All the King’s Men (1949 )

Directed by Robert Rossen
Cinematography Burnett Guffey

All the King’s Men is a 1949 American film noir drama film set in a political setting directed by Robert Rossen and based on the Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name. The triple Oscar-winning production features Broderick Crawford in the role of the ambitious and sometimes ruthless politician, Willie Stark.

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Plot

The story of the rise of politician Willie Stark from a rural county seat to the governor’s mansion is depicted in the film. He goes into politics, railing against the corruptly run county government, but loses his race for county treasurer, in the face of unfair obstacles placed by the local machine. Stark teaches himself law, and as a lawyer, continues to fight the local establishment, championing the local people and gaining popularity. He eventually rises to become a candidate for governor, narrowly losing his first race, then winning on his second attempt. Along the way he loses his innocence and becomes as corrupt as the politicians he once fought against. When his son becomes paralyzed following a drunk driving accident that kills a female passenger, Stark’s world starts to unravel and he discovers that not everyone can be bought off.

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The story has a complex series of relationships. All is seen through the eyes of the journalist, Jack Burden, who admires Stark and even when disillusioned still sticks by him. Stark’s campaign assistant, Sadie is clearly in love with Stark and wants him to leave his wife, Lucy. Meanwhile, Stark philanders and gets involved with many women, taking Jack’s own girlfriend, Anne Stanton, as his mistress. When Stark’s reputation is brought into disrepute by Judge Stanton (Anne’s uncle), he seeks to blacken the judge’s name. When Jack finds evidence of the judge’s possible wrongdoing, a quarter century earlier, he hides it from Stark. Anne gives the evidence to Stark, who uses it against her uncle, who immediately commits suicide. Anne seems to forgive Stark, but her brother, the surgeon who helped save Stark’s son’s life after the car crash, cannot. The doctor eventually assassinates Stark after Stark wins an impeachment investigation. The doctor in turn is shot down by Sugar Boy, Stark’s fawning assistant.

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The main plot is a thinly disguised version of the rise of real-life 1930s Louisiana Governor, Huey Long, Long’s efforts to blacken the name of Judge Benjamin Pavy, and Long’s assassination by the Judge’s son-in-law (compared to nephew, as in the film), Dr. Carl Weiss.

The Test of Time!

21 October 2006 | by VideoJoeD (United States) – See all my reviews

I viewed this film for the first time this past week. It was one of only a few “Best Picture” Oscar winners over the past fifty or sixty years that I had not previously seen. I have found most, but not all, of these films to be absorbing and/or entertaining with the majority deserving of the awards they received. I included this specific film in a personal test that I conducted recently. I initially viewed the current version of this film, which features an impressive cast headed up by Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins. Then I rented this 1949 award winner to compare both versions.

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I am aware that when you first see a film or program that you find to be an excellent presentation and then you view a newer version of the same entity, the normal tendency is to find the new version not up to the standards of the original due to the unfairly high expectations. For the test conducted, I switched viewing order of the two versions. I anticipated finding the newer version more rewarding due to the more than half century difference in the two presentations and the fact that Sean Penn and Anthony Hopkins have each artistically created several roles which I have found to be top of the line performances. It did not work out that way in this case. I found the 1949 version withstood the test of time and in my opinion was the superior production. This had to do with several factors, the primary one being that the screen play of the older version seemed to be better paced and the presentation flowed more evenly.

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I believe this version more closely followed the novel and the depiction of the central character “Willie Stark”. The novel loosely based this character on real life Louisiana politician “Huey Long”. I concluded that the newer version tried to capture more of Longs’ character along with his political successes and failures. In doing so it lost some of the novels flow and impact.

Both versions have excellent casts and the performances given by both Sean Penn and Broderick Crawford (Oscar winning) as Willie Stark are first rate. I consider this version to be a top 25 all time political drama and gave it an 8 out of 10 IMDb rating, but I would recommend both versions for fans of semi-biographical political dramas.

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Don’t compare it to CITIZEN KANE

Author: (patrick.hunter@csun.edu) from Northridge, Ca
18 August 2000

While I admit that CITIZEN KANE portrays the corruption of power better than any motion picture ever made, let’s also be fair, because any Hollywood movie will suffer when compared with it. A more appropriate comparison would be the recent docudrama of Huey Long, KINGFISH. While John Goodman is excellent as Long and the movie worthwhile, it reveals just how good a film ALL THE KING’S MEN is.

Of course, Robert Rossen’s picture has a drab look. It should. It suggests the drab appearance of most U.S. states (anyone who has visited Kansas will know why Dorothy and L. Frank Baum wanted to go over the rainbow) and the use of common townsfolk rather than Hollywood extras adds to this look, as do the drab locations (check out something like the Marlon Brando movie THE CHASE, a movie that should have a drab look, but instead looks like a glossy Hollywood backlot). Thank God Columbia, a studio that loved locations because it had no back lot, financed this movie!

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I wouldn’t call this film realistic, but I’ve read the pulitzer prize winning novel, and I wouldn’t call it realistic either. Every page brims with beautifully poetic language which the movie often incorporates and which Rossen makes sound more like natural conversation than it really is. Compared to the book, the film, I think, reveals its real weaknesses: it does simplify moral issues and also reduces some of the characters to the level of melodrama (Willie Stark, in the novel, resembles more someone like Andy Griffith’s character in A FACE IN THE CROWD: a charming good ole boy you want to love, but who will knife you in the back the next minute). Broderick Crawford, with his Bronx accent, hardly suggests either a hayseed or, as he calls himself “a hick,” but he has a bullying power that I think is brilliant for the role. Personally, I’m glad neither Spencer Tracy nor John Wayne (both of whom Rossen wanted) got the part.

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And I think this movie holds up very well, even in our post-Watergate era of cynical politics: like the novel, it shows how the populist leader can easily be a tyrant. This message is not in CITIZEN KANE: the lofty Kane was never one of the people; he just wanted to be one of the people. Considering how much Hollywood in the era of Harry Truman embraced the populist sentiment with the films of John Ford and Frank Capra, considering that dictators like a Hitler and a Stalin like to present themselves as one of the people and enjoyed popular support, considering how much Americans love politicians who are charming rather than substantial, I’d say Rossen’s film hasn’t dated at all.

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