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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

All the King’s Men (review)

The Peasants Are Revolting

Goodness me, this movie could not have been more prophetic had Nostradamus himself written it. (Hyperbole alert: There’s no such thing as ESP and Nostradamus was just a misunderstood poet.) All the King’s Men, based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel, is the story of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), a nobody from an unnamed state who rises from the mud of the backcountry to become governor. Along the way, there’s a succession of broads and dead bodies, the use of intoxicating substances and the bribing of state troopers. And finally, oh yeah, impeachment.
Stark begins his political career when he runs for county treasurer of backwater Konoma County, the people’s chance for “an honest politician.” He loses the race, but his David-and-Goliath story catches the eye of newspaper reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland). Burden becomes his chronicler, following Stark through law school, to his small practice, and then as a people’s advocate against corruption. Stark’s first run for governor is a setup, though he doesn’t know that: the other party needs a patsy to split the opponent’s vote. Still the “honest politician,” he loses.

Burden drifts away from Stark, and when he returns four years later for Stark’s next campaign, Stark has dramatically changed. Now Stark’s election coffers are overflowing, and Burden wonders what he promised to whom for the contributions. Stark vows to the voters that he’ll give them new hospitals, schools, roads. And when he’s elected, he makes good — but at the cost of becoming as dirty as the gang he swept out. Where before he’d been a straight arrow, now he’s a boozer and a womanizer, double- and triple-timing his wife and girlfriends. He covers up corruption and graft in his administration, and has Burden dig up dirt on his opponents. The people love him, but Stark is out of control.

Which goes to show that, despite what everyone says, the people don’t really want an honest politician who’ll give it to them straight (look what happened to Dukakis). They want someone who’ll promise them the moon, no matter how unfeasible that is. And then the people want to be able to be shocked when the only way to supply the moon is through underhanded means. Or that the only person able to give the moon is the conniving type.

Is All the King’s Men any more the Bill Clinton story than Primary Colors was? See for yourself and decide. But down to its shocker of an ending, it’s very contemporary, as fresh today as it was half a century ago.

Best Motion Picture 1949
unforgettable movie moment:
Candidate Stark abandons a dull, prepared speech and roars out his life story as a bumpkin to a crowd of farmers and backcountry people, starting with “Listen to me, you hicks!”

previous Best Picture:
1948: Hamlet
next Best Picture:
1950: All About Eve


MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

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