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All the King's Men

All the King's Men(1950)

Remind Me

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All the King's Men takes its title from the nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty, the poor guy who had a great fall and couldn't be put together again. But that's the movie's only childlike touch. Directed by Robert Rossen in 1949 and released on DVD by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, this critically acclaimed melodrama stands with the most hard-boiled stories ever told about American politics.

Based on Robert Penn Warren's novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1947, All the King's Men has two main characters. One is Willie Stark, modeled on Huey Long, a real-life Louisiana governor and senator who was assassinated in the state capitol in 1935. The other, more central to the novel than the movie, is Jack Burden, a journalist who goes to work for Willie without realizing the moral and emotional consequences this will bring.

At the start Willie is an ordinary rural Southerner who'd like to win public office and help people, but has little education and no talent for getting votes. He loses his first election, to nobody's surprise, and settles in to study law with help from his loyal wife. Soon he's an attorney, finally helping people and making more money than a small-time government post could offer.

The state's political machine has other ideas, though. Their candidate for governor is doing poorly, and they need someone who can split the "hick vote" so he can win. Willie is just the ticket, since he'd like to be in politics and is too unsophisticated to know he's being used. He accepts the machine's backing and travels around the state giving incredibly boring speeches that he thinks are excellent because his hypocritical handlers tell him so. Learning the awful truth from Jack, he gets drunk and throws away his speech, talking from the heart instead. He reminds the crowd that his warnings about construction graft were prophetic-several kids were later killed when a schoolhouse fire escape collapsed-and proclaims that he's a hick who'll stand up for other hicks. This time he wins.

As governor, Willie takes no orders from the machine or anyone else. While he rules with an iron hand, he also builds schools and highways that make him hugely popular. Depending on your point of view, he's a "messiah or dictator," as a Citizen Kane-type newsreel puts it. Either way, complications start multiplying: His attorney general quits; his assistant Sadie gets jealous of his love for another woman; his adopted son has a fatal drunk-driving accident; and eventually his enemies try to impeach him. Jack isn't doing too well, either. Willie has stolen his fiancée, ordered him to dig up dirt on an admired friend, and gotten him deeply involved in the political duplicity he used to think Willie hated. Jack survives in the end, while Willie suffers the same fate-shot by a physician whose family he'd injured-that finished Long off in real life.

All the King's Men was one of many "social consciousness" pictures made in Hollywood soon after World War II, when returning veterans had trouble finding jobs, corruption thrived in government and big business, and inequalities along class and racial lines-which had seemed less important during the war itself-reasserted themselves with a vengeance. At a time when movies were taking on many sensitive themes, such as soulless capitalism in Force of Evil (1948) and anti-Semitism in Crossfire (1947), the corrosive view of politics in Warren's novel cried out for film treatment.

Rossen bought the rights, wrote his own screenplay, and got Columbia Pictures to finance it. He reportedly offered the Willie Stark role to John Wayne, a famous right-winger who was outraged by the script's negative portrait of American politics. The part went to Broderick Crawford, boosting him out of the B-movie world he'd been stuck in for years. Hoping to capture Long's personality as realistically as possible, Crawford studied his voice and gestures by watching newsreel footage. Rossen shot as much as he could on location, using local residents as extras.

All the King's Men was timely in 1949 and remains so today. But it would pack a stronger punch if Rossen's directing weren't so solemn and stilted. And while the film's setting isn't specified, the story certainly has Southern roots, so you have to wonder why almost nobody has a Southern accent, and why no African-American faces are visible, even in the background. In the 2006 remake, writer-director Steven Zaillian corrects this, giving Southern atmosphere to spare. (The only extras on the DVD are two previews of Zaillian's version, starring Sean Penn as Willie and Jude Law as Jack.)

The acting in Rossen's film is also uneven. While it's hard to imagine a more ideal role for Crawford, the studio apparently decided to smooth out the raspy voice that was one of his trademarks, diluting his performance. Mercedes McCambridge gives great energy to Sadie and Joanna Dru has good moments as Anne, but John Ireland is wooden as Jack and Shepperd Strudwick even more so as Anne's idealistic brother.

None of this stopped the movie in the Academy Awards race, though-Crawford and McCambridge won as best actor and best supporting actress, Ireland was nominated for best supporting actor, and Rossen was nominated for his directing. In all, the film got seven nominations and three wins, including best picture.

In a review of All the King's Men written years after its premiere, Pauline Kael said watching Willie Stark for a couple of hours "might just make you feel better about the President you've got." Some viewers might feel that way in any era, which testifies to the story's lasting relevance. Rossen's adaptation isn't a great movie, but it raises issues still worth pondering.

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by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt