All the King's Men
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A self-described hick from Hicksville, Willie Stark is proud to be the voice of the voiceless in the late 1940s and early '50s. The mayor of Mason City, La., simply wants a fair share of opportunity for the poor, hardworking people he lives among and represents. So when this man of conviction is urged to run for state governor by an out-of-towner, he throws his hat in the ring and heads out to preach his underdog message to anyone who'll listen.
Halfway through his campaign, Willie discovers he's been set up as the straw man to split the "hick vote" so that the real gubernatorial candidate—a big-city man steeped in a rich legacy of politics—can win. Rather than bowing out, Willie admits to audiences that he's been duped, and plays it to his advantage. He wins the election by the biggest margin in state history.
But getting to the governor's mansion turns out to be the easy part. As newspaper man (and narrator) Jack Burden explains, "His promises to the poor to build roads and bridges were a declaration of war on the rich. They wanted him out."
Senators and judges bent on impeaching Willie raise a bayou swamp full of allegations against him. Unfortunately, they're for the most part true; almost immediately after assuming his position, Willie morphs into the very politician he swore he'd never become. Bribes. Threats. Extortion. Blackmail. He does whatever it takes to fend off the corporately driven establishment of old-school lawmakers and socialites who threaten his power. The charismatic speaker justifies his actions to the public by insisting that his crooks aren't as bad as their crooks.
Such excuses won't hold up at the state Capitol, however. And key to deflecting the charges is the opinion of an eccentric, high-society judge who also happens to be Jack's surrogate father. Jack, by this point, has stowed his typewriter in favor of becoming Willie's right-hand man. As it turns out, it's Jack who is given the task of unearthing scandalous dirt on Judge Irwin that could "persuade" his mentor to side with "the boss." The assignment not only forces Jack to look a little too closely into his past, it rattles the cages of an age-old social system that's been created to keep men like Willie Stark confined to their roots.
Willie admirably aims to care for the poor by using state funds—which have long been designated exclusively for the benefit of wealthier taxpayers—to create services beneficial to everyone. Free health care, better highways, more schools. These are the fruits of the governor's impassioned stand for the underprivileged.
Despite knowing he's being used by Willie for political gain, Jack's childhood friend, Adam, opts to head up the governor's new hospital because he can't resist caring for those unable to pay for medical services. Even after Jack turns his back on his father figure by blackmailing him with a long-concealed secret, Judge Irwin refuses to strike back: "I could hurt you like you're trying to hurt me ... but I won't." (It should be noted, however, that what he does decide to do causes more pain than loosing his tongue would ever have.)
Often in figures of speech, characters reference Jesus, the Apostle Paul, Judas Iscariot, saints, the Pope and being "washed in the blood." Crucifixes, candles and other icons are shown throughout the movie, including a running theme of three crosses positioned beside roads.
Willie's Christian upbringing prompts him to insert God and the Bible into his conversations—even after he's corrupted. While coercing Judge Irwin, who refuses to be intimidated, Willie snidely asks him if he's taken the matter to the Lord in prayer. The governor, whom people refer to as the man "who thinks he's Jesus Christ" or "the little white Lamb of God," essentially claims that he's received God's power. He also asks, "What are we but dust blown off the hands of God Almighty?" Minutes later he acceptingly references mankind's supposed evolutionary origins.
An assortment of scriptures are read by a priest at a funeral; another such occasion finds a priest sprinkling water on the casket. The Louisiana senate hearings open with a prayer that declares God the "judge of our deliberations," among other titles.
Jack mentions holding onto something for life and explains that "in church they call this faith." He also states that when adapting to the harsh truths brought about by change, "God and nothing have a lot in common." When tragedy at a poorly constructed schoolhouse kills three children and proves Willie's warnings prophetic, it's said that God had a hand in the matter as He "stepped down and intervened." A follow-up comment is made about God sometimes asking others to do His work. Willie's wife is described as hailing from "some Baptist hole in the ground."
For the most part, All the King's Men bucks Hollywood's "show, don't tell" rule in conveying the extent of Willie's libidinousness and infidelity. Rather than seeing shots of him in bed with one-night stands (or with one of his assistants, whom he's also sleeping with), we're simply told of his appetite for various women. However, the camera does linger while one of them, a thong-wearing ice skater, performs a sexualized routine. And it looks on when a trio of belly dancers take the stage.
In a flashback, Jack slowly undresses Anne in preparation for bedding her, and she awaits him lying naked on the bed. (Her arms cover her breasts.) Much is made of the fact that Jack does not then go through with the act. Sadly, a decade or more later, Jack seems to believe that by not going ahead, he missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grab hold of his destiny.
A handful of other sexually loaded comments are made, including Willie joking to Jack about appointing him "secretary of the bedchamber" when he becomes president.
Two men are graphically shot to death, with multiple bullets ripping through their bodies and blood pouring out onto the floor. The camera pulls back to show both bloodied figures lying in a pool of red. We're also shown the aftermath of a suicide, including a blood-spattered wall and a stained sheet draped over the dead body.
Anne slaps Jack. He returns the favor by roughly grabbing her. Adam's apartment room is shown trashed. Jack jokes about wanting to be shot if he reverts to his younger behaviors, and about drowning a girl after marrying her to claim her inheritance.
Crude or Profane Language
God's name is profaned a few more than a half-dozen times; four or five times it is combined with "d--n." "Jesus" and "Christ" are used inappropriately twice and once, respectively. Almost two-dozen mild profanities and crude terms are spoken; "bastard" tops the list. Several characters use the n-word when referring to blacks. (Willie begins his career respectfully calling blacks "negroes," but then slips into using "n-gger.")
Drug and Alcohol Content
Pervasive. Virtually every main character in virtually every scene lights up a cigarette or cigar and/or pours a glass of hard liquor. Bourbon gets a specific mention. Whiskey, champagne and beer are all downed. As with Willie's use of racial epithets, alcohol symbolizes his gradual descent into corruption. During his campaign, he refuses alcoholic beverages (out of deference to his wife's wishes, he says). That devotion to orange soda evaporates as his morals and ethics slide.
Other Negative Elements
As Solomon bemoaned, there is nothing new under the sun. And All the King's Men is not a new story. Originally a novel written by Robert Penn Warren in 1946, it is based upon the life of flamboyant Louisiana politician Huey P. Long. The book won a Pulitzer prize. Three years later, it was brought to the big screen by Robert Rossen and earned an Oscar for Best Picture.
Given its timeless messages and warnings, many have felt this tale of a from-the-soil elected official's rise and fall to be especially relevant in today's scandal-drenched political climate. Director Steven Zaillian and lead Sean Penn certainly thought so.
But their Flannery O'Connor-like reimagining isn't just politics as usual on the big screen. The setting of dirty dealings at the statehouse, in which everyone manipulates and gets manipulated in a chess match of power, raises loathsome visions of what may occur behind the scenes of any administration—national, state or local. But for the average moviegoer, this meaty film that's told in whodunit fashion has more to offer than mere blogosphere-style sniping.
Willie Stark starts out strong. He's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He's Spider-Man confronting the Green Goblin. He's the Good Samaritan stopping to tend to the downtrodden and oppressed. And he's passionate about changing the world—or at least his small corner of it. His man-of-the-people charge is the stuff of idealist's dreams.
But something happens. (And this film insists that it always will happen.) Call it a power trip. Call it ego or pride. Willie calls it human nature. In his own words, "Man is born in sin and conceived in corruption. He passes from the stench of the diaper to the stink of the grave." He believes, as the Bible teaches, that we are all inherently fallen. The hope, Willie says, is that "you can always make good from bad in all things—from poetry to politics."
And it's there where viewers can glean the truth that the best we can do in life (by ourselves) is as worthless as rags (Isaiah 64:6). It's also there that Willie loses his way, and the film begins to shortchange us. Asked what good looks like, and how we'll recognize it if we're "born bad," Willie crows, "We just make it up as we go along."
So it's not surprising that such a mixed up sense of truth and lies sends Willie deep into the shady, hypocritical underbelly of politics. Where does it all end, onscreen? Suicide and murder. And while there's spiritual truth to even that, All the King's Men isn't trying to score any religious points. It's certainly not trying to tell us who has the ability to turn our darkness into light, our bad into good, our soil into flesh. It won't even acknowledge that such supernatural hope exists. It's dedicated to preaching, as Time's Richard Schickel notes, unrelenting and unavoidable blackness and bleakness.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Sean Penn as Willie Stark; Jude Law as Jack Burden; Anthony Hopkins as Judge Irwin; Kate Winslet as Anne Stanton; Mark Ruffalo as Adam Stanton; Patricia Clarkson as Sadie Burke; James Gandolfini as Tiny Duffy; Kathy Baker as Mrs. Burden
Steven Zaillian ( Searching for Bobby Fischer)