Judge Daniel MacDonald tried to bring power to the people once, but he ended up getting electrocuted instead.
He thought he had the world by the tail.
Winner of Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress, All The King's Men is a classic tragedy about politics and corruption. All the elements are here for some serious drama, and the picture delivers like a postal worker.
Facts of the Case
Reporter Jack Burdon (John Ireland, Spartacus) is about to take a vacation when he's given a new assignment that he can't turn down: a local independent, trying to make a run at the Louisiana governor's seat in the next election, who's causing a stir with his big ideas. And the first time he lays eyes on Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford, Born Yesterday), he's impressed with both the passion of the man's speech, and the down-home friendliness of the man's demeanor. Burdon writes a series of articles chronicling Stark's political run, but Stark inevitably loses the race.
Disappointed, Stark struggles his way through law school, hangs up a shingle, and begins a successful career as a lawyer, specializing in helping farmers and other rural folk, deferring fees, and fighting the good fight. But when a school tragedy occurs due to faulty construction that Stark criticized during his campaign, he's encouraged by growing public support to run again.
Burdon's paper puts him on the story once again, and he returns to find Stark in the centre of an organized effort, with political aide Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge, Giant) among a team steering his campaign. Stark's discourse is surprisingly lackluster, and it comes out that he is being manipulated to split the "hick vote," allowing a more prominent incumbent to win. Upon realizing this, Stark takes to the bottle for the first time, and ends up giving an impassioned, alcohol-fueled speech going directly after the "hicks," of which he considers himself one.
It's all he needs to skyrocket to fame, and before long Stark is governor (and eventually senator). The more power he gets, though, the more corruption seeps into his actions, until he's nearly unrecognizable from the man we met at the film's beginning. Burdon struggles to look himself in the mirror, having quit his job to work for Stark, digging up dirt on those influential people on whom Stark sets his sights, Sadie fights off jealousy as she watches the man chase other women, and Stark himself turns his family into nothing more than props in photo opportunities, since they are the only people he can't seem to manipulate. It's a long climb to the top, and a longer drop to the bottom.
Power corrupts. It's a common theme in political films, an age-old adage that tends to ring true. But All The King's Men takes a slightly different view: power allows people to be corrupt. That's a key difference. Stark seems like an everyman, trying to do what's best for the people, but closer examination shows that might not be the case. When he's told that speeches about tax reform are what will win him the election, that's exactly what he gives—it's not until he unwittingly strikes a chord with both the rural and urban votes, spitting out sound bites that end up on signs throughout the county, that he makes the "little people" his priority.
Not to say that he's not a man of the people, that he's not striving to help put his fellow hicks' issues to the forefront of the political stage; he's genuinely trying to do the right thing overall. But throughout the early segments of the film, Stark is struggling to win the election, and an argument could be made that it's the power itself that attracts him at least as much as the opportunity to help out other folks like him.
It's this kind of moral ambiguity that makes All The King's Men a great picture. The film doesn't spell much out for the audience, and exposition is relatively sparse for a movie from this era. Indeed, conversational dialogue and naturalistic acting are the order of the day, and the lack of melodrama make the film's tragic moments all the more powerful.
There are also great examples of efficient storytelling here, never wasting a scene or stating an idea twice when once will do. After the tragic accident at the school, Stark attends the funeral of some children who died. (How many? We're never told, nor are we told what exactly happened to cause their deaths, since only facts material to the story are shared with the audience.) It is at that funeral that other mourners start approaching him and telling him he was right about the school. In a less lean picture, this could have easily been two scenes, but not here. It's because of this efficiency that a relatively complex story can be told in 110 minutes without ever feeling rushed.
There's a reason this was nominated for three acting Oscars, as each character is portrayed with nuance and subtle layering. Broderick Crawford is the obvious standout, having several juicy speeches to deliver and a well-defined character arc driving his actions. But the supporting players do a lot of the heavy lifting too, as much of what we learn about Stark's transformation from populist to tyrant we glean through these characters. John Ireland was nominated for a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but it seems he has at least as much screen time as Crawford, and is tasked with portraying increasingly conflicting emotions as the piece carries on. John Derek (The Ten Commandments) also deserves special mention for his memorable portrayal of Stark's rebellious son Tom.
For a film of this age, the sound is presented surprisingly well, with no popping, hiss, or noticeable tearing on the original mono track. You're not going to be showing it off to your friends, but it does the job. There are almost no special features, and those present are promotional pieces on Steven Zaillian's upcoming remake, but it's more than on the previous DVD version.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Alas, the video quality of this DVD doesn't match the quality of the film; the picture is rife with scratches and specks of dust. The box says "Mastered in High Definition," which I guess accounts for how realistic and well-defined the flaws are. The problems with the image are not terribly distracting, and this may well be from the best quality film print available, but it doesn't hold a candle to the great recent restorations done on Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Double Indemnity.
Also, it's too bad that a Best Picture winner doesn't rate any sort of retrospective or historian's audio commentary, and the only special features we get are promoting the remake. I mean, if you want to do that, at least include a ticket for the new film or something.
All The King's Men is a dramatic look at corruption in politics, and the attractiveness of power. While it's not the greatest video transfer ever to grace a television screen, it's still a worthwhile piece of work to sit beside All The President's Men in your collection.
All The King's Men looked a little beat-up coming into the courtroom, but I must find Not Guilty.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Sneak peek of the new theatrical version of All The King's Men
Review content copyright © 2006 Daniel MacDonald; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.