Remake keeps the stick, cuts ties to South

Much of the flavor of original lost in `Walking Tall' redux

November 17, 2003|By Bobby Bryant | Bobby Bryant,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

You got a warrant?" someone asks Sheriff Buford Pusser in the 1973 movie Walking Tall, and that is not a question you want to ask this sheriff.

"Yeah, I keep it in my shoe!" growls Pusser (Joe Don Baker). SMASH! The bad boys in Tennessee are hurting again.

Made fast and shot cheap, the bloody, R-rated Walking Tall electrified Southern drive-in audiences, grossing a reported $17 million on a small investment. Part of its power came from its simple story of a lawman cleaning up a county with a big stick and a big fist.

But audiences also knew it was, at heart, a true story about a real man who nearly died in his war on crime.

Walking Tall is coming back to theater screens again, as a 2004 remake produced by MGM. They're keeping the big stick - but foolishly throwing out the real man, and turning one of the most fundamentally Southern films ever made into just another action flick.

In the remake the Joe Don Baker role goes to wrestler-turned-actor The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) and the story moves from Tennessee to Washington state.

The main character is still a crusading sheriff but his name has been changed to Chris. The movie's title remains the same, But the story's Southern links are being severed.

Buford H. Pusser, a big man who once worked as a wrestler, was in his 20s when first elected sheriff of McNairy County, Tenn., in 1964. He soon began targeting gambling, prostitution and moonshine rings operating along the Tennessee-Mississippi line.

In 1967, Pusser and his wife, Pauline, were driving in McNairy County when someone in another car fired a fusillade of shots at their vehicle, killing her and severely wounding the sheriff. He recovered, but no one was ever charged in the attack. (Pusser died in a single-car crash in 1974 after leaving office; his death was ruled accidental.)

Pusser's crusade brought him fame and a movie deal. The '73 film, directed by Phil Karlson and starring Baker as the sheriff and Elizabeth Hartman as his wife, was a huge hit at drive-ins all over the South.

The filmmakers made no attempt to conceal Pusser's identity - he's referred to by his real name throughout the movie. In the film, Pusser's signature is clobbering criminals with a big stick. The real Pusser carried a gun as well. Walking Tall sequels followed in 1975 and 1977, both starring Bo Svenson as Pusser.

Since the MGM film is still in postproduction for a release in spring 2004, details are hard to come by. From all accounts, it's "inspired by," but no longer "based on," the real story. "I can't play, or be, Buford Pusser," The Rock has been quoted as saying. "Buford was in his 40s and white. ... I've got a great makeup artist ... [but] he cannot make me look like that." (The Rock is of African-American and Samoan-American descent. He is 31; Pusser was about 26 when elected sheriff.

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