Eddie Bond, the rockabilly singer whose country ballads about a West Tennessee lawman put Sheriff Buford Pusser on the pop-culture map, once said, "The Buford Pusser I knew didn't carry a stick. The Buford Pusser I knew carried a machine gun." Bond was referring to the Hollywood myth that Pusser faced down the dangerous State Line Mob using nothing but a fence post.
To that extent, the current remake of Pusser's celluloid biography Walking Tall is a bit truer than the first. Although the Pusser character still uses a big stick to exact justice, there are a lot more guns. That's about the only thing the filmmakers got right. That's a shame because Pusser's story is not only worthy of retelling, it's worthy of a real filmmaker like Scorsese, whose interest in moral ambiguities outstrips his fascination with shoot-em-ups and explosions. Sadly' it's been remade into just another action movie. But before I can begin essay the new Walking Tall, I've got to tell at least part of the real story.
Pusser wanted to be a Marine, but he developed asthma and was honorably discharged after his basic training. The discharge sent him into a depression that he was never able shake. He left his hometown to study the mortuary arts in Chicago. There he became a professional wrestler: Buford the Wild Bull." He met his wife Pauline at one of the matches, and eventually, the couple moved back to McNairy County, where Pusser would distinguish himself as the brutal sheriff who singlehandedly destroyed the most vicious, politically connected gang in the South.
The state line between Selmer, Tennessee, and Corinth, Mississippi, was virtually off limits to law enforcement. Conveniently, there was confusion as to who had jurisdiction there. As a result, a criminal industry flourished. Big-time gangsters from all over America used the state line as a place to cool off. It had everything any criminal could want: gambling, whores, and bootleg whisky. The major players included Louise Hathcock, owner of the Shamrock, (preferred weapon: the ball-peen hammer), and Towhead White, who fancied himself the Al Capone of the South.
Pusser took the fight to the criminals, and they fought back like wounded wolves. He and his wife were ambushed in their car one morning and left for dead. Pauline was killed. The entire lower half of Buford's face was shot off, but he lived. Now his mission to wipe out the State Line Mob was laced with revenge.
But what about the all-new Walking Tall? For starters, the main character's name has been changed from Buford Pusser to Chris Vaughn. That should just about say all there is to say. The film's star, The Rock, who began his career as a professional wrestler, said he just couldn't see himself playing somebody named Buford Pusser. Oh, the irony! Also, the location as been changed from the Tennessee/Mississippi border to rural Washington State. Vaughn/Pusser is depicted, not as a failure looking to make good but as a badass hero of U.S. Special Forces whose military history is so brutal he doesn't want to remember it. He just wants to go home, work at the sawmill. Only there's no more sawmill it's been closed down and turned into a meth lab. The former mill owner lied about his heritage and opened an Indian casino, where he seels his drugs. Vaughn, unlike Pusser, is an unmarried, childless hero, but he does have a soft spot for his old sweetheart who is now working as a stripper. Vaughn runs for sheriff after he's nearly killed by the casino's security when he catches the house cheating. But he doesn't Hulk-out until his nephew nearly overdoses on meth. That's when the action starts.
The new Walking Tall is a vaguely moral, comic book-style interpretation of the original story: It's all good guys versus bad guys. The dark ambiguities of the original story have been completely eliminated. If the original 1970's film trilogy (also wildly inaccurate) watered Pusser's story down, the remake has turned it into a fiction. If you crave lowbrow thrills, Walking Tall can deliver. There are machine gun fights, strippers, and a pickup truck gets cut to bits with a chainsaw. If you're looking for a great story about crime and punishment read W.M. Morris' Pusser bio The Twelfth of August. That a tale so dark and tragic you wonder why, after four films, nobody has come close to telling the truth.
"The original contract signed was very vague and essentially left it wide open for whoever to do what they pleased with the name 'Walking Tall,'" says Pusser's daughter Dwana. "It is somewhat different from the original movie. However, the underlying message is still there. [The Rock] does a fine job portraying the character inspired by my dad's life."
If it's good enough for Dwana, who still lives with the ghosts of her father's violent past, it should be good enough for a curiosity seeker like me, long fascinated with the myths, ambiguities, and realities surrounding the big lawman's life. But somehow it's not.