“Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption.”
A small-town farmer-turned-lawyer (Broderick Crawford) rises to prominence in politics, aided by a hard-talking political aide (Mercedes McCambridge) and a sympathetic reporter (John Ireland) whose girlfriend (Joanne Dru) becomes Crawford’s lover. However, as Crawford becomes increasingly corrupt, he puts the well-being and reputations of many — including his own son (John Derek) and Dru’s esteemed uncle (Raymond Greenleaf) — at risk.
Loosely based on the life of Louisiana politician Huey Long, this adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel — directed and scripted by Robert Rossen — won an Academy Award as Best Picture of the Year, and a Best Actor of the Year award for Crawford. Peary disagrees with both these choices in his Alternate Oscars, where he notes that “cynical movies about the simultaneous moral corruption of individuals and society — with the sheeplike masses just waiting to be manipulated by false prophets — flourished in the postwar years”, including such 1950s titles as “Billy Wilder’s The Big Carnival/Ace in the Hole and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd” which “made viewers ashamed of themselves”. He writes that while some elements of All the King’s Men — particularly “those [scenes] that illustrate how our political system ‘works'”, as well as the many “authentic crowd scenes” — remain powerful, “the politics get lost because of some romantic subplots and a conventional secondary story involving Stark’s relationship with his disrespectful son”.
Regarding Crawford, Peary asserts that he “became arguably the worst actor ever to win a Best Actor Academy Award” (!), cynically noting that “after a dozen undistinguished years of performances that failed to prove he deserved anything better than to be in films nobody saw”, he was lucky enough to be “perfectly cast” here as “a two-fisted corrupt politician.” While I’m not well-versed enough in Crawford’s career to comment on him, I’ll agree this character study remains one of the lesser (though still intermittently powerful) attempts by Hollywood to expose political corruption and herd-like adoration of a Strong Leader — which, it should be noted, remain salient themes today. The framing narrative by and about Ireland is particularly weak; we lose respect for him fairly early on, as he remains committed to a man who may once have had good intentions but has clearly turned rotten. However, the direction and cinematography are strong, and the final scenes remain shocking and unexpected. Check out TCM’s article for a fascinating overview of the unconventional editing process that pared this film down to manageable size.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Effective direction by Rossen and cinematography by Burnett Guffey
Yes, for its historical importance as an Oscar winner. Listed as a film with Historical Relevance in the back of Peary’s book.