[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
“[Karlson’s] special brand of lynch hysteria establishes such an outrageous moral imbalance that the most unthinkable violence releases the audience from its helpless passivity.” Andrew Sarris’s five-year-old assessment of Phil Karlson’s work up until that time anticipates exactly what makes Walking Tall so frighteningly effective and yet so morally devious. Based on the true-life experiences of a Tennessee sheriff named Buford Pusser, Karlson’s latest film is a seductive and potent fantasy of impossible good vs. heartwarmingly unambiguous evil. Pusser (Joe Don Baker), disillusioned with the organized dishonesty of the wrestling game, quits to return to the idyllically rural environs of his hometown, only to discover that the same evil has wormed its way into Eden in the guise of gambling, mobile cathouses, and poisonous moonshine. It never seems to occur to Pusser that all these criminal activities could be killed off by economic boycott, that someone is buying these soul-destroying services. Unhampered by any newfangled notions about free will, Buford Pusser turns self-styled savior and spends the rest of the film alternately harrowing and being crucified by the forces of Hell.
Karlson is diabolically adept at arousing partisan support for his hero, who suffers incredible physical abuse at the hands of as unrelievedly cruel a bunch of bad guys as one might imagine in the most allegorical of fantasies. When these paragons of vice start gunning for Buford’s Norman Rockwell family and actually murder the family dog—well, you’re ready for whatever havoc the man wishes to wreak upon their dehumanized heads. Righteous violence—always loosed and hallowed by the vicious butcheries of the opposition—reaches its peak in the aftermath of the machine-gunning of Pusser’s gun-hating wife. Karlson preps us for revenge with a series of real tearjerking scenes, the best (or worst) of which is the one that has the couple’s young son manfully carry rifle and ammunition to the hospital where he then stands grim guard beside his surviving parent. So much for mother’s tenderhearted objections to her husband’s gifting of the child with a rifle—look where her anti-gun sentiments got her. After attending his wife’s emotion-fraught funeral, Pusser, his mask of white surgical tape making him look like a divinely inspired golem, indulges in a final orgy of murder—sorry, executions. Finally getting into the spirit of things, a clutch of townsfolk ransack the gang’s gambling den to burn up a heap of inoffensive furniture. One suspects that with Buford’s example they might have been more turned on by a less symbolic auto-da-fé, but unfortunately, there are no live victims in the wake of Pusser’s passing. A film like Walking Tall is easy game for this kind of after-the-fact critical exorcism, but when it’s on the screen its power is undeniable, wellnigh irresistible. Stumbling blindly about in the moral half-light of current events, audiences are only too susceptible to a directorial vision which admits of no shadows in its world of purest black and white. I mean, when was the last time you stood up and applauded a film? Or anything?
Direction: Phil Karlson. Screenplay: Mort Briskin. Cinematography: Jack A. Marta. Music: Walter Scharf. Production: Briskin.
The Players: Joe Don Baker, Elizabeth Hartman, Noah Beery, Weldon Parry, Rosemary Murphy, Kenneth Tobey, Brenda Benét, Gene Evans, Bruce Glover, Red West.
Copyright © 1973 Kathleen Murphy