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All the King's Men (1949)

  • Review: *** (out of ****)
  • Starring: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru, John Derek, Mercedes McCambridge, Shepperd Strudwick, Ralph Dumke, Anne Seymour, Katherine Warren, Raymond Greenleaf, Walter Burke, Will Wright, Grandon Rhodes
  • Director: Robert Rossen
  • Screenplay: Robert Rossen (Novel: by Robert Penn Warren)
  • Length: 109 min.
  • MPAA Rating: Unrated

As long as there have been politics, there have been dirtypoliticians. All the King’s Men takesa fictional look back at the American political landscape during the Great Depression.

Based on the Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name, All the King’s Men tells the story ofself-proclaimed hick Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) and his struggle tostrike down the corruption in the government and make a better climate for hisfellow farmers. The story is loosely based on the life of Louisiana GovernorHuey Long who, like Willie Stark in the film, came to prominence in politics asa true “representative” of the people. The film tells of different events, butenough similarity remains that none question its obvious source base.

The pic begins as journalist Jack Burden (John Ireland) issent to cover the story of Willie Stark’s efforts to bring down his corruptcity council. The council had given the bid for a new schoolhouse to a familymember of one of their number who took the job at a higher price than thelowest bidder. Though he fails in his bid to become city auditor, a tragedy atthe schoolhouse gives Stark the boost he needed to win the next election.

Crawford’s spirited performance as the oft beleaguered Starkis engaging. It’s not difficult to see why people respond to him. He’s the kindof guy everyone hopes will get into office as he might do some good like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Hisproblem is that, like all men who seek power, he comes to understand the onlyway he’ll get elected is to work with the people he pledges to thwart ifchosen.

Although Burden is the central character of the film, it wasCrawford who was nominated for and won the Academy Award for Best Actor. He wascertainly a deserving winner, though was more descriptively a supportingplayer. Though Irelandwas nominated as a supporting player, he lost the award to Dean Jagger in Twelve O’Clock High. The film’s otherOscar winner, besides its trophy for Best Picture, was Mercedes McCambridge asStark’s political adviser Sadie Burke. McCambridge does a good job portrayingthe character’s early naivety and subsequent descent into the dark job ofcomplicity. She’s a stalwart presence in the picture and is far more deservingthe moniker Supporting than Ireland.

All the King’s Men stands starkly as the prime example of the disgusting nature of politics.Special interests want everything they can get and they are not above briberyor extortion. In 1949, the film served as a reminder. Today, the film stands asa stirring representation of the state of modern politics. The hallowed hallsof Congress have been besmirched by scandal and lobbyists whose job it is towin budget items and stop bills that could harm their employers’ attempts tomake more money than they need.

It is quite disturbing how succinctly the film’s storymirrors today’s political climate. However, the tale is as hold as historyitself. From Brutus’ betrayal to the no-bid contracts to Halliburton, there isno question that politics is a dirty business and All the King’s Men just lifts up the rug to show us all the dirt wedon’t want to admit has been swept under it.