As regular readers know, I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture and sharing my thoughts on them. I got a little behind, because for some odd reason Blockbuster online kept sending me the 2006 version of All the King's Men, starring Sean Penn, instead of the Oscar-winning 1949 version starring Broderick Crawford. Finally, I did obtain a used DVD through Amazon.com.
Last week, I was under the weather and didn't get a chance to watch it, but I've finally viewed the movie. Was it worth the wait? Not so much.
The movie is like a dark mirror of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where an honest man wins statewide office, only to be corrupted by the political system. Where Mr. Smith is effervescent and engaging, All the King's Men is plodding and pedantic.
All the King's Men was directed by Robert Rossen (who would later write and direct The Hustler), who adapted the screenplay from the Robert Penn Warren novel. The film stars Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark, John Ireland as reporter-turned-advisor Jack Burden, and Mercedes McCambridge as advisor and mistress Sadie Burke. This was the first film for McCambridge, who rose to fame on the Orson Welles radio drama series, The Mercury Theatre on the Air.
The other Best Picture nominees in 1949 were Battleground, The Heiress, A Letter to Three Wives and Twelve O'Clock High.
The novel was loosely based on the life of Huey Long, a former Louisiana senator and governor, and though the book told the story through the eyes of reporter Jack Burden, Rossen refocused the film on Stark. Narration provided by Burden, however, links many scenes.
Stark begins his political career with the best of intentions: to improve his state for his fellow "hicks," the rural poor. He rides to the governor's office on a wave of populism, following an unsuccessful, poorly-funded attempt. The second time around, he manages to secure funding by making deals, often with questionable benefactors.
When he achieves office, he follows through on his many campaign offices, building hospitals, schools and roads, improving the quality of life. His shady tactics continue, though, as he hires former reporter Jack Burden to do research for him into the dark secrets of his many political enemies. He also hires the very smart Sadie Burke as a close advisor, who then becomes one of his many mistresses. What a far cry from the guy with stars in his eyes and a hope for humanity in his heart!
The movie offers moments of rhetorical brilliance, and many of those speeches were lifted and set directly into the 2006 movie. Still, the film is heavy-handed in its use of narration to link different times and places. The 2006 attempted to discard that practice, ending up with a somewhat fractured narrative.
In the lead role, Broderick Crawford shows many sides. Unlike Sean Penn's portrayal of Stark, where he begins the film as a naive do-gooder, Crawford's Stark always has a bit of a politician's swagger. You can almost see the political wheels turning in his mind, his drive to succeed underlying an easily wounded ego.
Ireland and McCambridge are entertaining as Jack Burden and Sadie Burke, with their behind-the-scenes political ruminations sounding like a 1940s version of West Wing.
All the King's Men is a political morality tale without any clear heroes. This is one reason John Wayne turned down the role of Stark, with a scathing letter that accused the film of throwing acid on "the American way of life." The only people with integrity in this movie pay as high a price as those with more flexible morals.
The 2006 version adds a coda to the movie, as reporter Jack Burden tries to make sense of what happened and to sum up the lessons he learned. The 1949 movie, though, does no such thing, perhaps because the director didn't want to weaken the film's twin messages: absolute power corrupts absolutely; and modern politics suck well-meaning, good people into political games in order to achieve their goals.
By contrast, the 2006 version tries too hard to make excuses for the governor, showing many scenes of the established politicians we're supposed to believe are truly corrupt, who are pulling the strings behind the scenes. Stark is depicted as a victim, whose alcoholism is partly to blame, and that vice itself is encouraged and influenced by the corrupt politicians.
The 1949 version makes no such distinctions. Stark, it is clear, is responsible for his own downfall. By the end of the film, he's as bad as the old-boys-network he'd campaigned to overthrow.
The 2006 version also has Stark throw around the "N" word quite a bit, which might be authentic but certainly complicates the argument on his behalf. Likewise, Penn adopts a nearly incomprehensible southern drawl, so muddied I had to put the subtitles on. Crawford, however, makes no efforts to assume a Southern accent, which is not unusual for 1940s films, regardless of where and when the film was set.
When it comes to grading both of these films, the 1949 version edges out the 2006 remake for its unvarnished version of the truth. Both movies leave the viewer wondering, especially in the midst of a big election year, if it's possible for a good person to take office and achieve campaign promises while remaining untouched by the political machine.
Humpty Dumpty had only himself to blame.