All The King's Men - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1949

Director: Robert Rossen

Production: Columbia Pictures Corp.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 109 minutes. Released 1949. Filmed in Columbia studios.

Producer: Robert Rossen; screenplay: Robert Rossen from the novel by Robert Penn Warren; photography: Burnett Guffey; editors: Al Clark and Robert Parrish; production designers: Sturges Carne and Louis Diage; music: Louis Gruenberg and Morris Stoloff; costume designer; Jean Louis; consultant: Robert Parrish.

Cast: Broderick Crawford ( Willie Stark ); Joanne Dru ( Anne Stanton ); John Ireland ( Jack Burden ); John Derek ( Tom Stark ); Mercedes McCambridge ( Sadie Burke ); Sheppard Strudwick ( Adam Stanton ); Anne Seymour ( Lucy Stark ); Raymond Greenleaf ( Judge Stanton ); Ralph Dumke ( Tiny Duffy ); Katherine Warren ( Mrs. Burden ); Walter Burke ( Sugar Boy ); Will Wright ( Dolph Pillsbury ); Grandon Rhodes ( Floyd McEvoy ); H. C. Miller ( Pa Stark ); Richard Hale ( Hale ); William Bruce ( Commissioner ).

Awards: Oscars for Best Film, Best Actor (Crawford), and Best Supporting Actress (McCambridge), 1949; New York Film Critics' Awards for Best Film and Best Actor (Crawford), 1949.



Rossen, Robert, All the King's Men , edited by Steven Rossen, in Three Screenplays , New York, 1972.


Callenbach, Ernest, Our Modern Art: The Movies , Chicago, 1955.

Casty, Alan, The Films of Robert Rossen , New York, 1969.

Ireland, John A., Living in Hollywood & Other Crimes of Passion; An Intimate Biography of Actor John Ireland , Fresno, 1997.


Hitchcock, Peggy, in Films in Review (New York), February 1950.

Winnington, Richard, in Sight and Sound (London), June 1950.

Rossen, Robert, "The Face of Independence," in Films and Filming (London), August 1962.

"Rossen Issue" of Films in Review (New York), June-July 1962.

Noames, Jean-Louis, "Lessons Learned in Combat: Interview with Robert Rossen," in Cahiers du Cinéma in English (New York), January 1967.

Dark, C., "Reflections of Robert Rossen," in Cinema (London), August 1970.

Mellen, Joan, "Fascism in the Contemporary Film," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1971.

Wald, M., "Robert Rossen," in Films in Review (New York), August-September 1972.

Milne, Tom, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), February 1986.

Combs, Richard, in Listener (London), 7 July 1988.

* * *

All the King's Men is one of the best political films of all time. It is based on Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name which became a major best-seller, and has retained its reputation as one of the great works of American fiction. The film is a riveting account of the career of Willie Stark, a character loosely based on Louisiana's notorious governor Huey Long, the "kingfish" of Southern politics in the 1920s and 1930s. Although Warren's novel also concerns the career of Stark, who rises from small-town lawyer to governor, Stark himself is a secondary character. The protagonist as well as narrator of the novel is newspaper reporter Jack Burden whose life, thoughts, and reactions to the political goings-on are related with frequent jumps back and forth in time.

In Rossen's film version, Willie Stark becomes the main character and Burden, although still the narrator, is much less important. The film also tells the story in chronological sequence, thus relying on a more traditional type of plot. Although in recent years many films have successfully used devices such as flashbacks and flashforwards without regard to traditional chronological story progression, in 1949 this would have been startling and probably unsuccessful. By shifting the emphasis to the central character and restructuring the narrative, Rossen was able to retain the spirit of the Warren novel while still making a highly dramatic and entertaining film. Unlike many adaptations, of the novels of Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, which have often been unsuccessful because they were either too close to or too removed from the original, All the King's Men as a film is different from, but equally as effective as the novel.

Another major reason for the success of the film is the quality of the acting. As Stark, Broderick Crawford gives a dynamic performance in the only major starring role of his career. His Academy Award

All the King's Men
All the King's Men
for Best Actor of the year was well deserved; he is equally convincing as the meek, naive country lawyer trying to help the members of his small community and as the spellbinding, power-hungry governor. The shift in his character's personality could have been a major problem with the film yet Crawford's acting makes both sides of the man believable. Mercedes McCambridge also won an Academy Award for her performance as the hard-shelled Sadie Burke. Others, including John Ireland as Jack Burden, are also very good, though they lack the opportunity afforded Crawford and McCambridge for a great performance.

While many films which make political or sociological statements tend to date badly in a few years. All the King's Men still seems fresh and powerful. The contradictory character of Stark, a man who wants to do good, but who succumbs to the temptation of power and the demands of his own ambition, becoming the embodiment of corrupt politics, is as relevant today as in 1949. The character of the demagogue has been known in literature for centuries, but few works have examined that figure as thoroughly and successfully as All the King's Men.

—Patricia King Hanson

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