Drama

All the King’s Men (1949)

Yessiree! A king's life for me.
Willie Stark: A true man of the people.

Don’t you love movies that restore your faith in humanity?

Well, this ain’t one of them.

Here is a story of an unpolished, uneducated hick, Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), who becomes a very, very powerful state governor. He acquires this power the usual way – by crushing other people. Some of the wreckage he leaves behind:

  • his wife, who teaches him to read and coaches him though law school;
  • his campaign worker, with whom he cheats on his wife;
  • members of his cabinet, some of whom are forced to give Stark undated letters of resignation to keep on file.

Stark presents himself as a decent, upstanding man of the people, but look! He talks like a gangster and acts like a gangster. He has “boys” who rough up opponents, and he hires a “researcher” (John Ireland) who digs up dirt on political enemies.

Crawford is perfect as the populist politician. As Stark, he has shifty eyes and a menacing smirk – it’s as if he sees all the angles all the time and knows how to work them. His speech is rough but crafty, and he never loses his cool.

A typical Stark reaction: When he learns of sudden impeachment proceedings against him (Corruption charges! Are you surprised?), Stark races to the capital building. The driver can’t go fast enough! But, as he steps out of the car and into the anxious crowd waiting for news on the impeachment vote, he is calm and steely. “What’s the score?” he asks, as though arriving late for a football game.

The central question in this movie is this: Can a person do good using corrupt methods? Stark builds roads, schools and hospitals, all of which greatly improve the standard of living of the average person. But Stark’s generosity is expensive. Even though citizens can receive health care free of charge, they pay for it in other ways.

All the King’s Men is adapted from a novel by Robert Penn Warren, and is loosely based on real-life Louisiana governor Huey Long. You may have seen the terrific Sean Penn remake (2006); however, you really owe it to yourself to see the original.

Starring Broderick Crawford, John Ireland and Joanne Dru. Written by Robert Penn Warren and Robert Rossen. Directed by Robert Rossen. Columbia Pictures, 1949, 110 mins.

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