Jack Burden (John Ireland) is a journalist who catches wind of a man called Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) when his editor sends him to Kanoma County to a piece on the guy. The only thing special about this man is that he’s an honest man trying to make his name in politics. Burden sees the honesty in this man when Stark is seemingly arrested by local police for delivering a speech, whilst his son hands out leaflets, as the police and other politicians do their utmost to scare him.
This is a story of a naive, idealistic farmer who becomes governor of his state. We see how politics can change once a good man into someone who falls to corruption. All The King’s Men is very much a ‘rags to riches’ story, about a person who loses a lot, but then begins to win. And when he starts to win, his contemporaries take issue. Nonetheless, once he assumes office, his values are cast aside little by little, his standards fall and the power goes to his head. In other words, blatant corruption.
Alternative facts, rotten politics and that lack of people’s power: does this sound familiar? No, I’m not talking about 2017. This film takes place in Louisiana during the The Great Depression of the 1930s. This is a time where the working classe couldn’t feed their families. Kids couldn’t even go to school. Poverty was rampant, and families had to make the gruelling journey from East to West, as depicted in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Though, that story takes between Oklahoma and California. Broderick Crawford’s Willie Stark wants to bring some of that much-need power back to the people.
With the Rise of Trump, the Chilcot Enquiry in 2016 and the shadiness of governments brought to light in this post-Snoweden/post-Wikileaks era, All The King’s Men is just as relevant now as it was back in 1949. Based on the 1946 novel of the same name by Robert Penn, audiences will find many parallels between this politically-stimulating narrative and the world we live in today. No matter your social class, it is impossible to deny the corruption that takes place in politics and law enforcement, whether that be at the local level or at the very top feudal structure.
Willie Stark starts as a nobody, a schmuck with a big mouth who likes to talk about the shadiness of the local political machine. Crawford gives a powerful provocative performance as Stark. To quote a relevant quote: “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Stark lives and breathes this line. Politics corrupted him. The power got too much and he became the very thing that he set out to destroy. And this character study is an accurate representation of today’s world as well. Nobody stays good forever. Basically, if you can’t beat them, join them.
This story is told from the perspective of Burden (Ireland) as an effective reporter. John Ireland gives a very good performance, often coming to blows with Stark in his later years. Journalists may have a bad name as being snakes, but this one has a sense of decency. Stark has come to embody the archetype of every politician. Jack still has a sense of morality that oft stops him from enacting some of Stark’s orders, as the Stark Administration’s personal investigator and attack dog when they wanted to get rid of somebody. By the end, Stark has become a despicable human being, that his own son wants nothing to do with.
The supporting cast is fantastic, including an amiable Mercedes McCambridge as Sadie, Stark’s conniving political aide. She won an Oscar for the role. Joanne Dru as Ann Stanton is very good too, but what got me were the guys who played the dirty cops and officials at the beginning. By the end of the film, those same crooks are messianic in comparison to Stark who has become Satan’s right-hand man. Yet, regardless of the sound supporting cast, Broderick goes all out at playing the self-proclaimed “hick”, a man who gets consumed by: power and ego, in a love affair with his own narcissistic agenda.
Absolute power corrupts. It’s not a cliche. It’s a fact. No matter the person, rich or poor; man or woman; young or old, give someone too much power and eventually it will go to their heads. Once they go down that road, to come back would be an commendable feat. The characters, including the extras, were oxymoronic to those in How Green Was My Valley. In that film, they were content with their oppression. The Irish workers were appeased with the little pay they got. They had to feed their families, whilst in this film, the same extras were ready to bare arms against the corrupt officials stifling their success.
Crooked politicians, pay-offs, corrupt cops and judges, who’s palm has not been greased? This isn’t just fiction, as the stories told on film is often a writer(s) holding up a mirror to the world and telling it as it is. Corruption is just one of many reflections of our world, past or present. All The King’s Men is 1950’s winner for Best Picture, and a worthy one. With brilliant acting performances, ace cinematography and brutal themes, All The King’s Men is certainly one to watch, especially after a US election that further exposed the rotten brick of politics.