Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru, John Derek, Mercedes McCambridge
Director:  Robert Rossen
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Sony
Features:  Trailer, Sneak Preview
Length:  109 Minutes
Release Date:  September 5, 2006

“The will of the people is the law of the state.”
“Willie’s law is our law.”
slogans from the campaign of Willie Stark

Film ****

All the King’s Men was a film ahead of its time.  Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, this Best Picture Oscar winner written and directed by Robert Rossen has lost none of its punch in 50 years, and if anything, it has grown more, not less, topical with the passage of time.

This film is the polar antithesis of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  You may recall that Frank Capra’s picture argued that one man’s honesty could beat out corruption in the system, and that the will of the people could make that possible.  There are no such rose-colored glasses in All the King’s Men.  This is a dark, unsettling film that suggests that one man’s corruption could ruin the entire system, and that the “will of the people” is an illusion; they were nothing but sheep that are gladly manipulated by those in power.

Loosely based on Louisiana governor Huey Long, Willie Stark (Crawford, in a brilliant and Oscar winning performance) begins his political career as a loner going up against the system.  He tries to make his voice heard and point out the graft inherent in his town’s leadership, but is bullied by those same leaders who manage to shut him up and keep his message from going out.  Later, when the unnamed state’s governor’s political task force need to create a dummy candidate to split the ‘hick’ vote to keep their man elected, Willie is who they choose.

When he later becomes aware he is a puppet, he tosses down a few drinks, throws away the soft, meaningless speech he had been given, and gives an inflammatory talk that riles up the so-called hicks.   He loses, but leaves himself poised to strike and strike hard in four years.

With the aid of a reporter, Jack Burden (Ireland) and a cynical, hard-edged strategist, Sadie Burke (McCambridge, another Oscar winner), Stark spreads his vaguely Communistic message to those who want to hear it most.  He promises the poor every benefit imaginable by “soaking the rich”, offering to build better roads, a free hospital and more at no cost to them, but in true Communist fashion, the real cost is the loss of freedom.  It doesn’t matter, the people eat up what he has to tell them.

But it takes more than the will of the people to win an election (and this has to be the first mainstream film to deal directly with that issue).  It takes shady deals, money changing hands, bribes, threats, and more, and Willie isn’t above any of them.  “I know how to win now,” he tells Burden, who doesn’t understand where all the money is coming from.  That, or he turns a deliberate blind eye.

Willie’s governorship is a nightmare to all who understand.  After having been bullied himself as an idealistic, insignificant candidate, Stark is now more than willing to be the bully.  His reign as governor is fraught with blackmail, scandal, ruined lives, and even the occasional dead body.   He uses his power for his own gain, trying to cover for his son’s (Derek) mistakes and his own womanizing, all the while making sure anyone in a position to damage him is either broken or buried.  And all the while, the people scream for Willie, in haunting scenes that call to mind the Nuremberg nights in Nazi Germany.

This film is both fascinating and extremely disturbing.  Rossen, as screenwriter and director, uses the language of cinema to convey much more than the words on the page do.  His images of Willie are reminiscent of those of Kane, as he is made larger than life by low camera angles, but later dwarfed in a long shot inside the governor’s mansion as the image becomes bigger than the man.  He speaks volumes with a single image, as when Stark’s wife is talking about her husband’s honesty in serving the will of the people, while a close up of Stark shows him messily devouring some chicken.  Even the simple juxtaposition of the two campaign slogans quoted above show the irony in Stark.  He claims the will of the people is the law of the state, yet on the other hand, “Willie’s law is our law”.  The two ideas are worlds apart:  one suggests democracy, the other, totalitarianism.  The film makes clear that Willie is willing to serve the illusion of the former in order to attain the latter.

The movie is so true to its pessimistic view that it forgoes the typical Hollywood redemption ending you might expect.   There is none for Willie.  When he sells his soul, he doesn’t spend any part of the remainder of the film ruing the choices he made or the terrible thing he became.  His only regret at the end was that he could have had more.

Video **1/2

The transfer itself is good, but the print shows its age somewhat.  There are plenty of instances of noticeable scratches, dirt and debris throughout, though none particularly distracting.  The black and white photography looks good, with good contrast levels, sharp images, and no real evidence of grain or compression.  Overall, considering the age, there are no real complaints.

Audio ***1/2

For a mono soundtrack, this is one dynamo of an audio presentation!  Sound is very important to this film, and the dynamic range here is one of the strongest I’ve ever heard for mono.  When a brick is thrown through a window, the impact is startling.  When a staircase at a school buckles under the weight, the screams are horrific and loud.  The crowd noise is overwhelming, and the range from Stark himself as he goes from quiet to maniacally boisterous adds extra weight to both Crawford’s performance and the character himself.   A totally praiseworthy effort!

Features *

The disc contains a trailer and a special sneak peek at the upcoming remake of All the King's Men starring James Gandolfini, Jude Law and Anthony Hopkins.


Consider it the political version of the tale of Icarus.  Willie Stark is a man whose pride led him to reach for the sun.  It cost him his wings in the long run, but unlike the Greek fable, there were many more who fell with him.  Topical, dark, inflammatory and unnerving, All the King’s Men is one of the greatest American political films ever put to celluloid.

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