and Clyde. It featured the local sheriff enforcing his rules with a giant stick capable of splitting heads open with one swing. And all this was deemed okay because the future of America was at stake.

Sam Peckinpaugh was credited with ushering graphic violence into American theaters with The Wild Bunch. Slow motion gore with blood and flesh flying became a mainstay in movies. So did the obligatory sex scene, or at least a shot of a naked woman about an hour in.

True to our Puritan roots, we Americans had much more of an issue with the nudity and promiscuous sex than we did the extreme violence. To this day we are unchanged. I’m not enough of an expert to claim this has some influence on our society. But we do live in a time where violence, real and make believe, is mostly ignored, while we treat sex like a bunch of junior high kids.

Someone more educated than me must read the signs and decide if this is significant.

Image: Promotional photo of Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser in Walking Tall (1973) Bing Crosby Productions.
Mike Cox

Mike Cox

Mike Cox currently writes a weekly column in South Carolina for the Columbia Star called "It's Not a Criticism, It's an Observation." He is trying to grow old as gracefully as possible without condemning the current generation in charge to doom. Each day this task gets harder as the overwhelming evidence mounts. He currently has two published books; Finding Daddy Cox, and October Saturdays. His columns have won three South Carolina Press Association awards since 2003. Mike has three sons and two grandchildren and lives in Irmo, Sc, just outside of Columbia.