by Paul Batters
Do you know what good comes out of?…Out of bad. That’s what good comes out of. Because you can’t make it out of anything else. You didn’t know that, did you? Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford)
The ‘political drama’ is a concept fraught with trip-wires and potholes. It can lose its’ impact over time, either through the context becoming lost on newer audiences or simply because the story loses impact, particularly if it pales against current events. Neither rings true regarding All The King’s Men, a film whose key character and context runs almost too close to the events of the political sphere of 2020. Of course, the political drama can also be controversial, particularly if it is dealing with the corridors of power, politicians and leaders (real or supposed) and the machinations of governments.
Released through Columbia Studios and written, produced and directed by Robert Rossen, All The King’s Men was based on the 1946 Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name. In hindsight, it’s incredible that the film was made. The very nature of the story, the Code (which forbid any condemnation of government and the political system) and the soon-to-dawn McCarthy Era in a fervent era of Cold War paranoia makes for a courageous production. (Rossen would find himself dragged before HUAC and questioned). It’s controversial nature also lies in its brutal honesty and cold realism, with a powerful and all-encompassing cynicism from which there is no redemption.
In the discussion of All The King’s Men, this review will not hold back from political discussion nor apologise for making political comment. Indeed, the nature of the film was to confront it’s audience with the dangers of populism, demagoguery, corruption, nepotism and how idealism can become stifled and destroyed by realpolitik. As a result, All The King’s Men cannot be discussed, in this reviewer’s opinion, without that political discourse, particularly in the current climate of not only U.S politics (on which the story draws from) but indeed politics around the world. Ultimately, All The King’s Men is a story of the rise and fall of Willie Stark and his character arc is a fascinating one. But Rossen was also making a comment on the very system which allowed for that rise to occur and what would follow in Stark’s wake.
Despite the obvious nods to the infamous Louisiana governor Huey Long, the fictional character of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) is a complex individual who initially appears as a possible hero. Initially, the audience discovers a man who wants to do good and make positive changes to his community, yet finds himself alone, stifled and bullied into submission and failure. His apparent decency may very well be part of his undoing but it is also his naivety of the political game that marks his early political failures. However, he is a very quick learner and after an attempt by the local party machine to use him, Stark gets wise and knows what he has to do to win.
The power of populism as a force to gain political power is employed by Willie Stark, driven by an instinctive understanding rather than the seasoned nuances of a politician. Stark understands whose support he needs – the average Joe, the ‘hicks’ – and he is smart enough to include himself as one of them. As Governor, he distances himself from the party machinations and usual political shylocking whilst involving himself in them with an all or nothing approach. Yet he is also open about the need for deal-making, if he can achieve his aims and objectives for the people of the state. The extremes that Willie Stark will go to are simply a means to an end; case in point, his impeachment which will see him tell his supporters that the impeachment is not an attack on him but an attack on them. In another instance, he tries to find ‘dirt’ on Judge Stanton (Raymond Greenleaf), the attorney-general who has resigned with disgust from Stark’s administration. The parallels to the current political climate need not be drawn out.
The tragedy is that Willie Stark was a man who sought to fight the good fight but sold out his principles and values for power and influence. Any semblance of good has been supplanted by the poison of cynicism and the harsh realities of the political game. Yet he has a loyal base of support and the voters believe in his program, despite his many sins, and appear totally accepting of the man who speaks their language. But the fact that the newspapers and radio have been manipulated also suggests the dangers of a monopolised media – and again, the relevance of this to today is clear. The newsreel which Stark and his inner circle watch which asks is he ‘messiah or dictator?’ highlights the polarisation of politics in Stark’s state and the problems that emerge from such a polarisation. There are some terrifying, prophetic images of Stark’s base marching with torches and backed by Stark’s own private force. Rossen’s commentary on the dangers of fascism are more than evident.
As William Brogdon pointed out in his 1949 review in Variety, ‘the politics practiced, in the story were not Long’s alone’. Interestingly enough, Columbia’s infamous boss Harry Cohn would become almost obsessed with the character of Willie Stark, seeing traits of the man within himself and perhaps recognising the modus operandi that he himself employed in his own studio. Like Stark, Cohn was a self-made man and also used punishment and reward as a means of executing his power and authority. To Cohn’s credit, he gave Rossen plenty of freedom and went with Rossen’s decisions, particularly with the key decision of casting Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark (Cohn had wanted Spencer Tracy, Rossen stuck to his guns).
Production-wise, Rossen crafts a film with a starkness, obviously inspired by the Italian Realists. The documentary-style shooting, however, is also crossed with elements of noir, as much in rich tones as cinematic technique. Particularly effective are the use of montage sequences to track his rise to power and the election process as he gets there. The audience watches a man with a strong solid compass slide into a man thirsty for power. Despite the monstrous things that Willie Stark does, as Governor he actually does some amazing things for his state; incredible infrastructure programs, better education and health opportunities and in all of his megalomania he never loses touch with the people. Nevertheless, Willie Stark uses his touch with the people to use and abuse his mandate, as well all the vestiges of democracy including the judiciary, the electoral system and his position as governor.
The question also arises if Willie Stark was ever the moral man and always a man wanting power just waiting to emerge. It’s a compelling argument aided and abetted by Rossen in subtle ways, as much as by the blunt realism of the camera work. The montage that truly highlights Willie Stark’s road to Emmaus moment is his fairground speech. Intercut with real townspeople (from around the North California state) and again shot in the documentary/newsreel style, it is the powerful turning point where Willie Stark the idealist and naïve political pawn becomes Willie Stark the political realist and head-kicker.
The story is told through Jack Burden (John Ireland), a reporter who will become very close to Stark and part of his inner circle. His idealism, too, will take a steep nose-dive and his bitter cynicism will eat away at him, as he also watches the girl he loves, Anne (Joanne Dru), become Willie’s mistress. Ireland is solid in his performance but perhaps the most telling character in the inner circle is Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge). Sadie is also cynical and hard, initially part of the scheme to use Willie but she falls for him and remains loyal, hoping against hope that Willie will leave his wife for her. But she cannot compete physically with the younger and more beautiful Anne. The hard and tough secretary looking in the mirror and lamenting the scars of childhood smallpox is a sad and difficult moment to watch. McCambridge is outstanding as Sadie and deserved the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her efforts.
The film though belongs to Broderick Crawford and despite a magnificent cast, he carries the heavy weight of the film with drive and determination. It’s a heck of a character arc to build and deliver from social crusader to a monstrous political beast, particularly in a film that was highly controversial. Cohn and the studio wanted a big name to assure the film’s success and Crawford was a relatively unknown quantity. It’s perhaps his greatest performance, one that is genuine and authentic and Crawford would be rewarded with the Best Actor Oscar as a result.
The greatest irony of all is that Willie Stark becomes what he first claimed to detest, and the family he sought to look after and protect is abused and used for his political purposes. His son Tom (John Derek) pays a terrible price and though not explicitly portrayed, the sense of a son filled with admiration for his father collapsing into disgust and hatred, is certainly part of the overall tragedy. His wife Lucy (Anne Seymour) who has loved and supported him through the difficult times is cast aside and plays along with the façade. Her stoicism and love for her son shows a greater strength of character than initially supposed. Willie betrays those who have given their lives to him and ultimately betrays himself as well, as he gives himself over to drink, thirst for power and a fall for his own megalomania. In this sense, All The King’s Men is as much a Greek tragedy as it is a political drama. Stark is a fallen king intoxicated by his own hubris as much by the alcohol he consumes.
All The King’s Men would also win Best Picture and whilst Rossen missed out on Best Director, his vision was realised. Sadly, Rossen would face greater pain by being blacklisted and despite later success with The Hustler (1961), would fall ill and die in 1966.
The parameters of Willie Stark’s character perhaps do not seem so extreme in the modern era where a man like Donald Trump becomes the U.S President. But the film does make the dangerous point that the machinations of the political machine allows for the creation of such people and that corruption, nepotism and the opportunities for populists are endemic to the system not the people that it creates. Stark is a product of the system and learns that for him to benefit from it, he needs to work within it and even corrupt it further. As outlined earlier, this was a dangerous and highly incendiary commentary on American politics for the time, though also understandable against the backdrop of post-war cynicism.
William Brogdon’s 1949 Variety review stated ‘the chicanery of politics as have been practiced in the past… may crop up again’. Truer words were never spoken as we scan the political landscape of the last five years.
This article is an entry in the CMBA Politics On Film Blogathon for October 20 – 23. Thank you so much for the opportunity to take part. I encourage to visit the link (above) to read some interesting articles on Politics On Film.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.