Judge Clark Douglas is gonna make every man a king.
He thought he had the world by the tail—till it exploded in his face, with a bullet attached!
"You wanna know what my platform is? Here it is. I'm gonna soak the fat boys and spread it out thin."
Facts of the Case
Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford, Born Yesterday) is just a humble man attempting to run for the office of county treasurer. However, Willie refuses to be a part of the "good ol' boy" establishment in his hometown, and his willingness to speak with frankness and honesty has made him a threat to those in power. Willie's first few efforts at generating political change are unsuccessful, but he begins to build a reputation as an incorruptible man of the people. Eventually, the tide turns in a big way, and before you can say "grassroots campaign," Willie has been elected governor. Alas, power has a way of corrupting people, and it isn't long before Willie begins to turn into the very sort of politician he once despised.
The central character of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men is Jack Burden, a political reporter assigned to cover Willie Stark's county treasurer campaign. However, there's no question that Willie is the most compelling character in the novel, and Robert Rossen's film adaptation certainly recognizes that fact. Sure, Burden is the first character we meet (played with bland likability by John Ireland, Spartacus) and we continue to follow his story throughout the flick, but as the film marches on he's justifiably shoved into the background in order to permit us to focus on Willie Stark's fascinating, horrible journey to the dark side.
The novel and movie were clearly inspired by the story of former Louisiana Governor Huey Long, whose life story was quite similar in structure if not in specifics. However, the folks at Columbia Pictures were understandably nervous about causing a political uproar. It was quietly suggested that no one should utter Long's name on the set, much less draw the comparison directly in interviews (Warren repeatedly denied that Long and Stark had anything to do with each other). Nonetheless, the film's seemingly-innocuous suggestion that some politicians might be kinda corrupt proved rather upsetting to conservative audiences. John Wayne was initially offered the part of Stark, but Wayne replied with an angry letter declaring that the film, "throws acid on the American way of life," and that it, "smears the machinery of government for no purpose of humor or enlightenment."
Wayne may have been a cranky stick-in-the-mud, but he has a point: the movie does indeed throw acid on the American way of life (though many would argue that acid needs to be thrown every now and then) and it does indeed smear the machinery of government in a way which isn't particularly humorous (not that it's supposed to be) or enlightening (was the film really telling anyone something they didn't already know?). Yes, the film certainly shows us that Willie Stark was a good man in the beginning, and demonstrates that over time he became a very bad man. However, the movie never really digs into the specifics of exactly why or how Willie compromised himself so dramatically. One day he's a good guy, and over time he becomes a bad guy. This happens in real life, but the film is less interested in understanding why than in simply reminding everyone that it happens. In that regard, it doesn't quite have the resonance of something like Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd (featuring an electrifying performance from a young Andy Griffith), which covers similar subject matter but offers greater insight and depth.
Even so, All the King's Men is well worth watching for Crawford's magnetic, Oscar-winning performance. Crawford wasn't the first choice for the part (he certainly didn't have the star power of John Wayne), but he proved more than capable of handling the role's dramatic challenges. Crawford owns every scene he appears in, managing to be entirely convincing whether he's playing the earnest idealist of the film's first half or the overbearing tyrant of the second half. Most people remember the performance for its nastier scenes, but it's Crawford's ability to sell us on the initial idea that he's a thoroughly decent man which makes the performance so potent. If this man can be so horrifically altered by his immersion into the world of politics, surely the same could happen to any of us. It's a problem which hasn't changed a bit in the years since the film's release. The film is simple, but it deserves credit for delivering its message without devolving into needless hysteria or self-importance (both of which afflicted the ill-advised 2006 remake starring Sean Penn).
All the King's Men (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/1.34:1 transfer which highlights the film's crisp black-and-white cinematography. Depth is strong throughout, detail is exceptional and the film's natural grain structure has been left intact. Twilight Time has been hit-and-miss with their transfers, but this is definitely one of the stronger recent releases in that department. The DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio track is simple, but effective, preserving the dialogue with clarity and presenting the punchy Louis Gruenberg score with strength. Speaking of that score, the supplements include the usual isolated score track, theatrical trailer and booklet, but nothing else.
All the King's Men is a flawed classic. It takes a surface-level view of its subject and most of the subplots featuring secondary characters feel like filler, but Rossen's dynamic direction and Crawford's powerhouse performance ensure that the film remains unforgettable.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Twilight Time
• Isolated Score
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