Despite the recent success of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, audiences might be generally surprised that American politics has not seen many worthwhile adaptations in the course of American cinematic history. All the King’s Men - based off the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Robert Penn Warren - was the winner of Best Picture for 1949 and - though not exactly the best film on American politics ever made - is a solid production whose success is centered on Broderick Crawford’s incredible turn as Willie Stark and its editing. Warren’s novel concentrates instead on the narration from character Jack Burden (John Ireland) - a reporter with a prestigious newspaper from the unnamed state. But by a certain point in director Robert Rossen’s film adaptation, he decides to shift the narrative emphasis away from Burden to Stark.
The character of Willie Stark is based off the political career of Huey Long, a Democrat populist from Louisiana (before Southern Democrats became a critically endangered species after Civil Rights). Long would serve as Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and United States Senator from Louisiana from 1932 until his assassination in 1935. Long, despite his legitimate accomplishments in building much-needed hospitals, transportation infrastructure, and schools in Louisiana, was seen as the boss of an extensive political machine - more than willing to financially and politically destroy his opponents within and outside his party.
For those intimately familiar with the life of Huey Long, Willie Stark follows the same beaten path. In his early days delving into politics, we see Crawford instill his character with a quiet frustration as he loses local election after local election. The hick drive (in all of its positive connotations) also seen in Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is also apparent as Stark takes to studying law in order to beef up his resume. He becomes a boisterous, yet sincere orator. His path from hick town nobody to hick lawyer to candidate for the hicks (again, in all of its positive connotations) inspires the rural areas as they crowd around town centers to listen to his forceful, yet thoughtful rhetoric.
Along his campaign trails and time as governor of the state, a supporting cast of characters follows. Among them (excluding Jack Burden): campaign manager Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge in an Oscar-winning supporting performance), adopted son Tom (John Derek), wife Lucy (Anne Seymour), and Jack Burden’s love interest Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru in the first non-Western I have seen her in… this took a while). As Stark becomes despotic and ravenous for more power - his lack of respect for the notion of the separation of powers during meetings of the state legislature are troubling, to say the least - he makes more and more enemies determined to see to his impeachment.
But do the people care about the means in which they have received their gleaming hospitals, their massive American football stadiums, their modern schools, their massive damming, rail, and road projects, or their munificent social welfare programs? Even if it means the untimely end to the career of a seasoned insider politician? Especially if that politician has positioned him or herself against an all-consuming political machine? As we see in All the King’s Men, probably not. The only true opponents of the unstoppable Stark administration are his former appointees and members of the state legislature. As I can only imagine the novel is more incisive in its political commentary, its film adaptation nevertheless strikes chords regarding ends and means, benevolent political machines and their ruthless bosses, and the necessity of quid pro quo and its limits.
Politics, in practice, is imperfect - I’d hesitate to always use the word, “dirty". Stark’s politics, however, devolve into sinfulness - the affairs he racks up and the careers and lives he has directly and indirectly wrecked are almost all preventable. But, even today, would people care if they discovered their new school or new welfare program was acquired thanks character assassinations, actual assassinations, or other underhanded means?
Just like Frank Capra’s films with political undertones several years earlier, Rossen and editors Al Clark and Robert Parrish have a knack for montage that does the original novel a service without eviscerating its spirit.Though modern filmmakers and audiences frown on montages in a classic style today, these montages save All the King’s Men from unnecessary length.
All the King’s Men in its completely uncut form ran 250 minutes - far too long for any film about American politics. Despite the necessary cuts and fantastic editing, the film’s fast start quickly becomes mired in the middle with hyperbolic dialogue and plotting. It never quite kicks it out of this slump until about the final twenty minutes as impeachment politics - a campaign launched by Stark’s opponents - commence.
Surprisingly, after a decade of stability and patriotism under FDR and the early Truman years, audiences did flock to see All the King’s Men - the film’s tone is unlike anything heard during World War II and the years soon after. Columbia Pictures must not have minded as they picked up their second Best Picture Oscar.
With a shocking ending that seems far ahead of its time, All the King’s Men retains a sense timelessness. Also timeless is the fact voters still don’t want honest, straight-talking politiicans. They want men and women promising more than they should and they generally don’t care how it is acquired as long as they ultimately receive it.