All the King's Men (1949)

 

 

Director:    Robert Rossen.

Starring:     Broderick Crawford (Willie Stark), Joanne Dru (Ann Stanton), John Ireland (Jack Burden), Mercedes McCambridge (Sadie Burke), John Derek (adopted son of Willie Stark), Shepperd Strudwick (Adam Stanton), Anne Seymour (Lucy Stark, Willie's wife). 

 

Spoiler warning:  below is the full story. 

Good movie.  The movie is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren and the movie, in turn, is based on the life of Huey P. Long, Governor of Louisiana during the Great Depression.  It follows Willie Starke's assistant (John Ireland) as he becomes increasingly disillusioned with his political idol (played by Broderick Crawford).  Mercedes McCambridge (as Starke's female assistant) and Broderick Crawford won Oscars for their performances .  The movie won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Reporter for the Chronicle, Jack Burden, is given the assignment to cover Willie Stark, an honest man running for county treasurer in Kanoma County, a backwards county seat.   The politics in the country are corrupt.  Willie tells his audience that the new school house was built on the basis of graft and he warned of the possible consequences of incompetent craftsmanship in the construction of the building.  Willie is harassed when he tries to conduct his campaign.  He is told that a congregation of more than five people is disturbing the peace, his 15 year old adopted son gets beat up and someone throws a rock through a window in his home. 

Jack takes a vacation after writing his reports on Stark and returns to wealthy Burden's Landing.   He visits his mother and stepfather and then goes over to Judge Stanton's house to see the Judge, his nephew Adam and niece Ann.  Jack was childhood friends with both Adam and Ann and is still in love with Ann. 

Stark loses the election and so he returns to his study of the law, gets a law degree and sets up a law practice.  Then a twist of fate brings Willie back to political life.  During a fire drill at the school, the stairs collapse and a dozen children are mangled and killed.  Suddenly Willie is the hero who had warned the community that graft would cause an accident at the school.  Willie becomes the leader of a revolt of the hicks.  This gives the supporters of Joe Harrison, who is running for the governorship, the idea to get Willie to run for the governorship so that he will split the hick vote with candidate McMurphy, thereby giving the governorship to Harrison.    

Jack Burden knows that it's all a frame and he gets Sadie, Willie's right hand gal, to admit that Willie is a sucker, a sap.  This fact accidentally comes out in conversation with Willie and Jack and Sadie have to wise him up.  Willie gets drunk and breaks with his political handlers by delivering a speech that directly appeals to the hicks versus the wealthy and powerful.  His new message is so effective that Willie becomes the candidate to beat. 

Willie is so popular that the Harrison people put pressure on the Chronicle to stop any more articles about Stark from being published.  This causes Jack to quit his reporting job.  Stark wins the election by learning "how to win."  Jack drifts for four years from job to job and only meets back up with Willie Stark during his second governorship campaign.  Rumors were running wild that Willie was spending a lot of money on the campaign and was making deals even with his former enemies. He has even  promised to make the wealthy Judge Stanton the attorney general of Louisiana.    

Willie is re-elected.  And now he really begins to play it rough and dirty.  He even forms a sort of private army. 

But cracks start to appear in the Stark apparatus.  One of his associates gets in trouble for some shady deals and Judge Stanton wants to prosecute the man.  But Willie won't hear of it.  The Judge says he will resign.  After Stanton leaves, he gives the story to every newspaper claiming that the governor had squashed the graft investigation for political reasons.  Stark is mad as hell and pushes Jack to dig up some political dirt on the Judge. 

Sadie tells Jack that his girlfriend has become Willie Stark's mistress.  Jack is heart-broken and angered. 

Stark's son engages in a bout of drunk driving with a girl, crashes the car, gets injured and injures the female passenger so badly that she later dies.  Stark tries to cover it up, but the girl's father will not cooperate.  And suddenly the father comes up missing.  The suspicion is that Stark had something to do with the disappearance. 

Stark's son suffered head injuries in the accident, but his father pushes him to play in the big football game even though the young man does not feel well.  When the son is hit hard on the gridiron, he is knocked unconscious and is paralyzed (possibly for life). 

Willie has Jack and Ann in the bag and now he gets Dr. Adam Stanton too as he pushes the young man to take the position of director of the huge new hospital Willie is building. 

Willie's third campaign for the governorship begins.   There is talk about whether Willie is the Messiah or just a plain dictator.  And then the body of the disappeared father is found.  He was beaten to death and now the legislature talks about impeachment proceedings against Willie.  Judge Stanton is the leader of the impeachment movement and so Willie demands that Jack use the dirt he dug up against Judge Stanton to force the judge to release his votes.  But Jack won't say what the dirt is. 

Willie and Jack drive to Burden's Landing to see the Judge.  When Jack won't release the dirt, Willie suddenly releases it.  (It takes Jack a while before he realizes that it is Ann who has told Willie the information about the Judge.)  Ann and Adam arrive at the house as Jack and Willie are starting to leave. They all hear a shot and discover that the Judge has shot and killed himself.  Adam is doubly distraught when he learns that it is his sister Ann who told the incriminating information on the judge to Willie. 

Jack is packing up his suitcase to leave the whole political business in the past.  But Ann comes to him to plead with him to talk to Adam to placate her brother's anger toward her.  So Jack agrees to try to find Adam.  (Ann also told Jack that Willie has called it off with her, saying that he was going back to his wife Lucy.)  Jack and Ann proceed over to the legislative building where the decision will be made on whether to send the impeachment to the Senate for a vote.   

The vote goes in favor of Willie Stark.  But as Willie is celebrating his victory, shaking hands with his supporters, Adam shoots the governor, mortally wounding him.  Adam, in turn, is killed by Stark's trusty bodyguard.   

 

The story is an excellent one of an idealist politician soon becoming cynical and then using demagogic speeches to win the support of the "common man," known as "yokels" in the movie.  Populism is always a dangerous political force, because it is too close to its cousin, fascism.  The political philosophy of using state power to further the promotion of policies beneficial to the common man, whose support is based on demagogic appeals, is too subject to being transformed into dictatorship.

Huey P. Long had a populist message that appealed to the "yokels" of Louisiana.  His great appeal in hard times gave him near absolute power and that, as we all should know, soon leads to corruption and dictatorship.  Long had so much power that he could use his political machine to impose his ideas on the state virtually at will.  He was engaged in terrible corruption, but could block any attempts to make him answer for his evil-doings. 

Long started a run for the presidency of the United States and he thereby became a concern even to FDR.  A third political party, one lead by the populist Long, could have taken votes from Roosevelt and led to a Republican victory.  Many wealthy people in Louisiana were also very worried about Long and at almost all their social gatherings the talk was of shooting Long or supporting someone who would kill Long.

The film is outstanding because it catches the dangers of demagoguery in a democratic nation, especially one like the United States that is divided badly not only by class but also by race.  It stands as a warning to the people of the United States, whose "common people" (mostly white) are stirred by such demagogic institutions as hate radio and hate television. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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