Director: Robert Rossen
This is a film I had not previously seen. Based on Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All The King’s Men, the film follows the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a Midwesterner who’s passion to improve the lives of the poor and down-trodden leads him into politics. Played effectively by Broderick Crawford, Oscar winner for Best Actor, the story follows Willie’s transformation from unsophisticated do-gooder into maniacal leader of a political machine that will stop at nothing to accomplish Willie’s goals – goals which now center on Willie Starks’ personal agenda and far less on his constituency.
It is difficult not to draw comparisons with politicians of today and by that, I mean politicians in the most pejorative sense. Unfortunately, the story of leaders, whether it be executives, politicians, or anyone in a position of power, lining their own pockets at the expense of others is an age-old tale. Although the premise of the story seems a bit contrived, that a person could change so dramatically in such a short period of time, it makes the viewer contemplate whether Willie did change or was he always a “bad” person without the opportunity to exploit his true nature.
One of the underlying themes repeated in the film is the notion that good things are borne from bad things. This is Willie’s way of justifying his wrongdoings if, ultimately, it results in a greater good. In other words, it is acceptable to bribe and pay graft if the result is a new hospital or highway. Of course, every highway, hospital, university or museum has the Stark name prominently displayed lest people forget who made it all happen. Interestingly, some of Willie’s campaign promises of free health care, free university education and no farmer losing his land to foreclosure can still be heard on the campaign trail today.
However, the film is more than the Willie Stark story, there are numerous subplots and rich character portrayals throughout. All the King’s Men is a blend of interwoven character studies that generate a feeling of excitement or, at a minimum, engage the viewer to watch with eager anticipation of what will occur next. The feel of the movie can be attributed to Robert Rossen, who was nominated in both the Best Director and Best Screenplay categories. Among the strong performances, include Best Supporting Actress winner, Mercedes McCambridge, who plays Sadie Burke, a political organizer working behind the scenes to promote Wille Stark to his people- the poor and uneducated (sounds vaguely familiar). Not that it detracts from the movie, but I believe the actress playing Ms. McCambridge was cast by a more attractive actress than originally intended for the character described in Robert Penn Warren novel.
I would be remiss not to mention John Ireland’s portrayal of Jack Burden, a newspaper reporter who’s writing aids in the rise of Willie Stark, and Burden’s own dubious slide from idealist to hatchet man. Also, Joanne Dru provides a solid portrayal of Anne Stanton; however, the notion that this socialite girlfriend of Jack Burden’s would become Willie Stark’s mistress seems far-fetched.
One of my favorite aspects of our Oscar Chronicle journey is watching films that take place in the period that the film is produced. All the King’s Men provides a wonderful glimpse into life in 1949 and the excellent black and white cinematography only enhances the experience. From the cars to the clothes to the daily activities of the people, it is interesting to see many things have changed and surprisingly, how many have stayed the same. I would encourage any film buff who enjoys stories surrounding politics or simply good character studies to watch All the King’s Men.
Based on the Pulitzer prize winning novel, ‘All The King’s Men’ by Robert Penn Warren, the film tells the story of Willie Stark, played with amazing presence by Broderick Crawford. Broderick’s performance garnered him the Oscar for Best Actor. Actress, Mercedes McCambridge, also won an Oscar for best supporting actress in the film for her portrayal as Sadie Burke, Willie Stark’s righthand woman throughout the course of the film. The film chronicles Willie’s journey as he raises himself from rural farm life to the governor’s mansion. Willie Stark stands out as a candidate in his small town of Kanoma County running for county commissioner due to the unfortunately maligned designation as an honest politician. Willie’s honesty and need to share the truth with the people during his campaigning is met with this biting response: “We all believe in free speech Willie- We got to, it’s in the constitution.” Essentially this quote damns free speech to a necessary evil that is not much appreciated in this small town. We are also given an introduction into his character’s psyche, as a man having adopted the son of a friend who was too poor to support him and one who was victimized by the institution that fired his wife due to his exposure of the corruption of the system. Willie was a cog in the political machine that society ran on, and he aimed to throw a wrench into works and really shake things up from the inside.
At the same time as our introduction to Willie is occurring, we see a glimpse into the life of the reporter covering Willie, Jack Burden played with great poise by the actor, John Ireland. Jack grew up not far away from the rural county where Willie is running for office, but their worlds are separated not only by distance but also by a clear separation of socio-economic class. The scenes comparing a world of sailing, tennis, dinner jackets, and cocktails compared to the farm life of Willie illustrate the true dichotomy of the two main character’s lives. After learning more about Jack’s reluctance to settle into the life his family has offered, he is determined to do something that means something more than just the opulence imbued by his upbringing. As Jack makes the pronouncement of his new mission, we learn that Willie lost the race for which he was running. Undeterred by the setback of the loss, we see the real bootstrap mentality of Willie as he completes law school by correspondence in a montage that moves the timeline accordingly.
After Willie has received his law degree and began to practice law, an unfortunate catastrophe occurred at the school house whose construction had been a catalyst to Willie’s first unsuccessful political attempt. Willie’s calls for investigation into the bidding for the construction contracts had fallen on deaf ears, and unfortunately the poor construction of the school house had caused an accident with a loss of multiple children’s lives. In response, Willie filed civil charges against the state and began to give speeches across the country side in defense of cleaning of the state capitol from the corruption that had paved the way for this type of blatant cronyism. Willie’s speeches made waves in the state capitol, inspiring a political party to back Willie as their representative for the gubernatorial race. Unfortunately, the group backing Willie’s true intentions were to split the vote of the rival candidate and make way for their actual front-runner.
As Willie becomes aware of the plot, he gives in momentarily and breaches his normal tee-totaling ways in a moment of weakness. As the man with normally unimpeachable character gives into drink, it broke a metaphorical barrier that was holding him back. Willie Stark faces the town with a new resignation and thirst for blood as he leaves the facts and figures of his tax plan in the dust in favor of good old-fashioned populism and passion-based rhetoric. The performance by Broderick Crawford in this scene is spellbinding and his charisma lights the screen on fire clearly earning his academy award. Through his words resonating with his base in a way that a career politician never could, Willie’s meteoric rise catches the old guard by surprise. Unfortunately, he began the race too far behind and is unable to reach victory in this first attempt. As Willie loses the race, we also learn that Jack quit his reporting job because the paper stopped covering Willie out of fear that he actually could win. Even in 1949, the link between capitalism, the media, and politics represents a detriment to candidates who do not have the interests of the corporate big-wigs in the forefronts of their platforms. As we move to the next scene, Willie tells Jack that he knows how to win now. This foreboding pronouncement indicates a real tonal shift as the audience bears witness to the character’s paradigm shift.
As we enter the next stage of the film, Willie is now a hero of the people running four years later for his second attempt at governor. While at first, we are hopeful that he is staying true to the character that we met on the farm all of those years ago, we are greeted now with insinuations that the money financing his new campaign is coming with strings attached -the same types of promises that he criticized in his first campaign for county commissioner. This time, however, Willie won in a landslide and the audience is left with a lingering question, “At what cost?”. Willie offers Jack a job at a rate 25% higher than he was making at the newspaper with the ominous concession, “Money? I don’t need money. People give me things. Because they believe in me”. Jack even brings Willie to his parent’s house, the world that seemed unreachable just a few short years earlier. At this point, through power, Willie is able to breach the socioeconomic divide and win their support albeit with the caveat of continuing to broker deals despite the repercussions. It is at this point in the film where we see the beginning of a pivot from a morality play to a cautionary tale. It’s hard to not continually compare the fictional political landscape portrayed in the movie to our current political landscape in America. Almost seventy years later we are still pursuing the same issues: healthcare, education, tax reform, and the menace of political corruption.
Willie’s descent from upstanding citizen, to womanizer and corrupt politician is hard to watch. As he forces Jack down the rabbit hole too, it solidifies his transformation from hero to villain. During the journey, he betrays friend and lackey Jack by forcing him to dig up dirt on his friends from home, while dating Jack’s old flame behind his back. Jack’s moral quest to do something meaningful has now become a farce as he has enabled the most corrupt politician of all, one who outrivals even the institution that he rallied against. The conflict intensifies to almost soap opera standards as Willie’s adopted son kills a young woman in a drunk driving accident. In the aftermath, the woman’s father disappears when he refuses a bribe, and then the adopted son is paralyzed in a football accident. After the father’s beaten body appears, impeachment proceedings begin against Willie. Willie uses his popularity with the people for his own gain by convincing them that the news and media were lying and that he was telling them the truth. This type of gaslighting to bend the will of the people has clear parables to other current events today.
What started as an enjoyable, captivating commentary on the political landscape spiraled into melodrama. This film’s compelling story and great acting keeps the wheels churning as we watch the rise and ultimate demise of the politician whose original aims were true before he gave into the systemic corruption that the film alludes to as a necessary evil. It states that good comes from bad, and that brute force and corruption will be a means to an end. However, the film clearly shows the dangers of succumbing to those more base instincts in humanity. The greed and thirst for power bleeds through the cracks of even Willie’s most noble intentions ultimately leads to his demise. Overall, I enjoyed the film and appreciated the acting even as the story teetered over the edge of melodrama. The score was a little corny in the film which accentuated bits of the melodrama and ultimately impacts the film’s relevance in the modern film cannon.