Counting down the 12 days until Christmas with the 12 greatest (I know they’re all great) Joe Don Baker films! 12 high points in the Texas born actor’s great stable of performances all the while celebrating the true spirit of Christmas along the way! So grab a bottle of Wild Turkey and prepare to have some Christmas spirit fed to you from the sweet supple teat of JDB!
Walking Tall (1973)
By The BK Basement
What is it? The “true” story of ex-wrestler Bufford “The Bull” Pusser turned Sheriff and his violent journey for justice.
Who’s in it besides Joe Don Baker? Elizabeth Hartman(Pauline Pusser), Leif Garrett (Mike Pusser), Arch Johnson (Buel Jaggers), Directed by Phil Karlson
What is Joe Don Baker Doing? Joe Don Baker is Bufford “The Bull” Pusser, a professional wrestler come home tired from a life on the road and with “the system” only to find his home town has been struck with epidemics of vice and corruption!
Why is it on day 2? The question is why isn’t this on day one? Or 12? Because this is THE Joe Don Baker movie. This is where he skyrocketed from B-list character actor into the unholy cultural behemoth that is JDB. A little movie that could, this was a huge sleeper hit that helped launch the “hicksploitation” genre that JDB and Burt Reynolds would together deflower throughout the 1970’s. There’s a reason why we’ve already tackled this movie on PCAMM here, this movie was a HUGE hit when it was released, it spawned two sequels and a TV series and Joe Don Baker became an icon.
Walking Tall begins with a text that describes the acts of the real Sheriff Bufford Pusser and the historical accuracy of the film you are about to view, but then following the summation of Pusser is “…A living legend” It lets you know right off the bat how it is going to portray Bufford Pusser (Who was a technical consultant on the film, which considering the end result its amazing anyone consulted on this film). If there was any more hero worship of Bufford in the film the camera would literally kneel down and orally service the man.
This is a very interesting film (and the hicksploitation genre in general) where a lot of the values and aspects of the then fading western genre transposed themselves into modern genres. The ‘revenge’ or rouge cop films of the 1970’s (Dirty Harry, Death Wish, hell even White Lightning) all dealt with corruption in a modern system and how justice was being buried under bureaucracy. Sure these films were about as subtle as say Joe Don Baker driving a car into a building killing every one inside, but they were an outlet for a frustrated part of the population. As a counter to the ‘counter culture’ these films with more conservative values had an audience and went as extreme in their beliefs as the counter culture films were going. Walking Tall still has a strong following today and much of JDB’s success after this film is based on people’s cultural knowledge of him in the Bufford Pussor role. Just look at that poster! That’s all you need to know about the films politics right there. The film came out in the middle of the Vietnam War and it bleeds into the film, a man returned from a violent career, jaded by the system that took advantage of him comes home to find his quaint small town is full of corruption and vice. Joe Don Baker’s portrayal of Pusser is pissed. He starts the movie pissed, ends it pissed and is pissed the whole way through. This anger powers the film; Pusser sees something wrong with his town and is determined to do something about it no matter the cost, which is inherently noble. The slogan for the movie upon its release was “When was the last time you stood up and applauded a movie?” this movie was meant to invigorate people who thought that they were living in a country falling apart.
JDB’s performance in this is one of his best; Bufford is portrayed as man with great heart and values, though he is shown often being violent it’s his soft and ‘just’ side that humanizes him and justifies his actions. JDB walks this tightrope well, he manages to find the balance in the character that keeps him likeable and from being a sociopath. His boisterous attitude and big goofy smile ground Pusser.
This film defines Joe Don Baker’s career, almost everything he does after Walking Tall references back to this film. His minor roles are based solely on this performance; everything from Leonard Part 6 to Cape Fear. Why is it so cool that Robert Redford strikes him out as “The Whammer” in The Natural? Because he was a large, big mouthed jerk? No, because he was the guy from Walking Tall and that man was a badass. Joe Don Baker made a career of being a character actor, he’s pretty much the same guy in every film, like Walter Mathau or even someone like Claude Raines. As soon as you saw them, you knew 80% of the character already.
Depending on your personal politics you may love this movie, or laugh until the credits roll. It’s like Red Dawn, it wears its politics on its sleeves and you have to take it or leave it for what it is. The elements of a transposed western (the south replacing the wild west, and whiskey (now meth!) replacing cattle rustlers) and its values are an interesting topic regardless of the quality of ‘hicksploitation’ films.
Best Joe Don Baker moments:
- JDB tearing his shirt off in court is brilliant and terrifying.
- After (the first time) Pusser gets the shit kicked out of him and left on the side of the road the only car to stop for him is a big rig! ‘Merica!
- JDB fighting racism with racism
- He puts the judges quarters in the restroom! Take that system!
- Killing people in his Hannibal Lecter face cast is still scary as shit.
- The Johnny Mathis song at the end is…its just terrible