Tuesday, August 6, 2013


I recently read a story highlighting that Amazon sales of George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984” are up a whopping 6000 percent. It seems that in the wake of the scandal parade that has been on the march through Washington, highlighted by the NSA surveillance float, people have suddenly found the cautionary tale of government power more relevant than ever. It retains a certain tragedy that a novel published in 1949 about government deception, manipulation and gross misuse of power has seemingly been used as an instruction manual, lending it increased significance in 2013.

On that note, I’m convinced that if more people were aware of “All the King’s Men,” I think it would also experience a spike in public interest, owing to its timeless relevancy as a fable illustrating the fallout in electing a false idol into public office. Interestingly, “All the King’s Men” was released the same year as “1984” was published, and like Orwell’s classic novel, the film should serve as a good reminder that the means do not always justify the end, that government officials are not above the law and of the inevitable dangers in succumbing to demagoguery.

Directed by Robert Rossen, “All the King’s Men” picked up seven Academy Award nominations, winning three, including Best Picture for 1949. Rossen also adapted the film from Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, marking the last time a film with a Pulitzer Prize-winning pedigree took home the Academy’s top honor. The film stars Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Mercedes McCambridge and other names not likely familiar to modern audiences. But several of the lead performances are unforgettable and still feel surprisingly contemporary, particularly Crawford, who deservedly took home the Oscar statuette for Best Actor.

A roman-a-clef of the political career of former 1930s Louisiana Governor Huey Long, “All the King’s Men” chronicles the rise and fall of the fictional Willie Stark. A back-country hick inspired to take a stand against the political slag polluting his town and county, Stark throws his hat into the political ring of local government on a platform of truth and decency. However, his message falls on the public’s deaf ears, mainly due to the fact that the corrupt political machine has stuffed them full false promises and deceit, preventing any alternative messages from ever registering on their political consciousness.

Although realizing he has the charisma and determination to win public office, Stark recognizes his lack of intellectual credibility, spurning him to become a lawyer. After building up an account of public goodwill through his legal practice, a political opportunity presents itself to Stark after the local government’s corrupt practices finally bottom out, resulting in the deaths of several school children. Angry and frustrated by this tragedy, the general public urges Stark to run for political office, marking his first step on a journey that would ultimately usher him into the governor’s mansion. Stark’s journey ultimately recalls that quote from The Dark Knight when Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent presciently declares, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Along the way, Stark becomes an almost Messianic figure to the common, less-educated voter, capitalizing on their ignorant follow-the-leader disposition by pied-piping a tune of hope and change. In the process, Stark quickly charters the same crooked course of the very politicians he railed against as an undereducated country bumpkin, emerging as a bruising political architect whose chief tools are intimidation, dishonest dealings and fear-mongering rhetoric. Arrogant and brash, Stark continually justifies his means by the ends he claims they produce, leading him to become sloppy, impudent and alienating toward those around him. Even when reality threatens to blow the lid off of his “accomplishments,” Stark only doubles down on his mistakes with a clenched fist, continuing to do everything he deems necessary in order to maintain his chokehold on the power he has amassed.

If “All the King’s Men” had a subtitle, I think a leading contender for the spot should be “The Broderick Crawford Show.” He grabs the part of Willie Stark with both hands, lowers the gas pedal to the floor and doesn’t relent until the closing credits. It’s astonishing how Crawford is able to subtly travel Stark’s trajectory, initially creating a portrait of a sympathetic punching bag that you are rooting for to succeed. However, these sympathies soon become distant memories once Stark yields to the trappings of power and fame: carrying on with a merry-go-round of women; using and disposing of people like snotty tissue; and even inflating his vanity with such indulgences as wearing monogrammed house robes like some godfather figure. And what began as a dream soon ends as nightmare, and by the film’s end you are rooting for this erstwhile underdog to fail; as he is utterly remorseless in a way that leaves you feeling used for ever having felt compassionate for him in the first place. Crawford expertly guides Willie to this stage of his maniacal journey, mixing up a cocktail of emotion that is tragic, frustrating and infuriating. It’s Crawford’s talent at portraying struggle in paving the beginning of his own journey with such noble intentions that allows his latter downfall to be received with such complicated emotions. When Willie attains power to control the political infrastructure and impose his will, Crawford’s performance generates a genuine lament over the fact that he takes a jack hammer to the decent brick and mortar that once surfaced his course. Ultimately, Crawford’s performance becomes a great illustration of how absolute power corrupts absolutely, as they say. 

Of all the parallels this film draws with contemporary Washington, perhaps the one that resonated with me the most is the correlation between Willie Stark and our current political leadership’s refusal to ever own up to a charge of real wrongdoing, a constitutional transgression or a grievous error. Instead, the response is for D.C. to double down with heels dug in ready to refute every accusation and deflect any consequence. I find the lack of humility amongst today’s political elite to be truly stunning, particularly when they are called in to answer for their crimes. It reminds me of the oft-paraphrased scripture in Proverbs that says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before the fall.” 

Pride portending the fall is perhaps the core cautionary theme coursing throughout “All the King’s Men,” which is perhaps what will ultimately continue to make this film relevant for another fifty years. Unless the voting classes wise up, the public sector will always be rented out to vain hotshots who cocoon themselves within their own swollen doctrines. In that climate, the Willie Starks of the world will continue to be elected with the rest of regular society paying the price. 

Favorite Line: At one point during his gubernatorial campaign, Willie Stark is meeting with a small gathering of elite society. Among them is a man by the name of Dr. Stanton, who good-naturedly challenges Stark on how he proposes to fulfill his campaign promises, which leads to the following exchange:

Stark: Do you know what good comes out of? Out of bad, that’s what good comes out of because you can’t make it out of anything else.

Dr. Stanton: You say there’s only bad to start with, and that the goodness comes from the bad. Who’s to determine what’s good and what’s bad? You?

Stark: Why not?

Dr. Stanton: How?

Stark: It’s easy; just make it up as you go along.

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