Sheriff Buford Pusser
This remake of the 1973 hit starring Joe Don Baker is loosely based on the life of Sheriff Buford Pusser. In 1964 Pusser was elected, and took over, vice-ridden McNary County on the border of Mississippi and Tennessee. Citizens had become disgusted by the spillover of drugs, gambling and prostitution into their rural communities. Graft and corruption had created a no-man's land where police, either because they were afraid or on the take, stayed away.
The original movie freely embellished the events of Pusser's crusade to stamp out the rackets. The Buford Pusser Museum and gift shop in Adamsville, Tennessee demonstrates the awe and affection that Pusser enjoyed among the citizenry. Visitors may purchase replicas of his badge. For ten dollars you can have a copy of the big stick he used to club crime on the head.
The new Walking Tall, starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson of TV wrestling fame, could be called Buford Pusser Lite. Gone is the deeply flawed lawman of truth and legend. The story is relocated to a mill town in Washington State. It is filmed at Squamish, British Columbia, near the famed Whistler ski resort. Buford Pusser's name is changed to the less antebellum, Chris Vaughn, and he is now a recently discharged Special Forces soldier. (Watch out, bad guys!) He returns to his childhood home, desiring only a job at the lumber mill and the comforting proximity of family and old friends.
A childhood rival has inherited the mill, shut it down and used the money to fund a casino and drug empire. Chris Vaughn is drawn into the fight, gets elected sheriff and begins to take care of business. He smashes up the dens of vice, and the vice lord's henchmen. No one can stop him. This is the stuff of which gubernatorial candidates are made.
The Rock makes an appealing hero, well-spoken, kind and self-deprecating. He is loyal to Mom, Dad and Sis, and to his old pals. Unfortunately, the complexity of Buford Pusser is gone, replaced by a very nice man who could beat up just about anybody. Johnson, a 6-foot-5 tower of muscle, is an engaging screen presence, but when he fights the tough guys it's hard to imagine any of them withstanding one punch, let alone a drawn-out brawl.
The plot is greatly simplified from the original movie and from the actual events. Buford Pusser's wife was murdered in an ambush that nearly killed Pusser. Sheriff Chris Vaughn gets beat up pretty badly, but nobody in his family is harmed. His friends also survive what in real life would have been a hellishly murderous war. This new version also wallows in the American gun fetish. While Sheriff Chris relies mostly on his big stick, the bad guys run around with belt-fed machine guns, like the ones used on Humvees in Iraq. As is usual in gun films, the bad guys are spectacularly inept marksmen. After a few thousand rounds, most real machine gunners are able to hit something, especially if it is fifty feet away.
Like the hicksploitation genre from which it was spawned, Walking Tall is long on violence and short on police procedure. The original film came at a time when drug dealing was a relatively new phenomenon and prisons were perceived as revolving doors. Judicial reforms like the 1966 Miranda Decision, requiring police to read suspects their rights, were meant to reign in rogue cops. A crime-weary public sought a more simple approach. In the movies, rogue cops like Dirty Harry, Popeye Doyle of The French Connection, and Buford Pusser were the new anti-heroes. They broke the law to enforce it. They were direct, unambiguous and violent. Luckily for the citizenry, they never shot an innocent man. All their arrests were clean, and nobody got railroaded into an undeserved prison sentence.
In this Walking Tall, a Canadian casino/strip joint serves as the bad guys' main cash cow. The strippers and lap dancers keep their skimpy costumes on but the sleazy atmosphere is faithfully rendered. The main difference between this casino and real casinos, though, is that everyone in this casino is young and gorgeous. No flabby retirees looking for a cheap buffet here.
Given that WWF wrestling is the most popular television program for young Canadian and American men, it will be hard to keep teenagers away from a film that stars The Rock. Most of them will see the cartoonish violence the way they see wrestling and video games: as theater. Not all young people will be as sophisticated, however. Impressionable kids who injure one another trying to replicate TV wrestling stunts in their back yards might come away with the idea that raw violence is the way to root out crime.
Buford Pusser was immortalized by three screen portrayals of his career, Walking Tall (1973), Walking Tall II (1976), and Walking Tall III: The Final Chapter (1977), McNairy County Sheriff Buford Pusser earned a reputation as a hard-nosed, no nonsense law officer who settled disputes with a large homemade bat. By age thirty-two he had been shot eight times, stabbed seven, and run over by felons in a car. On August 12, 1967, Pusser witnessed the violent death of his wife in an ambush that was meant for him. Permanently disfigured, Pusser underwent numerous reconstructive surgeries to mend his battered face and crushed jaw.
Born December 12, 1937, in Adamsville, Pusser moved to Oklahoma during his junior year in high school. From there he joined the U.S. Marines but was discharged due to chronic asthma. Disheartened, he returned to Adamsville in 1958 and traveled the semiprofessional wrestling circuit in the Southeast until his marriage to Pauline Mullins in 1959.
The couple moved to Chicago, where he found employment at the Union Paper Bag Company as a die cutter and their child, Dwana Aitoya Pusser, was born. Shortly thereafter, the Pussers returned to McNairy County. In September 1962 Pusser ran for constable and upset the incumbent by over one hundred votes. Taking his job seriously, he made a crusade out of crushing the local illegal whiskey trade.
The McNairy County sheriff, James Dickey, was in cahoots with the moonshine ring which operated along the state lines of Tennessee and Mississippi. Incensed by the collusion of local authorities in supporting criminal activity, Pusser decided to run against Dickey for sheriff, choosing to run as a Republican in a staunchly Democratic county. His election was assured when Dickey died in an automobile accident.
In November 1964 he suffered his first assault by the members of the moonshine ring. Ambushed by assailants who stabbed him seven times and left him to die, Pusser survived and made war on the ring with a vengeance. In his first year as sheriff he raided forty-two stills and arrested seventy-five moonshiners. In subsequent years he expanded his attempts to clean up the crime-ridden state line area by prosecuting prostitution rings and illegal gambling houses.
In 1969 the Tennessee General Assembly recognized Pusser for his accomplishments and made him an honorary sergeant of arms. His career as sheriff ended in 1970, but his fame was just beginning. He signed a contract with Bing Crosby productions in 1972 to film his life story. Walking Tall became a box-office smash, but Pusser died in a car wreck on August 21, 1974. He had attended the McNairy County Fair, and while returning home to Adamsville, his car suddenly shot off the road where it crashed and burned, killing him instantly. In 2000, Highway 64 was named the Buford Pusser Highway, in his honor. A memorial was erected to him on the spot where he had his fatal accident. His death and the success of the first story spawned two sequels, neither of which was as successful as the first.
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