Film Focus: All the King’s Men (1949)
Starring: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Mercedes McCambridge
Running Time: 110 minutes
“An honest man? The state is full of these log-cabin Abe Lincolns with price-tags on them; the louder he yells, the higher his price.”
Reviewed by Matt Keleher
History has shown us that it is the candidate who is best able to project certain qualities: sincerity, charisma, passion, gumption and just a slither of that folksy, everyman charm that stands the best chance of succeeding in politics.
Certainly, other factors come into play, but it’s hard to imagine a camera-shy milquetoast winning over the hearts and minds – whether his platform ticks the right boxes or not…
Some may argue that a person may be coached to nurture these qualities – others would say: leaders are born, not made.
All the King’s Men (based on Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel) tells the tale of Willie Stark: a self-made man of the people whose convictions and integrity are put to the test as he moves from grassroots politics to the governor’s office.
Early in his campaign trail, Strark comes to the attention of reporter Jack Burden, who finds his sharp-shooting honesty a refreshing change in a political environment rife with cronyism, back handers and covert deals. When Stark draws a small crowd with a spirited speech, a local politician attempts to scare him away, sending his retinue to shut down his campaign and to make life difficult for him.
When Tiny Duffy, an opportunist on the incumbent governor’s books persuades Stark to run for governor, Burden learns from the savvy, wise-cracking Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge) that the whole thing is a set up and Stark is intended to split the vote and lose, thus swinging the election in the governor’s favour.
When she later spills all to Stark- a lifelong teetotaller, he proceeds to get drunk for the first time in his life and is a wreck the following morning when he is due to deliver a speech. Burden cleans him up as best as he can and gets him to the venue. When a clearly inebriated Stark stumbles to the rostrum, Sadie asks Burden how he managed to get him there:
“A hair of the dog the bit him.”
“Hair? He must have swallowed the dog!”
Burden’s speech makes headlines after he humiliates the incumbent governor, exposing his slimy tactics:
“Now, shut up! Shut up, all of you! Now listen to me, you hicks. Yeah, you’re hicks too, and they fooled you a thousand times like they fooled me. But this time, I’m going to fool somebody. I’m going to stay in this race. I’m on my own and I’m out for blood.”
His outspoken honesty, intensified by his drunken state resonates with the locals. Although he initially loses, Stark the underdog fascinates the press, racking up the column inches during the campaign.
Four years later, Stark comes to Burden’s attention once again, as he runs again- this time as a much more viable contender, with significantly more money backing his election trail; money amassed through a series of questionable deals with other parties. When questioned about said deals, Stark shrugs them offer with apparent naiveté, suggesting that there were ‘no strings attached’.
Remembering Burden from four years back, Stark welcomes him into his new coterie, in which the ambitious Sadie has found also found a place. Watching Stark rise to power, Burden begins to question whether the simple virtue and honesty he saw in the man who canvassed in the streets will survive as he grows accustomed to the perks and vices that come with his new vocation.
When the role of Willie Stark was offered to John Wayne, he refused, citing that the scripted “smeared the machinery of government for no purpose of humour or enlightenment”.
‘All the Kings Men’ earned three plaudits at the Academy Awards in 1949– ‘Best Motion, ‘Picture’, ‘Best Actor’ (Crawford) and ‘Best Supporting Actress’ (McCambridge).
While Broderick Crawford’s name made for a less impactful billing than Wayne’s, it did not detract from the quality of the film; he capably channels Stark’s Jekyll and Hyde – a gutsy, community-spirited hero and the latent power-crazed ruler which begins to come to the fore as he ascends to power.
It is also apparent that McCambridge’s iron-willed Sadie was perhaps the toughest female character to have graced screens at the time. From the very outset, she is wry, cynical and wise to the political game and all its smoke and mirrors.
If you’re a fan of political thrillers, you’re sure to enjoy ‘All the King’s Men’- it’s smart, tautly plotted film that pinpoints the changes that may come over the few when they are called to govern the many…
Watch the film’s trailer here:
Have you seen this film? Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comments below…