My mother used to take me to church when I was a little kid. Although we lived in a small town, our church seemed massive, big enough for a six-year-old to get lost in. It was a Southern Baptist church, the largest in Forest, Mississippi, although a fairly substantial Methodist church and a much smaller Presbyterian church both stood nearby. We attended this Baptist church for years and to a kid, going to church just seemed like something everyone did. It didn’t really affect me much then. It was sort of like seeing half of your friends on a Sunday, which was better than seeing none of them.
After several years (I suppose I was about 10), my mom announced to me that we would be attending a different church the next Sunday. (“We” meant just the two of us. My dad didn’t go to church.) It was still a Baptist church, but much smaller than our previous one. I was pretty indifferent to the change, really more concerned about which of my friends I would see there rather than any theological differences (which didn’t matter to me or probably most of the other 10-year-olds I knew).
Although Temple Baptist Church was a very small church (with probably less than 100 congregants), I was familiar with it, since this was where I’d gone to kindergarten. I also knew some of the kids there (maybe five or six) and soon made new friends. One of those was a kid named Bill Ballard, the pastor’s son, who was a couple of years younger than me. Bill was a typical PK (preacher’s kid), getting into mostly minor trouble, engaged in various shenanigans which I often went along with or gave my consent to. Bill was cool and, as I was soon to discover, so was his dad, Paul Ballard.
Some months after my mom and I had started attending Temple, Ballard announced that there was a movie coming to town, a movie he wanted everyone in the congregation to see, even the kids. “The movie is rated R,” he said (and I paraphrase), “but it’s an important movie and you should all see it.”
That movie was Walking Tall (1973), directed by Phil Karlson, a movie I’d seen advertised in the Jackson, Mississippi newspapers with an ad featuring images of a seductive-looking woman, men firing automatic rifles from a passing car, and Joe Don Baker wielding what looked like a primitive baseball bat. I was just as captivated by the ad’s tag lines, one of which was “Might just turn out to be this year’s sleeper and emulate the runaway success of Billy Jack.”
I’d seen Billy Jack at least a couple of times and admired it greatly. My friends and I reenacted Billy Jack’s karate moves so many times we hurt ourselves, not due to any effective karate prowess, but from our own ineptitude. Walking Tall promised to be even more exciting, since all this guy needed was to swing that stick a few times and heads would roll, perhaps literally.
The newspaper ads promised even more: “The powerful and true story of Sheriff Buford Pusser who couldn’t be bought… couldn’t be killed.” This was getting better and better. I read further, and here, certainly, was the theological element our pastor was so excited about: “Buford ‘The Bull’ made them pay for every sin!” Was this why Pastor Ballard wanted us to see the movie? Was the penalty for sins a busted head via a Stone Age baseball bat? (If so, I was about to pay a whole lot more attention in Sunday School...)
My buddies and I had also seen the trailer for the movie, and were impressed on several counts. First, Joe Don Baker swung the big stick in such a way as to suggest he’d probably demolished the movie camera. Second, in a courtroom scene, Baker rips his shirt off to reveal a roadmap of scars as he yells to the jury, shouting the word “damn.” I thought, “Man, if he says ‘damn’ in the preview, there’s no telling what he’ll say in the actual movie!”
My young mind raced with all the possibilities while Pastor Ballard talked about the film, so I can’t remember most of his justification for wanting us to see it, but I do remember the silence that followed when he said, “In a couple of weeks, a good friend of mine, Buford Pusser, the real Buford Pusser depicted in the movie, is going to speak at Temple Baptist Church.”
I’m not sure anyone in our church - maybe even in our whole town - had ever met someone who’d had a movie made about them. This was huge. Would Pusser look as tough as Joe Don Baker looked in the previews? Would he bring the big stick? Would he whack the hell out of somebody if they got out of line?
These were all big questions, but the biggest question of all eventually hit me. How was I going to be able to watch this movie seated next to my mother?
What could I do? Anyone under 17 had to be accompanied by a parent or guardian, so that was that. Besides, if sitting with my mom was going to be a problem, it was going to be a problem for all my other friends else as well.
When the day finally came for us to gather at the Town Theater to see the movie as a church, I thought of something else even more terrible. What if some of the parents decided the movie was too offensive, too violent, too profane, and decided to leave with their kids in tow? All it would take was one mom standing up, grabbing little Timmy by the arm, and storming out of the theater. Then others would follow and only the dads (including Pastor Paul) would be left watching the movie. Man…
Finally the lights went down, the theater grew dark, and we saw our first images of the movie, which were a little disappointing: a car pulling a trailer down a lonely rural road. No bad guys, no big stick, but we did see a bit of inspiring text onscreen: “A motion picture suggested by certain events in the life of Buford Pusser, sheriff of McNairy County, Tennessee — a living legend.” A living legend… It said it right there, and we were going to meet him in a few weeks! (I was also encouraged by seeing in the opening credits the name Richard X. Slattery, an actor who notoriously played bad guys. No doubt he would meet the big stick at some point, and he probably had it coming to him.)
After several minutes of what I considered “boring stuff” - the set-up of Pusser retiring from wrestling, moving back to his hometown, etc. - we finally get to our first moment of genuine excitement, Pusser’s first visit to the Lucky Spot. Here we see the establishment’s women getting friendly with the male customers, drinking, gambling, and the event that stopped us all in our tracks: Brenda Benet walking into the bar, wearing a see-through top. Strangely enough, no moms (including mine) were taking their kids out of the theater.
I won’t belabor the point, but I was about to learn a very important lesson about sex in the movies, that all onscreen nudity was not about arousal. Later in the film, we see another naked woman, but one who’d been the recipient of violence. This was something I’d never experienced: an image of sexuality and violence. There was (and still is) something wrong about it and I didn’t like it. I wasn’t aroused by this later scene, but rather disgusted and probably a little scared.
Of course the main reason we were excited about seeing the film was to watch Pusser bust some heads, which he certainly does. In my 11-year-old mind, this was way better than Billy Jack. Although Walking Tall contains nowhere near the violence you see in many contemporary films, it was quite shocking for me and my friends. We probably didn’t think about it then, but I’m sure our parents were less concerned about the onscreen nudity we saw than the violence we were digesting. Perhaps they knew that we might try to recreate some of the scenes from the movie the same way we’d done for Billy Jack. Yet it also reminds me of a discussion I had recently with a couple of guys about the way American movie audiences have been frequently uncomfortable with onscreen nudity, but wholeheartedly embrace onscreen violence. (Of course, this is a generalization, but look at the history of American cinema as a whole and see if you disagree.) Take that for what it’s worth.
We all left the theater pumped up, excited to meet the real Buford Pusser in person. When that night finally arrived, our little church was packed, not only with our regular congregation, but also with people from all over town, including newspaper reporters and photographers. As we waited, I remember being close enough to Pastor Ballard to hear him whisper to one of his deacons, “I wish we could get this many people to show up on a Sunday morning…”
Then something happened at the church entrance. Lightning flashes from cameras bombarded the foyer and grew brighter as the crowd began to part, allowing entrance to one of the tallest, most intimidating-looking individuals I’d ever seen. And damned if he wasn’t carrying a big stick.
In that moment I learned a valuable lesson: while actors may often look like the people they portray, there’s a huge difference between the two. Compared to the real Buford Pusser, Joe Don Baker was a pretty boy. Take a look at this photo of Pusser with short hair, taken some time after his recovery from the brutal attacks depicted in the film. You can see the severe damage around his left eye and particularly the mouth and jaw. (The doctor who operated on Pusser said that his jaw was practically shot away.)
In this second photo, taken several years later, the stitches around the eye are much more visible, but Pusser has his hand to his chin, covering up the damage to his jaw. This photo and the one below shows what Pusser looked like the night he came to our church. I don’t remember how Pastor Ballard introduced Pusser and how their friendship began. I suspect that Ballard (who had moved to Forest from Plantersville, a small town in north Mississippi) had met Pusser (who lived not too far away in McNairy County, Tennessee) in Tupelo or Memphis, but I probably missed the explanation. I was simply too awed by the experience.
I also don’t remember much of what Pusser said that night, although I have vague memories of him saying things such as the importance of doing the right thing even if you’re the only one doing it. I do remember how big he was and how tough he must’ve been to handle everything we saw thrown at him in the movie. (Years later, contemplating the real violence Pusser suffered - seven stabbings and eight shootings - I realized how sanitized the movie probably was. Another valuable cinematic lesson.)
When Pusser presented Pastor Ballard with a replica of the big stick from the movie, everyone was awed. We all liked Pastor Ballard already, but his level of coolness immediately soared off the charts.
The moments after the event now seem painfully clichéd, like the end of a Western with the hero riding off into the sunset, but that’s how it felt as every kid in the audience walked outside to watch Pusser get in his car and drive away. There was no doubt, this was the coolest moment of our lives in small-town Mississippi.
All the guys my age who were there talked about the event (and the movie) for weeks. We didn’t reenact moments from Walking Tall like we did with Billy Jack, at least not as much. (No swinging of baseball bats, for which our parents were probably thankful. Maybe all the grown-ups in town hid their kids' bats for several weeks...) Something about imitating Pusser seemed off-limits, almost irreverent, and while we admired and looked up to the man, we didn’t imitate him.
Just a few months later, we were all devastated to learn that Pusser had been killed in a single-car automobile accident in Lawton, TN, driving home from the McNairy County Fair on August 21, 1974. Although police determined the fatal crash to be accidental, Pusser’s friends and family believed otherwise. Just months earlier, he'd stood in our church.
This was all too much for a 12-year-old kid to process. The total amount of time from Pastor Ballard announcing the film’s screening to Pusser’s death was about 18 months. When we see movies about real people, we have an impression (rightly or wrongly) of what that person is like. When and if we get a chance to meet that individual in the flesh, our impression changes (positively or negatively). When that person you’ve met both onscreen and in real life is suddenly taken away, it does something to you, especially when you’re a kid. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t know them well, you still met them, shared an event with them. It affects you. I’m sure others who’ve met celebrities, then heard of their passing, have similar experiences. We probably don’t really know these people, but we act as if we do, even if we haven't met them. I felt an incredible sadness when Jimmy Stewart died in 1997. I didn’t know him, never met him or even wrote to him, but his death left me weeping on my couch as I read his obituary in the newspaper. There’s a part of him that spoke to me.
I saw Buford Pusser’s character portrayed onscreen and felt, “Here’s a guy trying to do the right thing.” I saw the actual Buford Pusser in person and felt, “Here’s a guy who did the right thing and has the scars to prove it.” When Pusser was gone, we were left with the memories of seeing him and the movie. The movie, of course, pales in comparison to the real person, but it serves to remind you of an actual person you were fortunate enough to encounter for a few moments.
Although I have great admiration for director Phil Karlson's work, Walking Tall isn’t a great movie, and probably just barely borders on being a good one, but it is effective. I don’t know what Pusser thought about the film (although just before his death, he was in the process of signing a contract to play himself in a sequel). He seemed to be indifferent to it, but who knows? I doubt he thought people would still be watching and thinking about it - and him - nearly 50 years later.
Storytelling is a powerful tool, especially visual storytelling. When you add to that a personal human element, that experience transcends storytelling and becomes a part of you, regardless of the amount of years that have passed. It can happen anywhere, even in a small Mississippi town to a kid growing up with movies.