Walking Tall (1973) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • Based on the life of Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser whom almost single-handily cleaned up his small town of crime and corruption, but at a personal cost of his family life and nearly his own life.

  • A surprise hit when it premiered, Walking Tall carried the theme of one man standing up for his sense of right and wrong. Selmer, a small town in southwest Tennessee, served as the authentic background for the bio-pic of the heroic southern Sheriff. Joe Don Baker did an admirable job with the role, and the hugely violent film was a surprise hit. Former Sheriff Pusser himself was set to potray himself in the sequel, but he died in a car crash as he as returning from his contract signing in California. The sequel was filmed using Swedish actor Bo Swensen, and a Final Chapter triquel told of Pussers' demise. While the Walking Tall franchise will never be on any list of Classic Film, the original is a great slice of Americana, Circa '70s. It made Bakers' career and perhaps kicked the 'southsploutation' genre of that decade into gear.

  • Buford Pusser's a wrestler, whose wife wants him to settle down, so they go to his home town in Tennessee, where he plans to get into business with his father. But he is shocked to discover all sorts of graft and corruption going on. And when he is a victim of it and decides to strike back by running against the corrupt sheriff. And he wins and wages his own little war against them.

  • "Hixploitation" drama, based on true events in the life of Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser, who "removes" corruption in his county with a four-foot-long wooden club. When the criminals attack his family, Buford shoots a whorehouse manager in the head and runs hillbilly gangsters over with his car.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Set in the mid 1960s, Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) returns with his family to his hometown of Adamsville, Tennessee after a stint in Chicago as a professional wrestler. Pusser moves his wife Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman) and their two children, Mike (Leif Garrett) and Dwana (Dawn Lyn), into a home a short distance from his parents, Carl (Noah Beery) and Helen (Lurene Tuttle). Soon after settling in, Buford reunites with old friend Lutie McVeigh (Ed Call), who is delighted to show Buford just how much the area has changed in his absence by taking him to the Lucky Spot roadhouse one afternoon. After Lutie promptly loses money playing craps, he borrows $50 from Buford who then watches the next round carefully. Spotting a player with an extra pair of dice, Buford accuses him of cheating, prompting the proprietor Buel Jaggers (Arch Johnson) and his men to attack Buford. A fierce brawl ensues in which Lutie is knocked out and Buford is eventually overpowered by four men. On Jaggers orders, his men carve several deep wounds into Buford's chest and back before dumping him in a roadside ditch and driving away in his car.

    After being taken home by a trucker, Buford is treated by Dr. Lamar Stivers (Don Keefer) and questioned by Sheriff Al Thurman (Gene Evans), who downplays the assault as men letting off steam. A few days later, Thurman returns to the Pusser home with his deputy Grady Coker (Bruce Glover) to report that he has not located Buford's car. Although Thurman implies that Lutie's reputation for telling tall tales will not help Buford if he presses charges against Jaggers, Buford insists on proceeding.

    After commencing work at his father's logging farm, Buford meets school friend Obra Eaker (Felton Perry), a young black man, and hires him immediately. When no action is taken on Bufords charge against Jaggers and his men, Buford fashions a large stick at the mill and goes to the Lucky Spot at closing where he bashes in the arm of each of the men involved in his assault. Buford then demands the frightened bookkeeper reimburse him for his lost car, his hospital bills and the money taken from him and Lutie.

    The next day, the corrupt Sheriff Thurman arrests Buford on charges of assault and robbery and, after Judge R.W. Clarke (Douglas V. Fowley) threatens him with a long sentence, Buford decides to represent himself in court. Just before the trial is about to begin, Carl informs Buford that Lutie's body has been discovered in the lake. Informing the jury that his only witness has been killed, Buford removes his shirt to display the multiple scars from his attack, prompting the jury to clear Buford of all charges. Delighted, Obra then suggests that Buford use his new popularity to run against Thurman for sheriff. Although Pauline pleads with Buford not to involve himself further in the regions rampant corruption, Buford decides to run against Thurman.

    Incensed, Thurman begins tracking Buford, hoping to catch him in any minor infraction. Pleased to find Buford speeding one day, Thurman races after him and tries to force Buford off the road several times, only to drive off a bridge and crash. Buford is able to pull Grady to safety, but the car burns before he can rescue Thurman.

    Soon after at the Lucky Spot, Jaggers meets with the other area club gangster owners, including Augie McCullah (Kenneth Tobey), the head of the regions illegal activities, and Callie Hacker (Rosemary Murphy), the madam who runs the sprawling Pine Ridge Club brothel. Despite Callie's orders to the others to spend lavishly to prevent Buford from being elected, he wins.

    On his first day as sheriff, Buford commands his deputies to apply the law equally and accept no bribes. Soon after, Buford is summoned to a morgue to view the bodies of eight black civil rights workers who died after apparently drinking poisoned moonshine. Offering Obra a position as deputy sheriff, Buford presses him for help and Obra takes him to the areas largest still, run by Willie Rae Lockman (Sam Laws), a black man who also owns a small nightclub near the Mississippi border. Arresting everyone at the still, Buford is dismayed when Judge Clarke later throws out all the charges because the new sheriff did not follow proper procedures in securing warrants and informing the accused of their rights.

    Although frustrated, Buford proceeds more carefully and soon has his deputies making regular checks for illegal liquor at the areas bars and roadhouses. Some time later, Buford receives a visit by government representative John Witter (Logan Ramsey), who advises Buford that harassing local businesses has ramifications in the state capital, Nashville. When Buford refuses Witters invitation to visit Nashville, Witter cautions him that ideals and reality are often very far apart.

    Undaunted, Buford, Obra, Grady and the deputies resume making surprise checks on all the clubs, angering the various owners, but Callie warns that Witter has instructed them to leave Buford alone temporarily as his activities in McNairy County have received attention in the Nashville press. Meanwhile, Buford remains frustrated in his dealings with the corrupt Judge Clarke, who continually undercuts guilty verdicts of gamblers and liquor runners by applying minimal fines and few detentions.

    Later, Buford is outraged when a surprise simultaneous mass search of all the area clubs yields no illegal activities, suggesting there is an informer on Buford's staff. One night while taking a back road home, a car races past Buford and when he gives chase and pulls the car over, he is shot twice in the chest. Recovering at home, Buford bitterly notes the get-well gifts from the corrupt club owners and, despite Pauline's pleas, insists he must start carrying a gun in addition to his large stick.

    Soon after, Buford assembles all his deputies and proceeds to a new still that he plans to destroy. There he accuses deputy Virgil Button (Ted Jordan) of betraying him, as he is the only one who knew of Buford driving the back roads home. When Virgil breaks down and admits to taking bribes, Buford fires him.

    Over the next several days, Buford makes numerous successful raids on the clubs, prompting Callie to suspect that the organization now has a leak. Although Jaggers suggests killing Buford, Callie hesitates as Witter's has not authorized so drastic an act. Acting on his own, one of Jaggers men ambushes Buford's home a few nights later, firing two shot gun blasts through the living room window, resulting in the death of the family dog. Buford runs after the assailant and kills him.

    Soon after, Luan Paxton (Brenda Benét), one of the prostitutes at the Lucky Spot who has befriended Buford and has been informing him about the illegal activities the gangs are part of, telephones him with a tip that Callie and her henchman are torturing one of the other girls, Margie Ann, whom they suspect of informing. Buford rescues Margie Ann and beats up Callie's man in front of her. Later, Buford provides Luan with money to leave town safely.

    Outraged by Buford's boldness, Callie fakes the robbery of a jewel salesman on Christmas Day at the Lucky Spot to lure Buford there. When he arrives, she opens fire on him with a shotgun blast that hits several customers, but misses the sheriff, who shoots and kills her.

    After Callie's death, there is a lull in criminal activity in McNairy County. One morning, shortly after a pleasant picnic with his family, Buford receives an early morning call regarding trouble at a new still, and when Pauline asks to accompany Buford, he agrees. On the drive, two cars carrying Jaggers, McCullah and their men drive by the Pussers and riddle the car with gunshots, killing Pauline with a random shot to the back of her head. Pulling over, Buford hysterically radios for help, but Jaggers and McCullah drive by again, shoot Buford in the face and leave him for dead.

    Soon after Pauline's funeral, Buford, swathed in a heavy neck and face cast, drives out to the Lucky Spot and plows his car into the club, running down Jaggers and McCullah. Afterward, Obra and Grady arrive to take Buford back to the hospital while numerous townsfolk set fire to the Lucky Spot to reclaim law and order for their town.

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