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August 22, 2014

Movie Review: All the King’s Men (1949, Twilight Time)

Directed by Robert Rossen

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

Earnest reporter and spoiled rich kid Jack Burden (John Ireland) asks later in this feature, “Doesn’t good come out of evil?” The occasion is marked by Governor Willie Stark’s (Broderick Crawford) nakedly aggressive attempts to quash his rivals during a time of extreme crisis. All the King’s Men, the Best Film of its year as dictated by the Academy Awards, offers a succinct introduction to the United States political system.

When we first meet Stark, he’s a poor but honest rube who wants to make life better for his fellow sustenance farmers. He’s not afraid to tear down idols in high places, and accuses his government of taking bribes in order to build the new school house. Running for office, he’s defeated – until a terrible tragedy at the school house brought on by faulty construction propels him back into the spotlight. He’s recruited by the local corrupt government in order to draw “the hick vote.” Ruthless political flack Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge) pours liquor down the usually teetotaler Stark and is duly impressed the next day when he’s able to deliver a rousing speech on the plight of the working man. No turning back, Stark rises to the echelons of big government in his state, building roads and schools – but resorting to dishonest methods in order to do so. Do the ends justify the means?

Stark begins to spiral out of control, and all bets are off – he resorts to bribery, blackmail – and it is heavily implied, murder to get what he wants. As is the case with people like him, the little people get passed over and the piper must be paid.

Adapted from Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the King’s Men was highly accolade at the time of its release. It nabbed Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor for Crawford and Best Supporting Actress for Mercedes McCambridge. Fittingly, its makers would pay a heavy price for bringing such a heavy hitting work to the screen. Card-carrying communist director and scripter Robert Rossen would be called before the House of Unamerican Activities and would face blacklisting, which would eventually be lifted in 1961. Ironically, the Communist Party in the United States soundly condemned the film as well! No accounting for some people’s tastes, we guess …

In another set of stellar liner notes by Julie Kirgo accompanying this Twilight Time release, All the King’s Men can be interpreted in many ways: Following World War II, was this a warning against fascism? There seems to be more than a dash of Mussolini in Crawford’s grand, barnstorming performance. The film does provide a host of ethical questions for the viewer. Is the will of the people, i.e., a Democratic government always right? Or is it just mob rule? If a hospital is built and lives are saved, does it justify violently doing away with people who stand in the way? Tragically, those questions remain very much with us more than half a century later.

As expected, Twilight Time has done another bang-up job in making a classic film readily available to new audiences. Limited to 3,000 copies, there is an isolated score track along with the film’s original theatrical trailer – as well as the aforementioned strikingly designed booklet with Kirgo liner notes.

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