“For what shall it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, but loses his own soul?” - Mark 8:36
…a biblical reference for a uniquely American tragedy of near biblical proportions.
“Win with Willie!” or so it would seem at the start of Robert Rossen’s All The King’s Men (1949); an uncharacteristically ‘stark’ (pun intended) and genuinely unflattering portrait of American politics – an arena where seemingly no man of quality or merit can remain such for very long. Based on the rather prophetic novel by Robert Penn Warren, All The King’s Men is a masterpiece about the dizzying tumult and chaotic vivacity coursing through America’s political tapestry. It’s a story of graft, greed and corruption; of a ‘possibly’ once good man brought to his knees by his own avarice. Rossen’s screenplay might just as easily be a critique of the anti-social and marginally psychotic; for All The King’s Men is the proverbial ‘rags to riches’ yarn turned asunder. We are made to bear witness to Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford); this humble, uneducated man from the sticks, who builds on a promise and the dream - a dynasty of shifting alliances inside this very self-destructive machinery. Politics – the sideshow that thinks it’s the whole circus! What a nasty piece of business it is, indeed!
Or is Willie Stark the real thing? Or is he merely playing at the game but on his own terms; the bumbler, turned thug muscle; getting the judges in his pocket and all the gravy besides – becoming the disreputable overlord he only pretended to so completely abhor when the tables were turned bottom side down. We’re never entirely certain if newshound, Jack Burden’s (John Ireland) admiration for Willie Stark is predicated on genuine faith or abject naiveté, either respected or cleverly exploited by Stark’s ‘aw shucks, ma and apple pie’ routine until he has achieved his ends. Robert Penn Warren’s portrait of Willie Stark is, at once, admonitory and thinly camouflaged; based on one of the most opportunistic political animals of his generation; Louisiana governor, Huey Pierce Long.
Long’s legacy as ‘The Kingfish’ – using self-aggrandizing and cutthroat tactics to vilified the rich and the banks while promoting his own very Marxist agenda, masquerading as populist benevolence to ‘share the wealth’ (sound like anybody in politics we know today…hmmm!) had caught the whirlwind in 1928, just as the Great Depression was about to swallow up America’s go to hell, blind-eyed, tea dance twenties optimism. It had its place – for a time, at least – Long amassing his forces and popularity amongst his constituents to build a near religious fervor the likes of which few political muck-racking sensationalists had ever seen, much less enjoyed. By 1932, it was all over; Long moving out of the governor’s mansion he had hired architect, Leon C. Weiss to create (just one of many egocentric monuments to his own perceived glories and mythology); his tenacity as Washington’s most radical demagogue cut short by an assassin’s bullet in 1935, just one month after Long announced he would make a run for the Presidency. Despite his ambitions, Huey Long was hardly admired by his peers in the senate; considered something of a pariah, who one colleague sarcastically assessed, could not even get ‘the Lord’s prayer’ passed into law.
A lot of Huey Long survived the transition from fact to fiction in Robert Penn Warren’s novel, even more faithfully preserved in the motion picture under Robert Rossen’s masterful authorship and direction. All The King’s Men is unapologetic about its deconstruction of the political world; perhaps justly distinguished as a sort of unspectacular limbo where even the most resilient and stout-hearted are made to perform a little submissive groveling and back-scratching from time to time. When it was released, All The King’s Men had a more ominous ring about it; debuting just four short years after the war and Adolph Hitler’s cowardly demise, and, situated at the cusp of a homegrown threat, perhaps even more detrimental and unraveling to the fabric of the American political system than the war itself: the black list.
Rossen, who had already been named ‘an unfriendly witness’ by HUAC two years earlier, and would ultimately be blacklisted after making All The King’s Men – was either very brave or exceptionally stupid. In an era where even the most moderate political satire could be misconstrued as subversive, Rossen sought to tell one of the most sinister tales about the very institution that had placed his personal life and career under a microscope. And the answer to his question – ‘could the American political system ever bring forth its own Adolph Hitler?’ – seemed to answer itself after Joseph McCarthy began his Red Scare witch hunts under HUAC’s protective banner, meant to preserve American values and morality at the expense of crucifying its citizenry, merely ‘suspected’ of being communists and communist sympathizers. Besides, the fictional Willie Stark had neither mass genocide nor the expulsion of subversives on his mind. Still, he wilfully plotted the systematic annihilation of his detractors, using blackmail, deception, sexual conquest, and quite possibly even murder; every chapter ripped from the basic playbook of Mafia-styled leadership at his disposal to catapult his career; the time-honored tool kit of a ‘dyed in the wool’ tyrant.
Stark’s political reputation is built upon a lie; that of a man merely pretending at goodness until the right opportunities come along that allow him to embrace corruption in all its many forms. Clean living is for suckers, and Willie’s been one long enough. Perhaps Jack’s initial suggestion to Willie “Don’t try to improve their minds” is carried a bit too far. But once Willie realizes his fortunes can only be made on the backs of others unwilling to take such risks, he steps right up (or down, as the case may be) to become the sort of pug-ugly whose face gets plastered on campaign posters and wins elections on slogans alone, mostly by shouting down (then, shutting down) his opponents with heavy-handed threats that mean business of a very different kind. All The King’s Men tore into the then ensconced mythology of a righteous government convened for the good “of, by and for the people.” Moreover, the film is unreformed in its view that an honest man can’t win in the political arena, about as far removed from the feel good analysis of America’s political spectrum depicted in another classic from Columbia Studios: Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939).
Rossen’s magnum opus begins in the backwater farming community of Kanoma City where graft flows like cheap beer. Assigned to cover the story of ‘an honest man’ attempting his entry into politics, affluent newspaper man, Jack Burden arrives in town just in time to see this aspiring politico cut down to size by a goon squad of local ‘authority figures’ loyal to Tiny Duffy (Ralph Dumke). Burden’s camera is taken from him and Stark is carted off to jail. A short while later, Burden attempts to intervene, casually confronting Duffy inside a pool hall stacked to the rafters with thug muscle just itching for a crack at him. Duffy, however, is smarter than the average bully – having already released Stark from his cell and ordering the return of his handbills and Burden’s camera, of course, minus the incriminating photos captured on its film. Burden is invited by Stark back to his modest home on the farm where he meets, Stark’s ever-devoted and doting wife, Lucy (Anne Seymour) and Stark’s aged pap (H.C. Miller). Willie shares his ambitions to study law. The mood, patriotic, yet Lincoln-esque, turns bittersweet with the return of Willie’s adopted son, Tom (John Derek); who has been brutalized for continuing to spread the word around town for his father’s election bid.
After a rock is hurled through his window, Willie vows revenge. But he’s also fairly tough on Tom for giving in to his tormentors – the irony, of course, being that he will eventually become Tom’s most reviled despot. Burden returns to work – imbued with a sense of devotion to tell what he misperceives as this ‘great man’s’ story. The syndicated articles are a big hit with both Burden’s editor and his readership; less so with his own stepfather, Floyd McEvoy (Grandon Rhodes), seething with contempt for his stepson and his own wife (Katherine Warren) – the woman he’s manipulatively managed to remake as a sad-eyed drunkard already begun to lose her withering grasp on reality. Floyd is sullen, arrogant and confrontational towards Jack during his homecoming dinner party; Burden chivalrously standing his ground as his fiancée, Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru) looks on. Anne is the daughter of an affluent Judge (Raymond Greenleaf) and whose brother, Adam (Sheppard Strudwick) – studying to become a doctor – just happens to be Burden’s best friend.
Willie makes several valiant, but ultimately failed attempts to entice the electorate. It’s no use. He’s a mouse fighting the lion. So Lucy encourages Willie to reinvest and redouble his efforts in studying the law. Soon, Willie is a country lawyer with a few clients. Still, politics is in his blood. Preaching that graft has resulted in shoddy building materials used in the construction of the new community school house, the public remains apprehensive to go against the status quo until a horrific accident claims the lives of several children after a fire escape gives way during a routine drill. The accident is a windfall for Willie, inadvertently kick-starting his political career, the public siding with him to bring swift justice against those responsible for this communally-felt tragedy. It isn’t really about justice. It never is, and Willie is ripe for revenge. He makes a name for himself in the papers and rises (either like cream or vermin) through the ranks – enough to garner interest from a devious political operative, Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge) who promotes Willie as the pick of the litter for the next gubernatorial race.
Burke is a sly devil, eerily detached and enterprising to a fault. But she will become caught in the crossfire of Willie’s even more ruthless ambitions after the proverbial genie has been let loose from its bottle; Willie’s rationing of common sense thrown out in favor of some quick and dirty backroom ‘deals’ that makes his ascension into the governor’s mansion all the more swift and assured. Burke becomes his lover, then Anne – Lucy’s abject humiliation reflected in Burden’s emasculated disappointment. However, the most tragic sacrifice is Tom who has since become something of a wanton playboy. If money is the root of all evil, then Willie Stark has quickly become a very bad man – fallen from grace of his own free will; the political machinery devouring its own as the Shakespearean adage about “ambition knowing no father” so wisely assesses.
Stark’s empire begins to implode after a scandal involving his auditor, Dolph Pillsbury (Will Wright), just one of the many ill-conceived appointees Stark has made to his cabinet; an eclectic mix of old enemies (like Duffy) and new phonies; swaying the Judge into accepting the post as Attorney General. But in Pillsbury, Stark has made a grave miscalculation. For Pillsbury is a two-bit racketeer skimming off the top; too stupid for his own good and much too easily caught by the lesser faction opposing Stark’s supremacy. As dissenting voices begin to call for Stark’s impeachment, Willie’s home life also begins to erode. Tom’s drinking gets the better of him. He crashes his automobile with a young girl, Helene Hale (Helene Stanley) ejected from his front seat. Helene later dies in hospital and Tom is left with crippling headaches and blurry vision – all but ruining his promising football career. When Willie forces Tom to play in a major college game, merely to save his own face, Tom collapses on the field and is left paralyzed for life. Willie attempts to bribe the girl’s father (Richard Hale) to remain silent with a promise to assign his trucking company a state-wide contract. Barring his refusal, Willie has his right-hand goon, Sugar Boy (Walter Burke) tail the man, who later disappears; his body discovered badly beaten and buried under a bridge; another of Willie Stark’s ‘make work’ projects exposed for what it is.
The final blow to Stark’s reign as supreme autocrat arrives in the form of a threat: Judge Stanton’s long ago appointment to a position that paved the way for his own success is ultimately exposed as a fraud by his own daughter after Burden refused to partake in ‘researching’ the scandal. In her love for Willie, Anne has betrayed her father. This revelation causes the Judge to commit suicide. It also pushes Adam over the edge. At a pep rally outside the courthouse where impeachment proceedings are underway, Adam waits with baited anticipation for Stark to emerge. Willie predictably dodges the allegations of any wrong doing and the charges against him are dropped. But he cannot escape Adam’s point blank aim, firing a fatal gunshot into Willie’s belly. The governor’s entourage of bodyguards assassinates Adam on the courthouse steps. Burden encourages a despondent Anne with a promise: that the worst is over. As Stark dies, whispering, “it could have been the whole world…Willie Stark…” Burden escorts his estranged fiancée to relative safety away from the press, while a heartless Sadie looks on – the nightmare over for at least the two of them.
All The King’s Men is spellbinding entertainment. More to the point, it seems to foreshadow the public’s disenchantment with elected officials; a dying admiration since disintegrated almost to the point of extinction in our present day political culture. Robert Rossen’s brilliant script juxtaposes moments of the sycophantic mob’s furious paroxysm - come out to worship their false prophet - with intimate scenes between the principles that manage to strip away Willie Stark’s bleak and foreboding masquerade. The movie would not have worked quite so well if not for Broderick Crawford’s monumental performance as the no-nothing cum big shot, out to get all he can while flimflamming the world at large. It is to Willie Stark’s discredit that in his dying moments he still does not realize just how small he truly is; this giant that whinnies his own eulogy, seduced by his own PR and remade God-like in his own mind, becoming insular - even frightened; employing scores of police (who occasionally take on the flavoring of Hitler’s Nazi Storm Troopers) to maintain his myopic view and withering grasp on another reality – that an honest man – especially one since so completely corrupted – can’t win.
Director Rossen had initially approached John Wayne to play the part; a travesty for the movie narrowly averted when Wayne turned Rossen down flat – feeling the part was not only beyond his depth but also an utterly unscrupulous and un-American view of the country’s political system. It’s for the best, actually. Wayne’s intuitive sense of nobler morality would have intruded upon the performance. Broderick Crawford has no such compunctions; an actor all but forgotten by the younger generation, but who completely electrifies Rossen’s wordy byplay with salty tongue and brutish mannerisms that always seem capable of so much more negativity and violence. Crawford commands our nervous respect. The message emanating from Crawford’s accomplishment is pointedly clear: don’t mess with Willie Stark. Others have tried and look where it’s taken them.
We must also tip our hats to Mercedes McCambridge – a woman who in life, as on film, could make wickedness seem as unassuming and common place as the devil’s own, come to call for tea (or a good bottle of scotch) on a sunny afternoon. Her Sadie Burke is vial, remote and unfeeling; preferring the man she loves – who will never love her back – be destroyed, rather than see him contented in the arms of another girl – even his wife! Herein, McCambridge’s passion always swings two ways with a faint whiff of lesbianism, later more deliberately evoked in movies like Giant (1956) and particularly, Touch of Evil (1958). She’s a brilliant actress, but a very odd duck, indeed.
Last, but not least, is John Ireland. After all, it is through Jack Burden’s eyes we witness the self-made implosion of Willie Stark. And Ireland gives us a portrait of a wounded child – unloved by his parents and made ineffectual in his manly pursuits by a woman who toys with, and later discards his affections. The lanky Canadian often appeared in mere support, usually as the ineffectual fop manipulated by strong women like Joan Crawford, or very second-string bad man made to atone for struggles with his own conscience. But it’s through Burden’s stoicism and firmness that All The King’s Men finds its own moral compass in a sea of excrement. And it is John Ireland who makes something more of Jack Burden than just another duped stooge caught in the crosshairs of Willie Stark’s manipulative grand plan.
All the King’s Men won three Oscars; for McCambridge, Crawford and the most coveted of them all: Best Picture. Viewed today, the film has lost none of its potency and, as far as politically themed melodramas go, All The King’s Men remains one of the cinema’s finest; thematically, a sort of contemporary cross between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear. Politics on film is often mangled with the hypocrisies of its own time, or perhaps dealt short shrift by an audience who – after all – has come to the theater to escape these realities that seemingly envelop and dominate in real life. But All The King’s Men is a far more compelling excursion than most, beckoning the viewer to pay attention to those men behind the veil of secrecy usually left unexplored.
Probing and honest, Robert Rossen has given us an unfavorable, though strangely never fault-finding portrait of this common man risen to prominence, whose one desire – to be beloved by the masses – is dashed to pieces by too many ‘get rich quick’ schemes along the way; even forgetting, perhaps the old cliché that the road to life – whether or not paved with those proverbial ‘good intensions’ is nevertheless meant for journeys rather than destinations. Willie never realizes what he’s squandered to become a ‘big man’. He would have done better to remain happily buried in Kanoma City, just as his alter ego – Jack Burden might have found more lasting happiness in that obtuse fool’s paradise of his own moneyed Burden’s Landing.
We can all rediscover paradise lost with this sumptuous new transfer from Sony Home Entertainment via Twilight Time. Grover Crisp and his team continue to impress in their hi-def releases of great classic movies. All The King’s Men has never looked stellar on home video, primarily because no original camera negatives exist and what has been archived over the years was, for decades, equally neglected and left to deteriorate almost to the point of no return. Sony’s 1080p transfer is therefore an immense cause for celebration; meticulously restored and remastered to yield a quality I didn’t necessarily think was possible. Is it perfect? No, nor is it ever likely to be. But what we have here is so far beyond what we’ve seen before that it easily earns our respect as one of the most impressive resurrections in recent years. Prepare to be astonished.
The greyscale tonality is gorgeous; revealing a level of fine detail unseen since probably All The King’s Men had its original theatrical run. Occasionally, the image is still soft and marginally blurry with some minor breathing around the edges. DNR has been applied to minimize the severe mold damage that still vaguely exists along the left side of the frame during the final reel. But DNR has been applied with great care and to great purpose herein. Film grain is accurately reproduced. There appears to be a minute amount of edge enhancement scattered throughout. It isn’t distracting, but it is present. Regardless, you are going to LOVE the way this looks. The mono DTS is quite resilient and actually vibrant in spots. This is primarily a dialogue-driven feature with limited use for Louis Gruenberg’s score. It all sounds marvelous, actually. My one regret is that no audio commentary accompanies this important film. As with all – or rather, most – Twilight Time releases; this one comes with a wonderful isolated score. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)