All the King’s Men

Year of Release: 1949     Directed by Robert Rossen.  Starring Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Mercedes McCambridge, Joanne Dru, Shepperd Strudwick, and Raymond Greenleaf.

Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) is an idealistic politician who wants to get involved and run for office to help the people.  His honesty and desire to shake up the system attracts the attention of a local newspaper journalist, Jack Burden. (John Ireland)  Burden writes favorable articles helping Stark win public approval.  When Stark becomes too dangerous a topic, Burden’s editor informs him that the paper has endorsed a different candidate and will not publish any positive piece on Stark.  In a moment of idealistic anger, Burden quits, and a few years later he lands a comfortable job working for Stark’s campaign.

This job begins to change Burden.  Originally, he believed in Stark due to Stark’s honesty, integrity, and desire to do the will of the people.  Very shortly after being elected, Stark removes these priorities from his list.  Burden is his cleanup man, who collects incriminating data on anyone who causes trouble.  Burden knows that Stark has been corrupted, but Burden refuses to admit that he has been screwed for supporting Stark.  He also believes that the good Stark accomplishes outweighs his evil actions. Therefore, Burden continues working for Stark.  Even Stark destroying Burden’s personal life is not enough to make Burden quit.

Once Stark gets caught up into the world of politics, his idealism and honesty quickly fall by the wayside.  Or maybe, he never had them in the first place.  In an early scene, he gets very angry towards someone who questions why he is going to all this trouble.  Towards the beginning of his career, Stark also explains that good always follows evil; therefore, it is mandatory that he craft evil deals to achieve good for the people.  It is very revealing when an old cynic, who held the idealistic Stark in contempt, supports Stark when he hears him making deals and engaging in nepotism.  In this man’s mind, Stark is now an experienced politician.  Quite possibly Stark’s public performances about honesty and doing whatever the people want were only to gain strong public support.  Stark is glad for his early losses, because he became popular with the people and learned how to win.

Each step Stark takes to win becomes more shocking and more repulsive.  His addiction to power completely corrupts him.  While he gives elegant spiels about only doing the will of the people and only acting on behalf of the good of the people, his undercover actions are detrimental to society and to individuals.  As a result of his greed driven actions, people are killed, paralyzed, fired, and lose everything in various ways.

Initially Stark is very likeable.  His idealism is appealing; he is taken advantage of for his ignorance; and he is a clear underdog.  Other politicians organize riots, mobilize the police, and manipulate the press to stop him.  In order to achieve success, Stark employs all of these tactics as his first move after winning the election.  His other move is to blackmail anyone who opposes him.  Since he controls the media, he does not worry about any negative repercussions from his actions.

The people refuse to believe anything negative about Stark.  They call him a messiah whom they hope will change the way politics work.  (I’m not saying anything.)  The few people who distrust Stark and hold him in contempt are viewed as self-centered cynics who only care about themselves.  One character is reviled as an arrogant moral purist for opposing universal health care since it will be obtained by means of questionable legality and morality.  (Again.  Not.  Saying.  Anything.)

Every character in the movie fails to stand up for truth at some point.  Burden fails throughout most of the movie, as well as his friend Anne. (Joanne Dru)  Her devotion to Stark crosses into worship of a politician, and she contributes to his blackmail in an absolutely shocking way with tragic consequences.  Anne’s brother Adam (Shepperd Strudwick) initially holds Stark in utter contempt.  But even he gives into the political game in order to preserve something that he deeply values.  Ultimately, his choice completely fails.  When it does, his next choices, while morally problematic, are understandable given the direness of his situation.  Mercedes McCambridge plays a campaign manager who only cares to keep herself in power.  Even when Stark offends her, she does not care.  She outright acknowledges the offense as if it is not any major concern.

Stark’s early claim that one must do evil to produce good are clearly shown to be wrong.  Every character acts on this mentality at some point in their lives.  Even a character who seems to be a moral hero made a consequentialist choice early in his life, and it returns to haunt him.  All of Stark’s actions are guided by the principle that the ends do justify the means, and those actions are clearly depicted as repellant.  The climactic act of the film is also an evil act that is driven by good intention, that will most likely accomplish more harm than good.  Evil acts produce more evil, which significantly outweighs any good that may or may not result.

Watching All the King’s Men on July 4th, 2012 was a provocative experience with appropriate timing.  With the Fortnight for Freedom just ending, the recent SCOTUS decision, the HHS mandate, and a highly contentious election year, this movie is a riveting and interesting portrayal of similar situations.  Our media refuses to report a negative story on a politician they support.  People still support criminal politicians, because “the other guy” must not win.  Hopefully, our country is not as hopeless as the situation portrayed here.

Content Advisory: References to an affair and general corruption throughout.                  Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: A-


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