All the King's Men is one of the best political films of all time. It is based on Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name which became a major best-seller, and has retained its reputation as one of the great works of American fiction. The film is a riveting account of the career of Willie Stark, a character loosely based on Louisiana's notorious governor Huey Long, the "kingfish" of Southern politics in the 1920s and 1930s. Although Warren's novel also concerns the career of Stark, who rises from small-town lawyer to governor, Stark himself is a secondary character. The protagonist as well as narrator of the novel is newspaper reporter Jack Burden whose life, thoughts, and reactions to the political goings-on are related with frequent jumps back and forth in time.
In Rossen's film version, Willie Stark becomes the main character and Burden, although still the narrator, is much less important. The film also tells the story in chronological sequence, thus relying on a more traditional type of plot. Although in recent years many films have successfully used devices such as flashbacks and flashforwards without regard to traditional chronological story progression, in 1949 this would have been startling and probably unsuccessful. By shifting the emphasis to the central character and restructuring the narrative, Rossen was able to retain the spirit of the Warren novel while still making a highly dramatic and entertaining film. Unlike many adaptations, of the novels of Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, which have often been unsuccessful because they were either too close to or too removed from the original, All the King's Men as a film is different from, but equally as effective as the novel.
Another major reason for the success of the film is the quality of the acting. As Stark, Broderick Crawford gives a dynamic performance in the only major starring role of his career. His Academy Award
All the King's Men
for Best Actor of the year was well deserved; he is equally convincing as the meek, naive country lawyer trying to help the members of his small community and as the spellbinding, power-hungry governor. The shift in his character's personality could have been a major problem with the film yet Crawford's acting makes both sides of the man believable. Mercedes McCambridge also won an Academy Award for her performance as the hard-shelled Sadie Burke. Others, including John Ireland as Jack Burden, are also very good, though they lack the opportunity afforded Crawford and McCambridge for a great performance.
While many films which make political or sociological statements tend to date badly in a few years. All the King's Men still seems fresh and powerful. The contradictory character of Stark, a man who wants to do good, but who succumbs to the temptation of power and the demands of his own ambition, becoming the embodiment of corrupt politics, is as relevant today as in 1949. The character of the demagogue has been known in literature for centuries, but few works have examined that figure as thoroughly and successfully as All the King's Men.