All the King's Men

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September 29, 2006

No politician epitomized the excesses of radical populism in American history more than Huey Long, Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and US Senator until his assassination in 1935. And no political work of fiction better describes the relationship between power and corruption exemplified by Long's career than the 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All The King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren. Although the latter denied Long was the inspiration for his novel, like "Citizen Kane" and William Randolph Hearst, everybody knew what the subject was based on. The fictional character Willie Stark demonstrated that honesty and good intentions could not overcome ambition and lust for power over others, which is inevitable whenever desperate people look to the State and its political leadership to save them from their unfortunate predicament.

The first movie version of All The King's Men was released in 1949 and won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Broderick Crawford for his portrayal of Willie Stark). It was relatively short and focused on Willie Stark's transformation from altruistic country lawyer fighting political corruption in his home state to the personification of ambition and expediency in order to impose his will on the people he professes to serve. The story dwells on the question of whether ends justify means, and that the interests of the people can only be served by building on a foundation of evil methods.

The recently released remake, starring Sean Penn as Willie Stark, is longer than the 1949 version and reportedly closer to the book. It is interesting to note that the film's executive producer is Bill Clinton's political guru and Democrat political operative James Carville. Like Willie Stark (and the real-life Huey Long), Carville is from Louisiana's backcountry and seems to inject some of his own political persona into the movie's main character. There were times during the movie when I felt like I was listening to Carville (who I have watched on TV a number of occasions) rather than the actor on the screen. For example, Sean Penn gives a stirring populist speech to a crowd full of supporters when he admits to having crooks in his administration, but that his crooks are not as crooked as the crooks in previous administrations. It sounded so much like Carville's defense of Clinton during the Whitewater/Monica Lewinsky investigations, when he admitted ethical lapses but that they paled in comparison to scandals such as Watergate and Iran-Contra by Republican presidents.

The newer version seems to accept government as a necessary evil capable of doing good things for people if the right person is in charge. It assumes all politicians are corrupt, but that some are more corruptible than others, and that corruption which enables public benefits such as free education and medical care is not such a bad thing. Sean Penn's characterization of Willie Stark is that of a corrupt, ambitious politician who believes that his own best interests are served by serving the people. He justifies unscrupulous methods in defeating his opponents with the belief that the people will benefit more if he was governor instead of someone else.

I think a big difference between the two versions is the extent to which Willie Stark becomes corrupted by the enormous power he wields over others. This is illustrated by the incident in the original film where Willie's son is in a drunk driving accident that kills his girlfriend. The girl's father, who owns a trucking company, threatens to bring criminal charges. Seeking to avoid unfavorable publicity, Willie offers him a lucrative state contract. When the father refuses to deal, Willie assigns his personal bodyguard ("Sugarboy") to follow him around and keep an eye on him. Eventually the father turns up dead, and Willie is implicated. The film makes a compelling argument that no matter how altruistic or incorruptible a person entering politics might be, once he has attained almost absolute power the desire to keep that power overcomes any qualms about resorting to evil methods, even, as the film suggests, murder.

I guess with James Carville producing the remake, I shouldn't be surprised that the drunk driving episode and subsequent cover-up was completely deleted. After all, it might stir up comparisons to various sordid events that culminated in the suspicious suicide (some still say it was murder) of Clinton associate Vince Foster. More importantly, I think the scenes were taken out because the film's creators did not want to send the message that a politically correct populist governor (or president, perhaps) might become so corrupted by their position that they would resort to pretty horrendous deeds, including murder.

The big difference between the two versions is that the original seriously questions whether the ends (giving everybody a "free lunch") justifies the means (murder, perhaps?), while the remake seems to convey the message that a little evil now and then, in the service of a greater cause, should be tolerated. The original also emphasizes the corrupting nature of exercising government power, illustrated by the descent of Willie Stark from an idealist fighting corruption as a private citizen into a depraved political animal using the law of the jungle to justify any means necessary to keep his power. In the remake, there seems to be little noticeable change in Willie Stark; he is portrayed as someone who was always ambitious and somewhat corrupt, but willing to use his corruption to benefit the people who elected him.

From a libertarian point of view, I believe the original does a much better job than the remake in exposing the evil and corrupting nature that comes with exercising almost unlimited political power over others. It seems also, judging from the lackluster critical reviews I've read, that the remake is not very good from an artistic perspective either, and probably won't win, or even be nominated for, an Academy Award like the original. All things considered, I'd suggest renting the original and watching it at home (even several times as I have done) along with a bag of microwave popcorn and bottle of soda, rather than spend three or four times as much (not counting gas) to watch James Carville's tribute to a 1940s version of Bill Clinton.

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Ken Bank's picture
Columns on STR: 12

Ken Bank has done some writing (including movie reviews) from a historical and libertarian perspective, and his background includes masters degrees in history and business.  He used to be active in the Libertarian Party but has given up politics.  He currently resides in Barnegat, New Jersey.  He is a retired real estate broker, and currently works part-time as an investment manager and consultant.