Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): A Real American Hero: The Buford Pusser Story (SIGHT UNSEEN BLOG-A-THON)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Real American Hero: The Buford Pusser Story (SIGHT UNSEEN BLOG-A-THON)

"The film that inspired WALKING TALL." And, on the back, "the true story that inspired the WALKING TALL films." So proclaims the shabby DVD case for A Real American Hero: The Buford Pusser Story. Of course this is a load of BS; not only did this "film" arrive years after Walking Tall, but I suspect this TV movie wasn't even a film at all: it looks like a TV pilot with a tacked-on ending, most likely filmed just in case the TV series wasn't picked up (which it eventually was, 3 or 4 years later, and with a different lead actor). Personally, I've never even seen Walking Tall (the original or the one with the Rock - sorry, Dwayne Whateverhisnameis). So why did I watch this movie - or for that matter, why did I buy it? Well, because it was $1 at Wal-Mart and this review is a last-minute entry in the "Unseen DVD Blog-a-Thon" instigated over at cinexcellence, which I've been meaning to participate in for a while.

Besides, it stars Brian Dennehy, whom I've enjoyed since his turn as a perpetually bemused alien in the old-codgers-get-horny-with-the-help-of-extraterrestrials movie Cocoon. (Trivia: did you know Dennehy was only 3 years younger than Wilford Brimley? Or that Brimley was barely 50 in that film? But I digress.) Actually, he's got a twinkle in his eye here too, which is not to be expected from the source material. But then not much is. Remember those taglines on the DVD? They're complemented by the disclaimer at the end of the movie: "This motion picture was inspired by the life of Buford Pusser. However, all of the events...depicted in this motion picture are fictional."


Buford Pusser was the controversial Southern sheriff whose wife was murdered by criminals he was pursuing. He may or may not have had a hand in the bloody deaths of those same criminals and he himself was killed under mysterious circumstances a few years later. In the early seventies, his story was turned into Walking Tall, a cult classic which tied into the whole Dirty Harry/Death Wish/"take the law into your own hands" vigilante genre that Nixon's America made de rigeur. A prime irony in these films was that while they celebrated the principles of "law and order" they actually advocated the opposite: individuals circumventing legal niceties to enforce a justice more to their own liking. This theme has been continually popular throughout the history of cinema (see yesterday's post on The Dark Knight and Birth of a Nation). Or as the back of the DVD puts it: "The film fetures [sic] a man fighting for truth and justice at any cost, thereby earning himself the title of

A Real American Hero."

Yet despite the bombastic language and the grim cover art, the fare on this disc is generally light-hearted. After the opening scenes, in which two teenagers are killed by bad moonshine and Pusser trashes the moonshiner's bar, A Real American Hero settles into a leisurely-paced exposition of Pusser's folksy home life and cop gig. By the time Pusser was spending five minutes trying to decipher a farmer's hillbilly lingo (he keeps repeating that he's been "snookered") I finally figured out what was going on: this was the first episode of a TV series never to be. Hence we get very little of Pusser raging at his enemies with a club and a great deal of him joking around with his lovable tykes and courting the hooker with a heart of gold (I'm not making this up).

The episode - sorry, "movie"'s plot contrivance is to have Pusser enforce every law on the town's books, no matter how minor or outdated, in order to tie up his moonshiner foes in endless legal hassles. Soon cars are being ticketed if they aren't preceded by men waving red flags, and an obsolete ordnance banning gambling is used to round up and arrest all the old ladies playing bingo. Since A Real American Hero can't compete with even the low-budget Walking Tall, these silly developments are actually quite welcome: to see the early 70s angry vigilante transformed into the late 70s laid-back family man (picture Dirty Harry as Pa Walton) is actually kind of amusing. In the last half-hour, when TV movie structure supersedes TV episode storylines, it all becomes kind of rote. We get a dimly-lit shootout, death by rolling log, and even a villain crushed by slow-moving machinery (remember Austin Powers?).

Too bad it ends there, at least for this incarnation of Pusser - Bo Svenson played him in a series starting in '81, unseen by me. I would have liked to know, among other things, the outcome of that retired hooker/female judge/Buford Pusser love triangle (you can see it developing at the climactic square dance). I guess we'll just have to wait for the Rock's version.

2 comments:

Graham said...

Joe Don Baker has been a favorite since The Living Daylights, so I've always meant to see the original Walking Tall. I actually have seen The Rock version - on TV. It was less intolerable than I expected it to be.

I love Brian Dennehy, but I still don't think I'll go here.

Tammy said...

Go to insearchofgraves.webs.com and there is a DVD of all the actual sites where this stuff happened. The true story. It's called "IN Search of Buford Pusser".Interesting for someone who has never seen the places.

Thanks!