Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
That is the theme of All the King’s Men, the winner of Best Motion Picture in 1949. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same title by Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men follows the rise to power of Willie Stark (thought to be inspired by Huey P. Long, the former governor of Louisiana) from uneducated hick to a man who runs a political machine that is as powerful as it is ruthless. There is no one that Stark will allow to stand in his way in order to hold on to his power and there is no one that he isn’t willing to hurt or even kill to do the same.
What makes this story so compelling is the character arc that Stark goes through and the general idea of a charismatic and seemingly compassionate politician becoming corrupted by the very forces that he was put in power to fight. Willie Stark was a man of humble beginnings who started his rise to power by pointing out the corruption and graft committed by politicians in his state. He taught himself law and used a populist message to rally the “hicks” of his state to his cause. Claiming rightly to be one of them, Stark nearly won an improbable election that he only found himself running in because the state power brokers wanted him to split the populist vote with another candidate. But even though he lost the election, Stark ominously tells the idealistic newspaper reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland) that he learned how to win.
What makes Stark so charismatic and so popular is his message. He promises the people that he’ll fight for them. He claims that he can keep that promise because he’s one of them, and he’s right. He wins the next election by alternately making these promises and showing the same ruthlessness and practicing the same cutthroat politics that were used against him before. Once he’s elected he does keep many of the promises that he made to the people, like building schools and hospitals and roads, and that keeps him popular. The problem for Stark is that he develops a lust for power that cannot be satiated. This lust for power leads him to do things that you would have never imagined him doing when we first met him at the beginning of the film. This lust for power also leads to the disillusionment of the people around him, those that were once his sycophants, and leads to a tragic conclusion.
I had never seen this film before and knew nothing about it until I started watching it. I also found out that it was remade in 2005 with Sean Penn, Jude Law and Anthony Hopkins, among many others. There are no household names in the original, although along with its win for Best Motion Picture, Broderick Crawford won Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Willie Stark and Mercedes McCambridge won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Stark’s jaded secretary Sadie Burke. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the depth and breadth of the film.
The depth of the film comes from the fact that Stark is doing such great things and wants to do even more great things, that the people close to him who should be his moral compass, namely Jack and Sadie, are all too willing to look the other way. This is especially true of both of them when it comes to Stark’s philandering. Stark starts out the film as a proper family man who has a wife who cares for him and a son who thinks the world of him. He doesn’t partake of liquor at the start of the film because his wife doesn’t approve of it. However, by the time he reaches the Governor’s Mansion, he’s a heavy drinker and he has a hard time keeping his libido in check. One of the women that he starts carousing with is Anne Stanton, Jack’s sweetheart from his home town. Anne is taken under Stark’s spell just like everyone else, but his words and promises enamor her in a much more profound way and she has an affair with him. This affair starts to crack the foundation of trust that Jack and Sadie (who is also in love with Stark, and having an affair with him as well) have with him but it’s still not enough to break it.
The film is actually told from Jack’s point of view, and Jack starts off as a cynical newspaper man, but falls under the spell of Stark and idealistically joins his team as a “researcher”. In fact, the main purpose of Jack’s research is to dig up dirt on Stark’s political opponents and keep it in a little black book so that it can be accessed at just the right time. His arc actually takes him full circle and back to cynical again by the end of the picture as he sees what type of man Stark has become. Jack’s journey from idealist back towards cynic begins when Stark demands that he dig up dirt on Judge Monte Stanton, a man that Jack has known and admired since he was a child, and whom Stark selected as his own Attorney General, but is not falling in line with Stark’s corrupt practices.
As Stark’s power increases, so does his web of corruption.
The one thing that I took away from this film was its depth. This is a very deep film, and even though I haven’t read the book, my guess is that it was able to replicate its depth from the novel. There are multiple layers to this story that are woven seamlessly together throughout. Any time you have a story with this level of political and personal intrigue, you are going to be left with a rich plot and a deep story. In fact, I believe that Robert Rossen, who wrote the screenplay (he also directed and produced the film), did a marvelous job of adapting a novel that was already popular into a script that was cinematically structured as well as this. This was a dramatic script that took what could have been very dry material and made it compelling and interesting.
Another thing that strikes me about this film is its lack of popularity. It’s not that it’s disliked or frowned upon. It’s just not really remembered as a great film. It’s not on AFI’s list of Top 100 films of all time. Indeed, none of the Best Picture nominees of 1949 made that list. I spent 3 years in films school, and this film was never reference. In fact, I hadn’t really even heard of it before I started working on this project. Also, I had never even heard of the remake until I saw a trailer for it on the DVD of the original. Why is that? The novel was deemed to be one of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th Century. It was exceedingly popular in its day, and so was the film? I must admit that I haven’t researched the reasons that this film has fallen back to the pack in terms of popularity. Political drama is a popular genre in Hollywood, and there are many, many examples of well-remembered films of this type. As a matter of fact, I probably answered my own question when I thought to myself when the film was over that I’d probably rather watch Mr. Smith Goes To Washington rather than All the King’s Men, even though the latter is a much grittier and probably more honest accounting of the rotten underbelly of American politics.
Did the Academy get it right?
I believe they did, but I must admit that I haven’t seen any of the other films that were nominated that year. I should say that two films that weren’t nominated that came out that year were Adam’s Rib and The Sands of Iwo Jima. Neither was in the top 10 at the box office that year either, but history has been much kinder to those films than to any of the nominees, including All the King’s Men. Getting back to the point, I can’t argue with All the King’s Men winning Best Picture. I found it to be engaging, entertaining and riveting. It had a well-crafted story that was well-constructed as a film and had terrific performances from all of the actors that were in it. Just because it doesn’t live on in film lore as one of the greatest films ever doesn’t mean it wasn’t the best film released that year. If it seems like I don’t have particularly strong feelings one way or the other, it’s because I don’t. Overall this was an average year at best, and the All the King’s Men was the best film of a mediocre bunch and it would have had a hard time winning in almost any other year.