The 22nd film to win Best Picture was a sharp political allegory for… well, for just about anyone, really.
Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men is one of those handy political allegories that seem applicable to just about any politician. And while Warren has, in interviews, openly held that his novel was always supposed to have a more classical incline toward personal tragedy rather than to any sort of actual political movement, the film most certainly has politics on its mind. The theme of All the King’s Men is about how American politics – with its inextricable links to money, ego and lust for power – is a system designed to either corrupt the innocent or help the already-corrupt thrive.
All the King’s Men is famously about Louisiana governor Huey Long. The details of the career of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) and the people he meets, bribes, cheats on, and nearly betrays are all details taken loosely from Long’s own political ascension. Just as Citizen Kane is a metaphor for the life of William Randolph Hearst, All the King’s Men is actually about Huey Long. So we can infer that the state All the King’s Men takes place in is Louisiana, but it’s actually never made explicit. This could be any one of about 25 or 30 different states, giving the film a vague universality.
There is a temptation by audiences to compare any political-themed film allegory to whatever political climate they’re currently living in. So Stark was a stand-in for Huey Long, but audiences in 1949 were likely comparing him to Harry S. Truman. Indeed, we can easily see, in 2014, that he could even stand in for Barack Obama or whatever populist politician you like. The person I kept thinking of was Rudy Giuliani. Stark makes big promises, builds big, expensive people’s programs, and has definitely been getting his money through illicit contributions. He is also cheating on his hard-working wife with his tough-as-nails campaign assistant Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge).
Mercedes McCambridge is easily the best thing about this movie. Her performance (which won her an Oscar) is the kind of female role we don’t see enough of. Torn, complex, interesting, energetic, compelling. I love every second of her screentime. Modern horror fans may know McCambridge as the voice of the Devil in The Exorcist, a film nominated for best picture 24 years after this one was (it lost to The Sting).
All the King’s Men is told through the eyes of a hard-working reporter named Jack Burden (John Ireland) who hobnobs with the upper crust. Stark’s rise and fall is mirrored by Burden’s own gradual disillusionment. Burden is not exactly bright-eyed and idealistic at the film’s opening like Gregory Peck in Gentleman’s Agreement, but more of a hard-edged and determined adult. He is strong at the outset and is broken down nonetheless. This is more interesting than watching an innocent get corrupted. Even as Stark’s crimes become more and more explicit – Stark begins blackmailing and extorting people openly in front of his staff – Burden stands by. Why does he stand by? Partly because of his career, and partly through a kind of dark, morbid curiosity. How bad can this possibly get?
I watched All the King’s Men for the first time when I was about 21 or 22, and I recall thinking it trite, bland, and very obvious; I preferred the apocalyptic satire of stuff like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Best Picture nominee, 1964. It lost to My Fair Lady). Re-watching King’s Men for the first time since, I am pleased to admit that I have changed my mind. Its political commentary is certainly blunt, but it’s also a dynamic character drama full of excellent acting. And its dark take on politics reveals a richness of drama that we rarely see from films of this vintage.
Don’t bother with the 2006 remake. See this one instead.
Join me next week for All About Eve.