Uh, not the Sean Penn version.
Jack Burden is a young newspaper reporter sent out to the small town of Kenosha to cover a story that’s interesting to his editor because it’s about “an honest man”. Willie Stark is a Kenosha man tired of the corrupt politicians, so he runs for county tax collector. Burden is intrigued; Stark does seem honest and righteous, the kind of guy who doesn’t drink and refuses to bow to the local good old boys who terrorize his family, throw bricks in his windows and prevent him from passing out handbills and talking to the townsfolk. Stark warns of corruption in the contracts issued for building the new school. He loses the election, but a group of slick politicians show up and convince Stark to run for governor. It is their hope that he’ll split the vote between the two major candidates, thereby allowing a specific candidate to win.
Burden goes back to his newspaper job, but quits after a while, disillusioned with the fact that the paper owners want him to write stories that support a candidate other than Stark.
After Burden and campaign worker Sadie Burke inadvertently reveal to Stark the brutal truth of why he’s in the governor’s race, all bets are off.
Stark unleashes rage and fury at the men who set him up and at the establishment in general, appealing to his fellow men, the poor and the downtrodden — the “hicks”, as Stark calls them. He goes ballistic. He does not, however, win the election.
He spends his time preparing for the next election while Burden watches from a distance, Stark striking shady deals with corporations and spending money like its going out of style on circuses and barbeques for voters. Stark gets elected the next time, with Burke at his side and now, in his bed. He gives up the teetotaling in favor of drink and leaves his wife at home to spend time with Sadie and later, another woman. His zeal for the common man turns ruthless and brutal, self-serving and greedy. Jack Burden is hired as his hatchet man, and after that, everyone Burden knows that comes in contact with Willie Stark is painfully destroyed in some fashion.
Ideas are often noble and carry with them some sense of purity. The problem is that once human beings must act on ideas, such concepts are left to the fallibility of human nature. Ideas might be noble, but there is no such thing as a perfect human being.
Willie Stark starts out with a very noble goal: to take back the government from the corrupt politicians in power. He appeals to the very best of human nature while unleashing the absolute worst in himself. Stark justifies some very brutal actions – bribery, blackmail, even murder – by telling himself that it is for the good of the people. When Stark’s son kills a girl in a drunk driving accident, Stark attempts to bribe the girl’s father with a lucrative contract for the truth to remain hidden, something Stark himself railed against. The father turns him down, disgusted, and later, the man disappears. It is only when the man’s badly beaten body is discovered that Stark’s staff realizes the man was murdered for standing up for the right thing. All those in Stark’s path lose their innocence or possibly even more.
Stark promised the people of his state certain things, things that he did deliver – a new hospital, museums, universities – but at what cost? He destroys lives for the right vote or for a pair of eyes set to look the other way. Indeed, Stark’s own reliance on the justification that he is doing all this for the little guy is just a smooth veneer on Stark’s need to feed his own ego, line his own pockets and solidify his power base.
It’s a cautionary tale, one based on Huey Long’s life, which Robert Penn Warren (the writer of the book All the King’s Men) witnessed first-hand. The axiom absolute power corrupts absolutely might be a bit tired to trot out, but it’s nonetheless true. Stark starts out as perhaps the best of men and ends up the wretched worst. Broderick Crawford is perfect as Stark, a mix of righteous indignation and self-serving interest. It’s a movie that doesn’t leave you easily, since Stark is so eerie and creepy, his staff and hangers-on so readily compliant and the crowds cheering him on. All The King’s Men is the telling of a story of the worst of human nature, a warning, a lesson on what we choices we make to when it comes to the terrible side of life.