“The people are my study.” — Governor Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) in All The King’s Men (1949).
We close today’s embrace of melodrama by taking a look at one of the best political films ever made, the 1949 best picture winner All The King’s Men.
All the King’s Men tells the story of a demagogue named Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford, who deservedly won an Oscar for his powerful and intimidating performance here). When we first meet Willie, he’s a poor farmer and political activist whose attempts to run for a minor office in an unnamed southern state are defeated by the state’s corrupt political machine. Instead of being intimidated, Willie is instead inspired to go to law school and become a lawyer who fights for the people. When an elementary school fire escape collapses and kills several children, Willie sues the construction company that built the school.
This also brings Willie to the attention of cynical political operative Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge, who also won a very deserved Oscar for her performance). Sadie works for the state’s governor, who happens to be locked in a tight election campaign with a political reformer. Sadie is dispatched to convince Willie to run for governor, with the idea being that Willie will take votes away from the reform candidate and therefore allow the governor to be reelected.
Everyone originally assumes that Willie is just a hick who will be easily manipulated. And, at first, Willie proves to be an uninspiring campaigner. It is only after he over hears his aide Jack Burden (John Ireland) talking to Sadie that Willie realizes that he’s being set up. Willie responds by going to a country fair, dramatically ripping up his prepared speech, and then launching into a spell-binding speech in which he tells the people at the fair that, since they’re all hicks, they’ll only have power once they elect another hick to the governor’s office. Newly energized and angry, Willie is nearly elected governor.
Four years later, Willie is back and he’s running for governor again. He’s still giving loud populist speeches but, as Burden notes in his voice over narration, the difference is that Willie is now the establishment candidate. He may be giving speeches promising hope and chance and attacking the rich but Willie will still take their money and watch out for their interests if that’s what he has to do to get elected. (Sound like any Presidents that we might know?)
Once Willie is elected governor, he runs his state like a dictator, engaging in blackmail, demagoguery, and maybe even murder to get everything he wants. He may still claim to be a hick but, as both Burden and Sadie realize, Willie has become exactly what he originally claimed to be against. However, after Willie’s son (John Derek) kills a girl in a drunk driving accident and Burden discovers that the woman he loves has become Willie’s mistress, it starts to become apparent that Willie’s corruption has created a world that is spinning even out of Willie’s control.
All The King’s Men may be a political film but it feels more like a gangster film, with Willie Stark coming across less as a politician and more like a crime lord. Director Robert Rossen directs in a style that owes a lot to film noir and the entire film is full of shadowy figures and secret plotting. Though the film starts out on almost a comical note, with a lot of emphasis being put on Willie Stark’s simple ways, it eventually reveals itself to be a truly disturbing portrait of what happens when one man is overwhelmed by his lust of power. Rossen is aided by a uniformly excellent cast. While I already specifically mentioned Crawford and McCambridge, it would be very wrong to review All The King’s Men without mentioning an actor named Walter Burke. Burke played Willie’s bodyguard. He said, at most, maybe 3 sentences over the course of the entire film but Burke had such a memorable and intimidating presence that his unsmiling face is one of the defining images of the film.
Finally, not surprisingly, All the King’s Men remains just as relevant today as when it was first released. We love our demagogues in America, especially when they pretend to be “just like us.” (And if anyone doubts that, I suggest they spend a few minutes listening to all of the potential Presidential contenders bragging about how they’ve been dead broke, how they’re known as Average Joe, and how much they hate the very political system that they continue to perpetrate.) We love to condemn our Willie Starks but, at the same time, we also love to keep electing them.