All The King's Men is the story of the rise of politician Willie Stark from a rural county seat to the spotlight. Along the way, he loses his initial innocence, and becomes just as corrupt as those who he assaulted before for this characteristic. Also included is the romance between one of his "right hand women" and the up-and-coming journalist who brings Stark to prominence. Written by Neal Scoones - [email protected]
Politics is a dirty business and politicians are a dirty breed. Sure, most aspiring lawmakers try to pass themselves off as innocent, starry-eyed idealists who care passionately about the common man's desperate plight, but once they taste the sweet fruit of success and become an oily gear in the grimy political machine, they expose their true colors. Blinded by ambition and a slave to greed, these despicable characters thirst for power and subsist on its heady accoutrements, putting themselves before their constituents. And as their souls become engulfed by their manufactured images, they become ruthless, unscrupulous, self-serving, insensitive, and manipulative. But the higher they rise, the harder they fall...and most of them crash and burn, done in by their own arrogance, sense of invincibility, and dirty deeds. It's an age-old story that goes back to the Greeks and Romans, yet no matter how many times history repeats itself, few seem to heed the warnings or learn from the most recent casualty. Times change, but politicians don't, and what destroys them time and again is one simple thing...ego.
That may sound cynical, but it accurately represents the tone of 'All the King's Men,' writer-director Robert Rossen's stinging adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's highly acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the rise and fall of a demagogue. With uncompromising grit and an unmistakable sneer, this Best Picture winner chronicles the unlikely career of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), a poor, uneducated man who allows dreams of grandeur and toxic self-obsession to poison the altruism that inspires him to run for office. At first used and corrupted by the political machine he will soon ferociously helm, Stark evolves from naïve puppet to cunning manipulator in the blink of an eye, learning the rules of a distasteful game and exploiting them at every turn. His populist platform and incendiary, fire-and-brimstone oratories ("You're a hick, and nobody ever helped a hick but a hick himself!") get him elected governor, but once he's ensconced in the mansion, the only agenda he promotes is himself, and he uses bribes, blackmail, and smear campaigns to bulldoze his whims through the legislature and exact revenge on those who dare to cross him. Initially engendering faith and loyalty from a herd of wide-eyed supporters desperate for a hero, Stark chews up and spits out those closest to him like tough chunks of meat. Newspaperman Jack Burden (John Ireland) and his socialite girlfriend Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru) fall under his spell, but over time they become bitterly disillusioned, as does Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge), Stark's misanthropic aide who's seen every trick in the book, yet still becomes ultimately amazed by Willie's heartless machinations. As time passes, everyone turns against Stark, even his own family, as his monstrous ego rages out of control and consumes the simple man he once was.
Unmistakable similarities between Stark and real-life Louisiana governor-turned-U.S. senator Huey Long abound, even though Warren refused to admit to any intentional connection when he wrote his best-selling novel. Both Stark and Long hailed from the same impoverished, uneducated backgrounds; their careers followed parallel paths (an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid followed by a victory four years later, which ultimately led to impeachment proceedings); they shared the same political philosophy; and Long's nickname was The Kingfish, which ties into the book's title, 'All the King's Men.' (Other blatant similarities exist, but discussing them here would spoil the movie's climax.) Yet whether or not we regard the picture as a thinly veiled portrait of Long doesn't matter, as Stark calls to mind countless colorful politicians from a variety of ages, and represents the underbelly of the American Dream. Though several films produced before 'All the King's Men' questioned the integrity of government officials ('Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' chief among them), Rossen's cinematic diatribe does so in a harsher, more critical tone, and one can only speculate what a notorious junior senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy (who strangely somewhat resembles Broderick Crawford) thought of this film and how it influenced him.
'All the King's Men' is powerful stuff, operatic in scope and arc, yet down and dirty like the best pulp fiction. Rossen's terse, poetic script zeroes in on the unsavory qualities that fuel Stark and his crooked environment, and takes special care to develop the trusting fools he so deftly manipulates. His excellent direction also cleverly mixes elements of film noir with a semi-documentary style to create a brooding mood of disgust and impending doom. Intimate shadowy scenes of backroom dealings are juxtaposed with chaotic protests and raucous legislature sessions, all leading to an explosive and shattering climax. Not surprisingly, Rossen received well-deserved Oscar nominations for his direction and screenplay, but lost both awards to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for the vastly different, far more sedate 'A Letter to Three Wives.'
Crawford, however, was rightfully named Best Actor for his blistering performance. He and Stark were made for each other, and he devours the part with a thrilling mix of gusto and bravado. Stark isn't subtle and neither is Crawford, but his evolution from mild-mannered oaf to blustery glad-hand to ruthless kingpin is a sight to behold. The actor, who originated the role of Lenny in the Broadway production of 'Of Mice and Men,' was only 38 years old when he portrayed Stark, but he seems and looks a good decade older, and though he also achieved renown the following year playing Judy Holliday's gangster boyfriend in the classic comedy 'Born Yesterday,' Stark remains his greatest and most lasting triumph. McCambridge, in her dynamic film debut as Stark's tough gal Friday whose only passion is politics, won Best Supporting Actress, and both Ireland and Dru, who would marry shortly after production wrapped, are also impressive in their more sensitive roles. (Ireland nabbed a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but lost to Dean Jagger in 'Twelve O'Clock High.')
'All the King's Men' is a timeless tale that's just as relevant today as it was 65 years ago. Though we may be loath to admit it, there are probably plenty of Willie Starks roaming the halls of our nation's capitol this very moment. Some will be exposed, others will escape retribution, but one thing is certain: the American political engine - greasy and foul as it may be - will continue to hum for the foreseeable future. And just like Congress performs checks and balances on the executive office of the presidency, so, too, do films like 'All the King's Men,' which keeps our eyes open and our perspective grounded. Rossen's film tells a crackling story, but it's the truth behind the tale that gives it power and meaning.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 1949 version of 'All the King's Men' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. An eight-page booklet featuring an essay on the film by Julie Kirgo and several black-and-white photographs resides inside, along with the BD25 single-layer disc. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is English DTS-HD Master Audio. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Twilight Time continues its string of excellent restorations with this beautifully modulated 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. Superior clarity and contrast allow us to drink in all the details on display and appreciate the richness and grit of Burnett Guffey's striking black-and-white cinematography. (Guffey would later win Oscars for his work on 'From Here to Eternity' and 'Bonnie and Clyde.') Just a bit of grain is visible, lending the image a lovely film-like feel, and only a few errant specks mar the pristine source material. A wide and varied gray scale heightens detail levels, especially in the background, and provides a palpable sense of depth. It also nicely distinguishes textures, and despite some challenging patterns, such as the checkered coat Ireland wears throughout much of the film, the picture remains rock solid and resists shimmering. Interiors flaunt a glossy, polished look, but the scenes of rallies and protests exude a marvelous naturalness that resembles documentary-style shooting.
Black levels are lusciously inky, with only a hint of crush creeping into the frame during especially dark scenes, and whites are crisp and stable. Close-ups exhibit fine degrees of definition, but are sparingly employed, due to the film's tough, realistic presentation. Noise is totally absent, and any DNR has been so judiciously applied, it escapes detection. Overall, this is a top-notch effort that breathes new life into this 65-year-old Best Picture winner.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track reproduces the primitive sound well. Any age-related imperfections, such as pops, hiss, and crackles, have been scrubbed away, and no distortion disrupts the mix. Dialogue, of course, reigns supreme, and all conversations – as well as Stark's passionate campaign speeches - remain clear and comprehendible throughout. The music score nicely fills the room, crowd noise is well modulated, and sonic accents, like gunfire, are crisp and distinct. Though typical of its time, this audio complements the film well and is meticulously rendered here.
The only supplement is the film's three-minute original theatrical trailer, which also looks like it has been restored.
Forget the shoddy 2006 remake; Robert Rossen's original adaptation of 'All the King's Men' is the only version of this Pulitzer Prize-winning story worth seeing. This tough, searing political drama, which won the 1949 Oscar for Best Picture, may show its age around the edges, but remains a relevant, relatable, and timeless portrait of insatiable ambition, cutthroat tactics, and insidious manipulation. Many of today's government officials could fill Willie Stark's shoes - and many have - and it's that element of realism that lends the film its sharply honed edge. Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge both took home well-deserved Academy Awards for their dazzling portrayals, and Rossen's screenplay and direction provide the movie with its driving pulse. Twilight Time's Blu-ray presentation features a superbly restored video transfer and fine audio, but supplements are frustratingly thin. Though this absorbing, adult yarn will fascinate anyone who loves substantive material, classics aficionados will especially want to add this title to their collection. Highly recommended.