HE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A PRETTY GOOD GUY… IF TOO MUCH POWER… AND WOMEN… HADN’T GONE TO HIS HEAD!
In other reviews I’ve previously used the example of John Wayne at his most reactionary. Well, this is no exception. He was considered for the lead role in this movie but was so offended by the script that he thought only people who opposed the “American way of life” would agree to do it. I’m sure he was disgusted to see the movie ultimately win the Best Picture Oscar, perhaps even to see Broderick Crawford beat him in the Best Actor race that year. If he did see the movie, maybe John Wayne found it frightening – a powerful vision of a populist’s rise and fall, with social realism elevating its atmosphere of truthfulness. But we should all be a little afraid when we see it.
The rise of Stark
Newspaperman Jack Burden (John Ireland) is sent to cover a local politician, Willie Stark (Crawford), giving a speech, only to witness the political machine muzzle him. Burden gets to know Stark and his family and finds a man who is passionate about the issues and fiercely determined not to give in. Stark singlehandedly becomes a lawyer, and after a horrible accident that leaves many children dead the community is beginning to listen to what he has to say. Stark lost the race for county treasurer, and his first for governor, but his second attempt puts him in the governor’s mansion.
All the while, Burden becomes increasingly involved… and witnesses a campaign assistant, Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge), play a greater part.
Illustration of how power corrupts
Ever since Robert Penn Warren published his Pulitzer-winning novel, comparisons have been made with the story of the famous 1930s Democratic governor of Louisiana, Huey Long, but both the writer and the filmmakers have been careful not to exaggerate the similarities. The story of Willie Stark is meant to stand on its own, as an illustration of how power corrupts. When we first meet him he’s an idealist who stands up for what is right, but the political process becomes educational for him in very dark ways and he’s willing to take advantage – of simple folks who rise up to carry him to power, of the bribes he’s offered but wouldn’t dream of considering them as such.
Governor Stark becomes both a benefactor and a dictator, a complex, larger-than-life person who does a lot of good to his state and the working man, but also rules with an iron hand, losing every moral fiber in his body along the way. Crawford is riveting as a man who learns how to manipulate and loves it (the scene where he’s drunk at a rally and finds his voice is amazing); Ireland and McCambridge match him well as the reporter who loses his professional cool and the “campaign bulldog” who’s jealous of Stark’s wife.
There are stories of how the film was “rescued” in editing, that Rossen initially couldn’t get rid of any darlings, but the story is told swiftly, with great clarity, interspersed by very effective, rapidly edited scenes carrying great symbolism, such as the campaign montages, which were directed by Don Siegel.
The film is down-to-earth and deeply cynical about the business of politics. Stark does pretty much what Huey Long did (and suffers the same fate), but Rossen paints a mercilessly negative portrait, even of the accomplishments that Long is remembered for in Louisiana. Fast-forward to 2015 and Donald Trump comes across as a twisted version of Willie Stark – not a simple man fighting for the people and being corrupted, but a wealthy man saying he’s fighting for the people but acting like a self-aggrandizing bully right from the start. Populism aside, at least Stark and Long had plans and ideals.
All the King’s Men 1949-U.S. 109 min. B/W. Produced, written and directed by Robert Rossen. Novel: Robert Penn Warren. Cinematography: Burnett Guffey. Editing: Al Clark, Robert Parrish. Cast: Broderick Crawford (Willie Stark), Joanne Dru (Anne Stanton), John Ireland (Jack Burden), Mercedes McCambridge, John Derek, Shepperd Strudwick.
Trivia: McCambridge’s first film. Remade as a TV movie in 1958 and as All the King’s Men (2006).
Oscars: Best Picture, Actor (Crawford), Supporting Actress (McCambridge). Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Actor (Crawford), Supporting Actress (McCambridge).
Quote: “Now listen to me, you hicks. Yeah, you’re hicks too, and they fooled you a thousand times like they fooled me. But this time, I’m going to fool somebody. I’m going to stay in this race. I’m on my own and I’m out for blood.” (Crawford at a rally)
Last word: “I want you to go through the whole picture. Select what you consider to be the center of each scene, put the film in the synch machine and wind down a hundred feet before and a hundred feet after, and chop it off, regardless of what’s going on. Cut through dialogue, music, anything. Then, when you’re finished, we’ll run the picture and see what we’ve got.” (Rossen’s instruction to Parrish, and how they got the film down to 109 min. from a 250-min. cut, TCM)