Walking Tall (2004): Is the Movie Based on a Real Former Wrestler’s Life?

‘Walking Tall’ is the story of a man who returns back home and discovers that crime and gambling are rampant in the streets. Having had an altercation with the criminals already in which the man was brutally wounded, he decides to take matters into his own hands but is arrested by the police instead. In court, the man pleads with the jury to give him an opportunity to clean up the streets for good and is soon appointed as the Sheriff of his hometown.

There are two separate versions of the action film, the original 1973 release, which was directed by Phil Karlson and features Joe Don Baker and Elizabeth Hartman, and the 2004 remake, directed by Kevin Bray and starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Both films are action-packed adventures that show the power of a righteous lawman and essentially follow the same storyline. Because the story has been used twice, some viewers might find themselves wondering about the story’s origins.

Walking Tall: Former Wrestler Turned Sheriff’s True Tale

Yes, ‘Walking Tall’ is inspired by a true story. The films are based on the life of Buford Pusser, a former wrestler known as “Buford the Bull” turned Sheriff of McLairy County, Tennessee. Pusser is known for his one-man war against all sorts of criminal activities that plagued McLairy County at the hands of the Dixie Mafia and the State Line Mob, all of which have been well documented by the Buford Pusser Museum. The script has been penned by Mort Briskin, alongside Stephen Downing and John Michael Hayes, with the latter not being credited for the same.

While the 1973 version of the film closely follows Pusser’s biographical account, more than a few changes have been made in the 2004 remake to make the film more relatable to contemporary times and a modern audience. Most of these changes are, however, superficial — the characters’ names, their background, the time period the film is set in, etc. — and the essence of Pusser’s life remains the same. In a conversation with The New York Times, Phil Karlson spoke about what attracted him to the story of the lawman.

“My partner‐producer Mort Briskin saw Roger Mudd do a 10‐minute segment on the Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser on CBS News. Mort called Pusser on the phone that night; he made a date, and flew to Tennessee the following day. He became enormously excited by the idea of Pusser: a man who had been a peaceful citizen until the local syndicate harassed him and his family…,” the director said. Karlson further revealed that they had used 60% of Pusser’s life for ‘Walking Tall.’ He and Mort Briskin also had the complete cooperation of the legendary Sheriff himself in telling his life story.

“…I wanted to make a picture for once in which the good guy was the hero—I was tired of pictures which glorified crooks, petty chiselers, and con men. I was horrified by ‘The Godfather,’ which sentimentalized the Mafia, and by ‘The Getaway,’ in which Steve McQueen and All MacGraw knock off hanks, steal thousands of dollars, and ride off into the Sunset to loud applause thought, ‘Let’s do something in which people will learn respect for a decent lawman,'” Karlson continued.

While the 1973 film is focused more on Buford Pusser and his struggles to clean the street of McLairy with his life and those that were close to him constantly at stake, the 2004 remake is much more action-oriented. In Kevin Bray’s ‘Walking Tall,’ Dwayne Johnson (credited as simply “The Rock” in the film) takes on the role of Chris Vaughn, a former Sergeant with the US Army Special Forces who has more than a little combat training under his belt.

Once Chris becomes the Sheriff of Kitsap County, Washington (and not McLairy County), he uses everything he’s learned in the army to dispatch bad guys one after the other, sustaining little to no personal injuries. So prominent is the action in the 2004 remake, that even the behind-the-scenes video is all about how the fight sequences were choreographed and filmed. But despite its high-octane intensity, the film does understand the crux of the story, i.e., standing up to a power bigger than you simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Echoing the sentiment, Dwayne Johnson said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, “I first saw the [original movie] when I was eight and didn’t really appreciate what it meant to walk tall. But I think it’s something all of us can relate to, the experience of being forced into a position where you should stand up for yourself.” Regardless of the differences or similarities between the two versions of ‘Walking Tall,’ what matters most is the message the true story of Sheriff Buford Pusser delivers — that of doing what’s right and holding your ground for what you believe in, even if you are the only one to do so.

Read More: Where Was Walking Tall Filmed?