“Now, shut up! Shut up, all of you! Now listen to me, you hicks. Yeah, you’re hicks too, and they fooled you a thousand times like they fooled me. But this time, I’m going to fool somebody. I’m going to stay in this race. I’m on my own and I’m out for blood.”
American flag waving patriotism is such a big part of movie history, that when they do decide to show the not so great side of their country and what makes it tick, it still packs a punch. Seeing that in a movie made almost 70 years ago packs even more of a punch. And since I had no idea what All the King’s Men was about before pressing play, that surprising punch made a great movie even greater.
Willie Starke (Broderick Crawford) is a small town, farm born hick. He’s raised himself up and is doing his part to fight the man. In a race he could never win, he’s running for a small, local political office, purely to highlight the corruption of the current establishment. He loses, but along the way, gains the attention and admiration of newspaper man Jack (Jon Ireland). In the wake of his loss, Willie studies law at night, gains his degree and opens a small practice, all while gaining the respect and admiration of his fellow small town hicks.
Having another crack at politics, Willie runs for Governor of the movie’s unnamed state and loses. But this time, he comes away with the knowledge and cold desire to win next time. Which he does, in a land slide. The only problem is, it’s at the expense of his honour, his honesty and his sobriety. Cementing his position as the hero of the working man on the outside, while relying more on dirty dealings, back door favours and corruption behind the scenes, it’s not long before Willie’s ego makes him the megalomaniacal epitome of the men he was so determined to fight in his early days.
All the King’s Men is some dark, subversive stuff. It’s not scared to expose the dark side of the American dream and point out the flaws of what made the country run back then, and seems only more rampant today. According to IMDB, the role of Willie Starke was originally offered to John Wayne. His angry refusal to be a part of the movie claimed it, “smears the machinery of government for no purpose of humor or enlightenment”, calling it a movie that threw acid on, “the American way of life.” Now, if I was making a movie about the failure of the American government at any time in history, a reaction like that from a right wing, conservative like John Wayne, would be the undeniable proof that I was on the right track.
This is an approach to storytelling I really didn’t expect from a movie made in 1949. The character flaws are more obvious and go deeper than I ever would have predicted. I’m not sure if it has a single hero or genuinely good person. Several characters have heroic moments, but they also get just as many, if not more moments, of spineless self-preservation, unabashed greed or pure narcissism. And all of that is perfectly embodied by Broderick Crawford as Willie Starke. His early moments as an impassioned, but ill equipped man of the people. His moments of growing confidence and success. His long, steady, tragic decline into everything he originally opposed. The characters around Starke do their job, but it’s Willie Starke who makes All the King’s Men so great.