In many older films, there were heroes and there were villains. There wasn’t much room for nuance.
Nowadays, the same can be said for the way politicians are depicted in the news.
One channel portrays Donald Trump as a hero and Joe Biden as a villain. Flip to another news channel and the perspectives are flipped. We’re working in extremes and we’re working in absolutes.
Where do you weigh the good and the bad? Where do the scales tip? Can a bad person can end up doing good things, even if they’re doing them for the wrong reasons?
In the early 1930s, one of the most divisive figures was Huey Long, who served as governor and senator of Louisiana. He was the original populist. He was a brilliant attorney and gifted orator and he became known for fighting against corporate greed. He spoke out against white supremacy and advocated for a wealth tax and wealth redistribution.
Many loved him, but he was also hated. He was impeached for abuses of power, including misusing state funds and corruption. But the most serious charge was conspiracy to commit murder. One of Long’s bodyguards claimed in an affidavit that an intoxicated Long had told him to kill a state representative and “leave him in the ditch where nobody will know how or when he got there.” Long allegedly promised him a full pardon.
Long was acquitted by the Louisiana Senate but the impeachment proceedings were so heated that there was a literal brawl on the floor of the state legislature. Some used brass knuckles and Long’s brother even bit someone.
Long was eventually killed and the assassin was never identified.
OK, that was a lengthy wind-up, but it leads us to the movie I’m featuring: “All the King’s Men,” a 1949 movie that won Best Picture at the Oscars.
Long’s story was the direct inspiration for the Pulitzer Prize winning novel that was turned into this feature film three years later.
Little known character actor Broderick Crawford plays Willy Stark, an honest man running for county treasurer somewhere in the South. The state and political parties are never specified. Stark is uneducated but bright and he takes on the establishment in the form of county commissioners who want to give their cronies the contract to build a new schoolhouse. The schoolhouse collapses with children inside due to cheap construction. Stark is seen as a prophetic hero, a man of the people.
Stark is later recruited to run for governor, but the naive man — now going to night school to become an attorney — is just an unwitting patsy. They only recruited him to split the “redneck vote” and give their preferred candidate an assured win. When he discovers, he vows to run again in four years, “But this time I know how to win,” he says.
He runs a populist campaign for governor, calling himself a “hick” and is elected easily. He vows to build a big hospital and provide people with free healthcare. All seems to be going well until cracks start to form. He begins cheating on his wife and berating his staff. He admits to making deals with corporate interests in order to advance his political agenda.
“I’ll make a deal with the devil if it will help me carry out my program,” Stark says. “But believe me, there are no strings attached to those deals. 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. You didn’t know that, did you?”
Later on, his attorney general, a former judge, refuses to cut a deal for corrupt politicians that Stark needs on his side.
Stark tells him: “You know, Judge, dirt’s a funny thing. Some of it rubs off on everybody.”
When the judge resigns, Stark enlists the help of a bright-eyed journalist Jack Burden who wrote about his campaign. He had previously hired this writer for his staff with promises of changing the world but now he’s got him digging up dirt about the judge.
“Jack, there’s something on everybody,” Stark says. “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption.”
In the end, Stark is impeached but acquitted. As he’s leaving the statehouse to a crowd of cheering supporters, he’s shot and killed. He’s assassinated by Burden, the very man who once looked up to Stark.
In a news reel, a narrator says that, “For those who say that Willie Stark is a man of destiny, there are others who claim that he is a man of evil, a man who cares neither for the people or the state, but only for his own personal power and ambition. Obviously, these ambitions go far beyond the boundaries of the state. Just how far, only time will tell. Meanwhile, he is here, and from the looks of things, he is here to stay. Willie Stark – Messiah or Dictator?”
Viewers will obviously see parallels between Willy Stark and modern day politicians. A good person starts off wanting to do good things but over time starts giving into the system and “playing the game.” At some point personal ambition starts to overshadow their original goals. Even when they push through good legislation, they end up getting their hands dirty, saying “the ends will justify the means.”
Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s character in the Netflix series, “House of Cards,” obviously is one recent example. Neither 100 percent good nor 100 percent evil, but sharp and cunning. And just like any Shakespearean tragic hero, their ego and ambition leads to their downfall.
“All the King’s Men” isn’t the first noir film to win Best Picture. “Casablanca” did that. And it isn’t the first award-nominated feature about an egotistical ambitious magnate who loses his way. “Citizen Kane,” released eight years prior, obviously influenced “All the King’s Men,” both in style and substance.
“All the King’s Men” is applauded for its screenplay, but the cast mostly improvised many scenes. The original running time was four hours and the director and editor trimmed it to a 109-minute movie by taking many scenes and turning into short snippets with transitions and using montages to show the passage of time. These editing tricks — not used much at the time — came out of necessity but made for a more powerful film.
Crawford won Best Actor at the Oscars, beating John Wayne, who originally turned down the role of Stark because he was reluctant to play a morally questionable character.
“All the King’s Men” is not one of the greatest films ever made but it’s worthy of recognition for its place in movie history. It shed some light on political corruption in the 1940s, which many people felt was un-American to to do at the time.
Its dark ending does not present any hope. And unfortunately modern politics often don’t either. If good men end up becoming corrupt over time, maybe that’s an argument for term limits. As Winston Churchill once said: “After a time, civil servants tend to become no longer servants and no longer civil.”