By People Staff
Updated April 08, 1974 12:00 PM

The big sleeper movie hit of the past year—in parts of the South it has out-grossed The Godfather—is Walking Tall. It is the real-life story of a crusading, club-swinging Tennessee sheriff named Buford Pusser. Or is it? When pressed as to the film’s fidelity during a 44-state promotion tour, Pusser concedes that Walking Tall was, well, “about 80% real,” 20% cinematic license. Would you believe 50-50?

The indisputable facts about Pusser were dramatic enough before Hollywood ever moved in. As a beefy (6’6″) 19-year-old, he accused one of the illegal casinos along the Mississippi border of cheating him out of $300 with loaded dice. He was beaten up so badly that his wounds needed 192 stitches. When he recovered, Buford went after his assailants with a hickory stick. That was the beginning of a campaign over the next few years to close down the so-called “shopping center for sinners” flourishing on the state line. In the process Buford was involved in the controversial shootings of a couple of citizens and took a few bullets and beatings himself before a final tragic automobile ambush in which his wife was killed and his face was riddled by rifle fire.

Seven years and 16 plastic-surgery operations later, Pusser’s face has been largely restored, and he is living comfortably on his 7% piece of the movie profits and $1,000 per personal appearance. And, at 36, he has been the further subject of ballads, a biography (The Twelfth of August) and “Buford for Governor” bumper stickers all around the state. (“I have no plans to run now,” he says.)

In the movie account of all this, Joe Don Baker was cast as Buford, Elizabeth Hartman as his wife, and there has been considerable other romanticization. For example, Pusser is depicted as a former Marine hero when, in fact, he was medically discharged shortly after basic training because of asthma. The film version of his first election victory for sheriff glosses over the fact that his opponent died shortly before the balloting. Further, Walking Tall uncritically glorifies Pusser’s violent, perhaps overzealous enforcement of justice, of which even Buford now says, “I may have bent the law at times.”

What do Buford’s old constituents have to say back home in Selmer, Tenn.? Clifford Coleman, his successor as sheriff, notes that he himself has never “seriously hurt anybody yet, and I think I’ve enforced the law as well as Pusser ever did. In fact, more beer joints moved in while he was sheriff than at any other time.” The film also fails to relate that Coleman got into office by defeating Pusser for reelection, 3,934 votes to 3,251. Buford’s excuse was: 1) that he was too busy serving as technical adviser on the film to campaign and, 2) the town resented the choice of Henderson in neighboring Chester County for the actual movie location.

Bruce Hurt, publisher of Selmer’s weekly Independent-Appeal, sums up the local view of Pusser: “There is a small percentage of the county which idolizes him, another small group which thinks he should be punished as a murderer, and a lot of people who don’t really have an opinion but who think the things that happened were unfortunate.” Interestingly, while Walking Tall is the biggest grossing film in Tennessee history, in the Selmer drive-in (the town has no indoor movie house) it lasted only a few days.

The producers, having already grossed $40 million on a film shot for $1.5 million, are naturally contemplating a sequel. W. R. Morris, who wrote a biography of Pusser, is also doing a follow-up on the subject—a man he finds “one day friendly as hell, the next day barely civilized.” This time, Morris vows, “I’ll just write it like it is. The first time I was treading carefully.”