All The Kings Men (1949)
A sharp warning about the corrupting influence of power, All The King’s Men is a magnetic and harrowing watch which chronicles a Southern American governer’s political career, trailing his incline from every-man to corrupted political mogul. Played superbly by Broderick Crawford, Stark’s story is narrated by his aide and confidant Jack Burden, distancing us from the events and inviting us to make more dispassionate observations about the process of Willie’s fall from grace.
In what must surely be a defining example, the plot is often advanced via the (now) cliche of spinning newspaper headlines and radio broadcasts, a reference to the rise of the media and to the irremovable space they hold in our engagement with life and politics.
Despite an undeniable sense of the contemporary, there’s something very Shakespearean about the structure of All The King’s Men (I believe I counted a body count of five by the film’s end). We could go further still in an analysis of All The King’s Men and consider the ways it uses Aristotilean constituents to construct it’s drama. Aside from clarity of plot, character, theme and diction, Aristotle claimed that tragedy resonates best when it is about ‘great men’, or people who hold a position of power and authority. When a leader falls from grace, the tragedy is all the greater for it. An example in contemporary film is the tragedy of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, where Dent’s descent into maddness and corruption are made all the more potent by his position as Gotham City’s District Attorney and one of its final saviours. Such is Stark’s tragedy – his position as a favoured and trusted figure in politics makes his descent into corruption all the more devastating and powerful.
Given the film’s proximity to the close of World War II, it’s easy to draw certain parallels between Willie’s rise to fame and the rise of various fascist leaders of the 20th Century. It’s hard to read if the film’s message is that Willie’s corruption is an inevitable result of power itself, or whether Willie’s socialist background underlines a hint of the ‘witch-hunt’ which would soon grip American politics. At any rate, there is certainly a sense that power is something which the individual must be well wary of: whether that power be manifested in the self or in another.
All The King’s Men is drama at it’s finest. Well-written, acted and shot, it’s a film that should not be missed.