There’s an interesting bit of behind the scenes information about Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men, the adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Robert Penn Warren. After scripting, filming, and an initial cut, Rossen’s movie was coming to 250 minutes in length. Harry Cohn, Columbia’s studio head, was happy to release the film as it was, but Rossen desperately wanted it to be shorter, so he told his editor, Robert Parrish, to remove the first fifty seconds and final hundred seconds of every single scene, which brought it down to the 109-minute long film that won the Best Picture Oscar. That created a certain staccato nature to how the film moved from scene to scene, leaving the central meat of every scene in its more traditional, classical style. I don’t know if that’s the source of my emotional distance to the events on screen, but I suspect it might be.
Jack Burden (John Ireland) is a small town newspaperman in an unnamed state given the assignment of covering the race for county treasurer that’s becoming more interesting than normal with the introduction of the grassroots candidate Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), a blowhard who’s calling out the corruption of local officials and attracting their ire. Burden is part of a social circle that includes a former governor and his betrothed, his granddaughter Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru), and her brother Dr. Adam Stanton (Shepperd Strudwick). He’s sympathetic to Stark’s fight, including the calling out of some cost cutting on the construction of a school, but Stark loses no matter his appeal to the lower classes of the area. Stark spends his time in between elections getting his law degree, and when the school has a terrible accident due to the shoddy construction, Stark turns it into his personal crusade, gaining notoriety and fame in the state.
Jack follows him on and off for several years through this period, including Stark’s first run for governor which is backed by the powers that be, designed as a spoiler to ensure that the establishment maintains power, but the experience hardens his resolve. He becomes dedicated to winning power, and the next few years are handled in montage as he signs deals for money from every private power center in the state.
This early section is, I think, designed to show Jack’s dedication and admiration for Willie, and yet this is where I have the most issue with the film in retrospect. The dedication and admiration feels preciously thin. Willie’s a fighter. The establishment is hopelessly corrupt. Those are givens, but, maybe it’s my own personal cynicism towards politicians in general, I don’t really feel Jack’s positive feelings towards Stark. In fact, it feels more like bemusement rather than belief, like Jack is someone on the sidelines just happy to be entertained by a wrecking-ball of a presence in the political scene. That would be fine, except that the last two-thirds of the movie, or so, are built on Jack being dedicated to Stark in a way that keeps him at Stark’s side even through endless signs that Stark has become just as corrupt, if not more so, than the powers he’s set to replace in his second campaign for governor. The Jack from the early section of the film feels more like the kind of guy who would watch Stark take a corruption scandal in the early days of his administration against one of his cronies, turn it into blackmail, and run off to just find another story to write about, rubbing the people who still believed in Stark as rubes. The story needs him to stick on.
My mother gave me the novel a little while ago, and I really should pick it up and read it someday soon.
It was the process of working around the establishment that made Stark the new establishment, and just as corrupt. He had popular appeal, and the larger power centers threw money at him because they saw him as an inevitability, and the power went to his head. All of that happens off screen, and I don’t naturally have a problem with that. Jack Burden is the main character here, not Willie Stark, and we don’t need to see every change in Stark’s character for the film to work. However, that jump from well-intentioned blowhard at the beginning, fighting the good fight he always loses, to corrupt, mob-connected tough from Jack’s point of view is so fast and, well, stark that it creates a disconnect for me in Jack’s character. I cease to see him as a cypher into the world, a form of myself in the narrative, and the film becomes more observational in nature. I disconnect emotionally and simply watch the events.
And the events are a compelling look at a corrupt, dangerous utopian with immense power who is bent on keeping that power no matter who he has to run over to maintain it. Paradise for the little guy is always one more bit of legislation away, one more hospital or football stadium, and he’s dedicated to that, and anyone who is against him for any reason is against the little people as well. It doesn’t matter if it’s Dr. Adam Stanton, who objects to Stark’s methods, Stark will buy him. It doesn’t matter if it’s Stark’s own adopted son, Tom (John Derek) who simply rankles under Stark’s expectations of him, or the father of the girl that Tom accidentally kills in a car accident that leaves him crippled, Stark will have the father silenced permanently. It doesn’t matter if it’s some woman he sleeping with or used to sleep with or a secretary or a senator. They’re all out to get him and, by extension, end his path towards perpetual happiness for the little guy.
He may be corrupt, but he only does it for the people. And if anyone is out to end his corruption, he’s going to end Stark’s helping of the people. So, it doesn’t matter at all what Stark does, he’s the good guy.
That’s interesting. What is simply not interesting is Jack’s sticking by Stark through it all. I will say that Jack isn’t a vociferous defender of Stark, especially by the end. The state legislature finally has enough of Stark’s corruption and starts impeachment proceedings, and in order to beat the vote in the Senate, Stark decides to put pressure on the elder Stanton, Judge Monte (Raymond Greenleaf), Anne’s father. Jack had dug up dirt on the judge years back at Stark’s demand (another particular episode where early Jack would have just left like he left his newspaper when they had decided to go anti-Stark), but Jack refuses to share it. However, Stark gets it anyway, and that’s what sets off the tragic series of events that leads to Stark’s sudden downfall.
I don’t know if my issues with Jack’s hanging-on would be fixed by a more surgical approach to the original film’s length issues (I really need to finally read the book), but that’s really the central source of my issue with the story. Jack’s desire to stay near Stark feels unsupported, but the story can’t happen without him around since he’s the point of view character.
So, this is a film I admire. I’m never bored by it, but at about the forty-minute mark I simply disengage emotionally. It’s very well acted with Broderick Crawford giving quite the central performance as Stark, surrounded by a supporting cast that is all more than capable in the confident hands of Rossen who films cleanly and with a clear eye towards capturing more than just one thing in a frame at a time. He’s not William Wyler, but he’s more than capable of doing more than the minimum.
It’s good, is what I’m saying. I would be very interested in watching the 250-minute long cut, though.