The Candid Candidate

If William Shakespeare is alive today, he might write about politicians the way he penned plays about monarchs. I suspect the Bard might like Willie Stark – the featured American politician in “All the King’s Men.” When first seen, Willie (Broderick Crawford) is running as a County Treasurer in the small Midwest city of Kanoma. His campaign attracts newspaperman Jack Burden (John Ireland) because Stark is reputed to be a rare honest politician. Indeed, Burden arrives at the same conclusion. Willie Stark was raised a backwoods hick. He’s quite the idealist whose goal is to bring justice and reform to the underprivileged.

Unfortunately, the decent guy loses, but not discouraged. The next time Willie Stark ascends on the political stage, he has studied law and is running for governor. Burden once again covers Stark’s campaign, but this time, he learns a ghastly truth from a shrewd political aide (Mercedes McCambridge).

There’s more to the plot and there’s more critical characters in play. “All the King’s Men,” based on a Pulitzer winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, makes you think hard about the nature of politics. What kind of people succeed in this arena? How can politics turn honest men like Willie Stark into something else? This might be the case of “Don’t hate the playas – hate the game.”

I’m sure the character of Willie Stark is a familiarity. Come election time, you’ll hear of politicians tooting their humble beginnings. But what we have to keep in mind that people change all the time. Even strong-minded men have weakness, you know. They’ll bend over backwards for one thing: power. They’ll even delude themselves for it.

In addition to Willie, I was also engrossed by people around him. I later learn that the title “All the King’s Men” is from the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty.”

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

It’s obvious that Willie Stark is Humpty Dumpty and his staff is “all the king’s men.” What’s interesting is that “all the king’s men” aren’t innocent bystanders in Stark’s fall from grace (or rise in power). Let’s take the narrator Jack Burden. It seems he’s on the good side, but there’s somebody shady in the way he stands beside him even if he senses Willie to be corrupt. It’s also interesting how men around Stark behave. Some men stand up to him. Some men stand up for him. They have so much faith in him – it’s sickening.

And I guess the other thing that fascinates me is politics itself. I thought – “My God, the movie is unintentionally giving lessons on how to be a winning but amoral candidate.” You can’t help but compare with current politicians, starting with Dubya himself and his staff of influence that put him into office. “All the King’s Men” is an audacious and perceptive motion picture, with a third act that spins in a gripping manner. I think it’s a classic, in the sense that its themes are still relevant today. And look, the novel is again being adapted into a movie due this September. Sean Penn is Willie Stark and Jude Law is Jack Burden. For such a compelling and complex story, maybe the novel deserves to be adapted in two movies for two different generations.

Grade: A+