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Both All the King’s Men and the novel of the same name by Robert Penn Warren on which it is based were produced in the 40s but set in the Depression. That was heyday of Willie Stark’s real-life counterpart Huey Long, the eccentric governor from Louisiana who rose to power by becoming a spokesperson for the working man. In his day, Long came under scrutiny for alleged acceptance of bribes and misuse of funds before his assassination in 1935.
When morphed into Willie Stark, the outspoken hero of Southern farmers, many of the same traits were retained. Like Huey Long, Willie Stark also built new highways and improved education, but neither Robert Penn Warren nor director Robert Rossen, who adapted All the King’s Men for the screen, had any doubts about where the funds for such pet projects came. According to both, the once genuine spokesman for the poor sold his soul to the very people he despised.
Although set in the 30s, the film, like the book, is typical of the post-war examinations of American politics. The government and those who run were just beginning to be poked by the inquisitive sticks of the Silent Generation before the Baby Boomers grew and defined their generation by the practice. The voice-over narration by Jack (John Ireland), the idealistic youth who follows the rise and fall of Willie Stark, is representative of young Americans shaking off the residual memories of the war. He retains some innocence, but loses his naivety.
This was a gutsy move for Rossen at a time when the threat of blacklisting always lurked near by. John Wayne turned down the lead role, as he would for High Noon, deeming the script anti-American. Without the participation of major stars and, perhaps, a fear of catching the vindictive eye of the witch-hunters by crossing the radar too loudly, All the King’s Men was produced as a sort of proto-indie film. Much of the outdoor photography was done outside of sets and local citizens were hired as extras.
Of the professionals on board, Broderick Crawford does best of all as Willie Stark. He starts out as a messiah for the downtrodden, evolves into a dictator when he loses sight of his intentions, and ultimately becomes a tragic hero. John Ireland channels Henry Fonda’s saintliest characters for his role as the idealistic reporter that is at first an admirer of Stark until he can no longer pretend that he cannot see the ugly truth.
Our understanding of Willie and Jack comes too easily and abruptly, though. Both their backstories are explained in the simplest terms possible and so is jack’s initial praise for Willie. Surrounding both performances are broad stereotypes, such as Jack’s stuffy tycoon of a father-in-law. But the points of the film are still understood and though they may be simplistic today, jabbing American politicians so soon after the war was not an easy gesture.
Willie’s very piousness at the start is what makes him such a mystique. Is he really a guardian angel for the poor or is he an honest dope? In answering this question, the film rushes too fast over what the book drew out and Willie’s sudden change here is inexplicable. Nevertheless, Crawford’s performance (for which he won an award) becomes the only believable one in the film. John Ireland started out interestingly enough as the reporter but he becomes a blind fool too easily.
Hardest to understand are the people of the town. What exactly do they want and what exactly frightens them about Willie? Sure, the man is an unorthodox soap-boxer but where do they stand? Are they really swayed so easily?
Meanwhile, Crawford continues to impress playing Willie Stark as an American King Lear, going from a civilly disobedient barnstormer to, selling out, and then becomes a tyrant. If only the people around Crawford were as interesting to watch.
Of course, it’s easy to read the statement All the King’s Men wants to make using Crawford’s performance and it is a lesson Germany would have been well advised listening to some sixteen years earlier when they too were swayed by a charismatic loon. In All the King’s Men, even Jack becomes entranced by Willie’s extravagance. But despite the obviousness, Broderick Crawford makes his performance work thanks to subtlety.
All the King’s Men reveals Willie Stark to be a hustler and a clever one at that. He knows how to make people believe what he wants them to believe. But the funny thing is (and here is where All the King’s Men is dated irreversibly), it is no longer a secret that politicians do what was so shocking to Robert Penn Warren and Robert Rossen. If anything, Willie Stark is a fairly typical candidate who loses sight of what he stands for in the name of power. Considering some of the notorious scandals involving political figures since the release of All the King’s Men, it is easier to give Willie Stark credit for at least having started out with noble intentions.