All the King's Men (1949) is the fictionalized
account of the rise and fall of a backwoods rebel - a story inspired by
the rule (and abuse of power) of Louisiana's colorful state governor
(1928-32) and Democratic U.S. Senator (1932-35), notorious Huey Pierce
Long - "The Kingfish." It is a melodramatic story of the corruption of
power by an ambitious demagogue, adapted and based on the Pulitzer
Prize-winning and best-selling 1946 novel of the same name by Robert
Penn Warren, and filmed from a script by producer/screenwriter/director
The main difference between the novel and the film is the reversal of the major roles: the narrating newspaper reporter takes precedence over the power-hungry governor in the novel. In the film, the secondary character is the reporter, while the central character is lawyer-turned-politician Willie Stark. One of the film's posters proclaimed: "He thought he had the world bythe tail...till it exploded in his face...with a bullet attached..."
The great political film was a breakthrough film for Broderick Crawford from his B picture status - his performance is very compelling and impressive as he is transformed from a backwoods, honest and naive lawyer into a dirty, unscrupulous and sleazy politician. Of the film's seven Academy Awards nominations, it won three major honors: Crawford won the Best Actor statuette, Rossen (as producer) won the Best Picture Oscar, and Best Supporting Actress went to Mercedes McCambridge (in her screen debut). Its other nominations were: Best Supporting Actor (John Ireland), Best Director and Best Screenplay (both for Rossen), and Best Film Editing.
Under the film's credits, crowds of fanatical political supporters from the countryside congregate in the capital city to support their candidate, displaying placards and banners that read: WILLIE'S LAW IS OUR LAW, and WIN WITH WILLIE. Torchlight flames are superimposed on the brawny image of the egomaniacal political figure of Willie Stark, who preaches his powerful message to them. [These scenes are excerpted from the final sequence in the film.]
Everything is told through the eyes of an admiring young Chronicle newspaperman, Jack Burden (John Ireland), who is sent to report on a Southern politician named Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) - said to reportedly be "an honest man" by Burden's editor. [Burden's story is, in actuality, the truth of the rise and fall of a political king, who like Humpty Dumpty in the rhyme, falls from grace and can't be put back together again.] The reporter locates Stark in small Kanoma City (in Kanoma County) in an unnamed state - "a typical hot, dusty, backwoods county seat," speaking to a group of citizens and rallying for them to vote for him as County Treasurer. At first in the late 1920s during his campaign, poor, honest, and idealistic Stark is for reform, justice, the underprivileged, and the underdog as he rails against the local County Commissioners:
Why have they used every dirty method known to make sure I'm not elected County Treasurer? Well, I'll tell ya why - because they're afraid of the truth, and the truth is this. They're trying to steal your money. Yeah, I said steal. The County Commissioners rejected the low bid on the schoolhouse. Why? Well, they'll tell ya the reason is the job will be done better. The County Commissioners would have you believe that they're interested in public welfare. They're interested in welfare, sure, but it's their own.
Stark is pressured to break up his assembly due to an ordinance selectively enforced by the local authorities to deliberately disrupt the proceedings and prevent the passing out of handbills, but after a quick arrest due to his resistance, he is released by fat city boss Mr. Tiny Duffy (Ralph Dumke). Burden drives out with Stark to his rural home, where he meets Willie's long-suffering schoolteacher-wife (of nine years) Lucy (Anne Seymour), his father (H. C. Miller), and their sullen fifteen year-old step-son Tom (John Derek). While Willie aggressively eats his chicken dinner with a single-minded appetite, he is determined to run and stay in the race ("get(s) the truth to the people" according to his wife), no matter how much humiliation and harrassment he receives. With folksy charm, he vows: "I'm gonna run. They're not gonna kick me around like I was dirt." When adopted son Tom returns home, he describes how Duffy's goons were waiting for him, and threw away his stepfather's handbills. Willie again swears: "I'm gonna run even if I don't get a single vote."
With conviction, Burden types his news article about his impressions of Stark - WILLIE STARK, AN HONEST MAN:
In a state ridden for years by corrupt politics, the appearance on the scene of a man who is a politician and yet dares to oppose the political machine is indeed a rare phenomenon. Willie Stark is such a man. He is as much a part of the back country as the very sun-scorched hills. He truly represents the people. What man (sic) turn out to be the sad commentary is that the people will not be aware of it. It has been a long time since this locale has witnessed the appearance of a man with the sincere and forthright manner of Willie Stark. Coming from farmer stock, he has retained all of....
One gets a very definite impression that Willie Stark will not bow to the past, but will make a new future. It might conceivably happen that in his future, also lies the welfare of the people of this State. "I'm gonna run," he shouted, "and you're not gonna stop me. I'm gonna run even if I don't get a single vote."
As I watched him shake his big fist and listened to his words boom out across that field, I had the feeling that here was a man with a will of iron. I had the feeling that Willie Stark would neither be steered away nor scared away from his purpose. I had the feeling that in Willie Stark, Kanoma County had found that rare thing: an honest man with courage.
After producing the sympathetic article that befriends Stark, Burden takes a well-deserved two or three-week vacation in his childhood home community of Burden's Landing (named for his ancestors), about 130 miles from Kanoma City. In Burden's voice-over as he crosses over to the small, peaceful and isolated island town, he muses: "It was separated from the mainland by a body of water. For the first time, I wondered if it wasn't separated by more than that." Jack greets his Southern society mother (Katherine Warren), but is coldly distant from his stepfather Floyd McEvoy (Grandon Rhodes). A respected and distinguished inhabitant of the island community is patriarchal Judge Montgomery (Monty) Stanton (Raymond Greenleaf). Stanton's socialite niece is Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru) [mis-spelled as Ann in a newspaper article], Burden's girlfriend, and Stanton's nephew (brother to Ann) is noted physician Dr. Adam Stanton (Shepperd Strudwick) - a close childhood friend of Jack's.
At one of many fancy social occasions, discussion flares over the direction of Jack's troubled career choice and conflicting political viewpoints regarding Willie Stark. Later that evening, while standing under an imposing portrait of Anne's father (the late former governor) in the darkness, Jack is unclear regarding marriage to Anne because of his own indecisiveness, his ambivalence about his family, and his aim to prove himself to his aristocratic background:
Jack: Anne, Burden's Landing is a place on the moon. It isn't real. It doesn't exist. It's me, pretending I live on what I earn. It's my mother, trying to keep herself young and drinking herself old doing it. She and Adam living in this house as though your father was still alive. It's an old man like the judge, dreaming of the past. Anne, come away with me.
Anne: And do what?
Jack: Live in a shack and eat red beans. Anne, what do you want me to do?
Anne: Oh Jack, you haven't been sure. You've gone from one thing to the other. A year at law school and now this job as a reporter.
Jack: Are you afraid I can't make a living?
Anne: Oh no Jack, it isn't that. I don't care about the money. It's just that I, I want you to be something.
Jack: What is it you want me to be?
Anne: I don't know. It's just that I want you to be, to do something important.
Jack (sarcastically turning toward the portrait): Like your father? All right, I'll run for governor. Anne, I'm sorry, I'm sorry I said that.
Anne: All right, Jack. I'll go away with you. I'll do anything you want me to. (They kiss.)
Jack: I've wanted you to say that more than anything in the world. And now that you have said it - Anne, I guess you were right. I'm not sure of anything, including myself. I'm not sure I could live up to the...Anne, wait for me. Please wait for me.
Anne: I'll wait for you.
Burden cuts his vacation short and returns to the newspaper. Although honorable and truthful and considered a "log cabin Abe Lincoln," Willie's efforts are hopeless against the state's "dishonest" political machine, and he loses the County Treasurer election ("I guess that's the end of Willie Stark," Burden mutters). After the loss, Willie studies law at home under the patient tutelage of his educated wife to become a hick lawyer. In a montage - Willie proudly hangs up his framed Bachelor of Law diploma from Kenport Law School, accepts indigent cases in his new law practice, and works long hours behind his storefront window (decorated with bold letters WILLIE STARK, ATTORNEY AT LAW).
Soon, Willie's luck turns when his prophetic campaign warnings concerning graft in a Kanoma City Grammar School building contract come true. The poorly-constructed school fire escape breaks loose from a brick wall support during a routine fire drill, collapses, and kills several children. After the funeral service, Willie is remembered as "an honest man" by some of the town's victimized citizens - "If we'd only listened to you, Willie." A Kanoma City news editorial titled "Voice in the Wilderness" praises Willie's foresight:
Kanoma's recent school tragedy serves as a potent reminder that a man named Willie Stark, a citizen of Kanoma City and defeated candidate for County Treasurer, fought bitterly against the awarding of our schoolhouse contract. His was "the voice in the wilderness" that fell on deaf ears, and the children of Kanoma City paid the price. Nothing can ease the pain in the brave hearts of our bereaved parents who suffered their loss bravely.
Willie seeks damages on the victims' behalf, and thus gains statewide notice for his successful prosecution of the unscrupulous grafters. Stark pastes headlines from newspapers into his scrapbook. They read:
SCHOOL VICTIMS SUE COUNTY; STARK FILES DAMAGE SUIT - 'Will Prove Graft Cause of Tragedy' Says Atty. Stark.
CITIZEN'S COMMITTEE FORMED! Draft Stark to Lead Fight to Rid State of Graft
CITIZENS' COMMITTEE DEMANDS STATE-WIDE INVESTIGATION - Stark Leads Fight - "The People's Voice Must Be Heard," Says Willie
RURAL AREAS IN POLITICAL REVOLT - STATE MACHINE THREATENED - "Sweep Them Out of Office" Cries Willie Stark in Impassioned Speech
Burden is again assigned by his news editor to "stay with him" and follow Stark's progress in taking "the hick vote" away from the political machine. Willie is encouraged to run for state governor by state bosses in the capital, but he is really being manipulated by them to split the rural "hick" vote. (Three candidates are on the ballot: the machine candidate Joe Harrison, McMurphy, and Willie Stark.) During whistle-stop campaigning for the position, Willie speaks to the people about a "balanced tax program," but turns off potential voters by his wooden and leaden style and reliance on facts and statistics. When Burden realizes that the gullible Willie is being framed by the political machine for their own purposes, he confers with Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge) - a cool, conniving and calculating political aide:
Jack: You don't have to be smart to frame a guy like Willie Stark.
Sadie: No, no brother, you don't.
Jack: It is a frame, isn't it?...To split the vote and win the election for Harrison, huh?
Sadie: You know, why do ya ask?
Jack: I just want to make sure. Look, why don't you tell the boys to save their money? Willie couldn't steal a vote from Abe Lincoln in the cradle of the Confederacy.
Sadie: I wish the poor --- had enough sense to have somebody give him a good reason for the beating he's going to get. 'Cause this way, all he gets out of it is the ride. Hey, those speeches, ain't they awful? Ain't they just plain awful? Question to you: If somebody told him he was a sucker, do you think he'd quit?
Jack: I don't know, Sadie. I really don't know.
But Burden is reluctant to reveal the truth to the dim-witted Willie about how he will soon be defeated in the state's gubernatorial race by the machine. Yet he does advise Willie to stir up the indifferent voters:
Just tell 'em you're gonna soak the fat boys and forget the rest of the tax stuff...Willie, make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em mad, even mad at you. Stir them up and they'll love it and come back for more, but, for heaven's sakes, don't try to improve their minds.
Willie senses that Burden is right, and that he won't be governor: "A man don't have to be governor...I'm gonna lose, Mr. Burden, I know that. Don't try and fool me...I would have made a good governor, better than those other fellas."
When Sadie joins their conversation and inadvertently (and callously) admits that Willie was framed by the machine, her revelation is stunning:
...you've been framed, you poor sap...Oh you decoy, you wooden-head decoy, and you let 'em. You know what you are? Well, you're the goat. You are the sacrificial goat. You are a sap because you let 'em...They didn't have to pay a sap like you. Oh no. You were so full of yourself and hot air. All you wanted was a chance to stand up on your hind legs and make a speech. 'My Friends. My Friends, What This State Needs is a Good Five-Cent Cigar. What this State Needs Is A...'
After learning that he was used, Willie promptly proceeds to get drunk from a bottle of bourbon and then passes out. The next morning, still recovering from a hangover and half-conscious, he is led to the Upton Fairgrounds for a campaign barbecue and speech. A ferris wheel spinning in the background reflects the spinning within Willie's head. To recover before he is due to give his canned talk, Willie sits in a playground swing where other children are playing, and drinks down coffee (and a generous amount of bourbon).
When he finally ascends the campaign platform, and lurches onto the stage, Sadie and Burden both wonder if Willie is capable of speaking to the crowd:
Sadie: How'd you get him here? He was out stiff.
Jack: The hair of the dog that bit him.
Sadie: Hair? He must have swallowed the dog.
To their surprise, Willie develops his own fighting style and delivers a rousing, memorable speech - after tossing away his prepared speech. A cut-away to them in the middle of the speech displays their astonishment. Stark's bull-headed oratorical talent, loosened by the booze, truly speaks to the people. [This speech single-handedly won the Academy Award for Broderick Crawford.] He identifies himself with the hick audience that is awestruck by his words. The speech ends with a montage of a closeup of his ranting face delivering powerful and thundering words, superimposed over flames:
My friends. I have a speech here. It's a speech about what this state needs. There's no need in my telling you what this state needs. You are the state and you know what you need. You over there, look at your pants. Have they got holes in the knees? Listen to your stomach. Did you ever hear it rumble for hunger? And you, what about your crops? Did they ever rot in the field because the road was so bad you couldn't get 'em to market? And you, what about your kids? Are they growing up ignorant as dirt, ignorant as you 'cause there's no school for 'em? No, I'm not gonna read you any speech. (He casts his speech away behind him.) But I am gonna tell you a story. It's a funny story so get ready to laugh....Get ready to bust your sides laughin', 'cause it's sure a funny story. It's about a hick. A hick like you, if you please. Yeah, like you. He grew up on the dirt roads and the gully washes of a farm. He knew what it was to get up before dawn and get feed and slop and milk before breakfast, and then set out before sunup and walk six miles to a one-room, slab-sided schoolhouse. Aw, this hick knew what it was to be a hick, all right. He figured if he was gonna get anything done, well, he had to do it himself. So he sat up nights and studied books. He studied law, because he thought he might be able to change things some - for himself and for folks like him. Now I'm not gonna lie to ya. He didn't start off thinkin' about the hicks and all the wonderful things he was gonna do for 'em. Naw, naw, he's done it all thinkin' of number one. But something came to him on the way. How he could do nothin' for himself without the help of the people. That's what came to him. And it also came to him with the powerful force of God's own lightning back in his own county when the school building collapsed 'cause it was built of politics' rotten brick. It killed and mangled a dozen kids. But you know that story. The people were his friends because he'd fought that rotten brick. And some of the politicians down in the city, they knew that, so they rode up to his house in a big, fine, shiny car and said as how they wanted him to run for governor...And he swallowed it. He looked in his heart and he thought, in all humility, how he'd like to try and change things. He was just a country boy who thought that even the plainest, poorest man can be governor if his fellow citizens find that he's got the stuff for the job. All those fellows in the striped pants, they saw that hick and they took him in...Now, listen to me, you hicks. Yeah, you're hicks too, and they fooled you a thousand times, just like they fooled me. But this time, I'm gonna fool somebody. I'm gonna stay in this race. I'm on my own and I'm out for blood. Now listen to me, you hicks! Listen to me, and lift up your eyes and look at God's blessed and unfly-blown truth. And this is the truth. You're a hick, and nobody ever helped a hick but a hick himself!...I'm the hick they were gonna use to split the hick vote. Well, I'm standin' here now on my hind legs. Even a dog can learn to do that. Are you standin' on your hind legs? Have you learned to do that much yet?
His campaign literally catches fire. A headline from the newspaper: "STARK CHANGES BOOMING!" reflects the strong resurgence of voter interest in Willie as a viable candidate in rural areas. Fearful of his growing power and that Stark "is getting too big for his britches," city bosses order strong-armed retaliation and bribery against the leader of the hicks. When Burden's editor demands that the Chronicle support Stark's opponent Harrison, the politico's man, the principled reporter quits his job.
Although Stark loses the election to Harrison in a close race, Stark sweeps rural areas. The city vote decides the election, and a record number of votes are polled. Confident that he has touched a nerve with the people and will win the gubernatorial race the next time around ("I learned something...how to win"), Willie is joined at a bar for drinks by Sadie, Burden, and stuttering henchman Sugar Boy (Walter Burke) - a bodyguard and assistant who previously worked for his opponent Tiny Duffy.
Four years later, Willie conducts a second campaign. Meanwhile, Jack "drifted from job to job" and grew "further and further away from Anne and the life at Burden's Landing." According to Jack's voice-over during another long montage of Willie's attacks against the corrupt 'old machine' and his slogans of support for the people:
But Willie wasn't drifting. He knew where he was going. He had his foot in the door and he kept right on pushing to get in. He had lost the election, but he had won the state - and he knew it, and the people knew it. They were all hopping on his bandwagon, even Tiny Duffy. Yup, Willie came back like he said he would...
He won the hearts of his constituents by fighting state government corruption and proclaiming that his new platform was to "soak the fat boys and I'm gonna spread it out thin." However, Burden slowly becomes disillusioned and troubled as he observes Stark's corruptible rise to power ("strange deals" with special interests) the next time around:
Willie was right. He'd learned how to win. He spent a lot of money doing it. An awful lot of money. I was beginning to wonder where he got it from. There were rumors throughout the state that Willie was making deals with all kinds of people, strange deals...The second time out, it wasn't a campaign, it was a slaughter. It was Saturday night in a mining town. Yup, Willie came back like he said he would. He came back and he took me with him.
Burden (a "college man") joins Stark's entourage and team as chief aide, hatchet man and speech writer. Surprisingly, Willie surrounds himself with his previous opponents, including Tiny Duffy. He also hires shrewd Sadie Burke as his secretary and campaign manager, after she switches allegiances from the political machine. Willie confidently brags about his disregard for financial resources and his wheeling-dealing: "Money, I don't need money. People give me things...because they believe in me."
Willie is brought by Jack to Burden's Landing to seek support from Judge Stanton and other guests during a reception in the Stanton estate. During a question and answer period, liberal Dr. Stanton asks about alleged "deals" being made by Stark with the very groups he supposedly opposes. Stark admits the fact: "I have nothing to hide - I'll make a deal with the devil if it will help me carry out my program. But believe me, there are no strings attached to those deals." He then responds with a question of his own concerning where good comes from. He answers his own question - stipulating that the end justifies the means:
Do you know what good comes out of?...Out of bad. That's what good comes out of. Because you can't make it out of anything else. You didn't know that, did you?
He believes that any worthwhile programs (such as schools, highways, hospitals) require some degree of corruption, deal-making and dirty power politics. He solicits the community's support: "There's a time to talk and there's a time to act. I think the time to act is right now, and with your support, I not only will win, but I will do all of the things I promise. I need your help - oh, I need it badly, but I'm not gonna beg for it. In the name of this state, which we love, in the name of the governor in whose house we meet, I demand it." Afterwards, when he has been reassured of their support, he craftily promises that the Judge will be made his Attorney General. Anne displays her admiration for the dynamic candidate.
Stark is elected governor - a "smashing victory throughout state," according to the newspapers. Cries resound in the street and call for Willie to make a victory speech to the cheering crowds: "WE WANT WILLIE!" Beneath a large poster of himself, he vows to keep his populist campaign promises:
I'm going to build a hospital, the biggest that money can buy, and it will belong to you. Any man, woman, or child who is sick or in pain can go through those doors and know that everything will be done for them that man can do. To heal sickness, to ease pain, free - not as a charity but as a right. And it is your right, do you hear me? It is your right. And it is your right that every child should have a complete education. That any man that produces anything can take it to market without paying toll, and no poor man's land or farm can be taxed or taken away from him. And it is the right of the people that they shall not be deprived of hope.
Dr. Stanton remarks that Willie has made a "bribe" to the people. Jack responds to the word bribe in the next voice-over while another long montage illustrates a series of Stark's corrupt scandals, including instances of graft and strong-arm bullying. Through Burden, Willie keeps accounts and records of dirty and shady deals and indiscretions in a "little black book." However, Willie also improves the schools and roads, builds power dams and retains the love of the people:
As a charismatic governor, rising to the pinnacle of power, he establishes his own political machine and becomes as brutal, fascistic, fearsome, dirty, despotic, dishonest and corrupt as the crooks he's replaced. And during the entire time, Willie Stark is unfaithful to his non-present wife. He carries on an adulterous affair with his strategist-mistress Sadie [her sexual role is downplayed due to Production Code censorship]. Sadie is quickly upset over the scoundrel's growing appetite and attentiveness to other women: "There's a new invention, you know, photography and newsreels. Willie Stark in a nightclub. Willie Stark with a blonde!...I could also break every bone in his neck. After all I've done for him, now he goes two-timing." (Stark also appears to have taken his friend Jack's fiancee, an infatuated Anne, as his another mistress.)
What if it is his bribe? He swept the old gang out of office. What if they hollered like stuck pigs? He jammed through bill after bill and the people got what they wanted...He started to build the roads, schools, power dams, to change the face of the state from one end to the other. His methods? Politics is a dirty game and he played it rough and dirty. Willie's little black book was a record of sin and corruption. And me, Jack Burden, I kept the book and added up the accounts. Clown, show-off, playboy they yelled at him. Building football stadiums, fiercely proud of his son who played...He said he was building up a private army, but he was building, always building, always playing up to the crowd, letting them trample on tradition. Well, tradition needed trampling on. The crowds loved it, and Willie loved it, and so did I.
When one of his cronies, state auditor Doph Pillsbury (Will Wright) gets caught with his hand in the pork-barrel, Willie browbeats the loyal aide and forces him to write a resignation letter (and explain his resignation on account of ill health). Charges of political corruption are threatened against Stark by long-time rival McMurphy, and demands for impeachment are made, but Stark manages to escape the charges through ruthlessness and inhumanity toward his political opponents. On the telephone, he bribes a legislator, Jeff Hopkins, by promising to pay his mortgage renewal if he drops the case and saves "Pillsbury's hide." He also refuses to let Judge Stanton, his Attorney General, prosecute the case (Stanton argues: "Pillsbury is guilty. As Attorney General of this state, it is my job to prosecute"). After a moment of indecision, the Judge resigns. Stark has the final accusatory word:
I'll tell you what you are. You're scared. You sat in that big easy chair of yours for thirty years and played at being a judge. And all of a sudden, I came along and put a bat in your hand and I said, 'Go ahead, judge, start swinging,' and you did, and you had a wonderful time. But now you're scared. You don't want to get your hands dirty. You want to pick up the marbles, but you don't want to get your hands dirty. Look at my whole program, Judge. How do ya think I put that across?...You're not by any chance thinkin' of going over to McMurphy's boys, are ya?
Although the Judge states, "I'm through with politics," Sadie isn't assured that the Judge will keep out of Stark's dirty affairs. Soon afterwards, she is proven right. Stanton "gave the story to every paper in town." The Star-Dispatch newspaper headlines read:
ATTORNEY GENERAL RESIGNS!
Stanton Accuses Stark of Quashing Pillsbury Graft
Resignation Statement Charges Stark Administration Corrupt.
The cover-up graft case is rapidly dismissed in the state's legislature, however, due to Willie's pressure tactics to beat the rap. Feeling pressure, Stark's new plan is to threaten to blackmail the judge behind the impeachment proceedings, Judge Stanton, by digging up skeletons in his past. Stark summarizes to the reluctant Jack:
Jack, there's something on everybody. Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption.
In voice-over, Jack returns to Burden's Landing to seek a last shred of honor and comfort: "I kept saying to myself that Willie was wrong about the judge. If there was anything left at Burden's Landing, it was honor. I had to believe that." Dr. Adam Stanton reveals to him that he has decided to turn down Stark's offer to head the new medical center, partly because of his uncle's resignation. Although Jack defends Stark's ultimate goals, he expresses his ambivalence about the politician's methods. Anne remains a solid backer of Stark, her lover:
Jack: I learn something from him. You can't make an omelette without cracking eggs.
Adam: Or heads?
Anne: But at least a hospital will be built and the sick will be cared for.
Adam: At what price?
Jack: At any price.
Adam: Do you really believe that, Jack?
Jack: I really believe that Stark wants to do good. You do too. It's a matter of method. Many times, out of evil comes good. Pain is evil. As a doctor, you should know that.
Adam: Pain is an evil. It is not evil. It is not evil in itself. Stark is evil.
Jack: The people of this state don't think so.
Adam: How would they know? The first thing Stark did was to take over the newspapers and the radio stations. Why be so afraid of criticism? If Stark is interested in doing good, he should also be interested in the truth. I don't see how you can separate the two. No, Stark is not for me.
Anne: No, Stark is not for you. Well, what's for you? Pride, pride, that's all it is, foolish, stupid pride. All you've ever talked about is what you could do if somebody would tear down and build. All right, all right, somebody has and he's given it to you. But he's not for you. No, he's not for you.
As he begins his research into the Judge's background, he asks himself, in voice-over: "Will I find anything, Judge? Will I? I didn't find it all at once. It takes a long time to go through old courthouse records and musty deeds, a very long time. But it wasn't too hard for me. I was well trained in research, especially this kind. I found what I didn't want to find." Unexpectedly, Jack Burden discovers dirt in Judge Stanton's past and locks himself away in his hotel room for four days, reading photostat copies of the records and pondering his next move.
Fuming, in pain, and hard-bitten over Anne's illicit romance with Stark, Sadie comparatively and jealously views Anne's picture on Burden's dresser while defiantly speaking to her own image in the mirror. She incites Jack to anger when she implies that his girlfriend has ditched him for Stark:
Yeah, I can see it. I gotta look in the mirror to be able to see it. Soft white skin, not like mine. I had smallpox when I was a kid. Where I lived, it seemed nearly all the kids had smallpox. It leaves your face hard. And she's got poise. Look at the way she holds her head at just the right angle. That takes training, that takes years of training. I see what Willie sees. Willie's got big ideas, Jack...A girl like that could be a governor's wife or even a president...He ditched Lucy, he ditched me, and he'll ditch you...He'll ditch everybody in the whole world because that's what Willie wants. Nobody in the world but him...You and your high-toned friends. What do they know? What do they know about anything? Why did you have to mix her in?...
Jack slowly becomes increasingly disillusioned by Stark's demagoguery and his sly turn toward greed and arrogance. He doesn't reveal to Willie what he has unearthed - that Judge Stanton was involved in a petty, but unsavory blackmail scandal many years earlier.
Tragically, the governor's son Tom (while drinking) has a severe car wreck when his car swerves off the road and plows through a fence. His girlfriend, Helene Hale, is thrown from the vehicle and is near death with major injuries, while Tom suffers only minor injuries. The next day, the Daily Register reports that the "girl's father claims drunk driving cause of wreck," and charges that the police records were falsified. The press is denied admittance to the hospital.
Mr. Richard Hale (Richard Hale), the young girl's irate father, calls on a boozing and insensitive Stark (dressed in a black, monogrammed robe) surrounded by his entourage (Jack, Tiny, and Sugar Boy) and his concerned wife Lucy. Although the police reports have been falsified, Tom admits to being wrong to Mr. Hale: "I was driving and I was drunk. It's all my fault. Anything you want to do to me, you can do. Whatever you want me to do, I'll do." He refuses his father's intervention ("I'll take care of everything") and takes responsibility for the accident. Hale, employed in the trucking business, refuses to be bought off and bribed, as he recalls the beginning of Stark's corruptible political career:
I remember when you first started talking, in a place called Upton. You did a lot of talking then, and the things you said made sense to me and a lot of other people. I believed in you, I followed you, and I fought for you. Well, the words are still good, but you're not. And I don't believe you ever were.
As Hale leaves, Stark orders his henchman Sugar Boy to follow him. Soon after, the Post Standards reports:
GIRL CRASH VICTIM DIES.
Father Mysteriously Disappears After Baring Bribe Offer by Governor Stark.
Investigation Demanded; Public Feeling Runs High!
Without Hale's around, Stark makes counter-claims to the press that it's all "a mess of lies," and that Hale had framed him. He then attends his son's State University football game in a stadium filled with 70 thousand fans, booing that Stark has shamefully kept his boy, a star player, from the lineup. Before his son's head injuries are fully healed, Stark goads his son into playing: "Go on kid, get out there and play. Show 'em the kind of stuff that Stark is made of." When Tom (#73) is tackled hard during a running play, he is hospitalized after becoming unconscious. Dr. Stanton's prognosis is that Tom will be permanently paralyzed even after a life-sustaining operation. And he reminds Stark of his manipulative powerlessness in the face of the tragedy: "There are some things, Governor Stark, that even you can't buy."
Along the waterfront outside the hospital, Anne confesses her intimate affair with Willie to Jack, and that she may marry Stark someday. Likewise, he tells Anne about his damning findings on her uncle, Judge Stanton:
Jack: Why did you do it?
Anne: He wasn't like anybody I ever knew before.
Jack: You mean he wasn't like me.
Anne: He wasn't like anybody I ever knew before. I love him, I guess. I guess that's the reason.
Jack: Everybody loves him.
Anne: He wants to marry me.
Jack: Are you going to?
Anne: Not now, it would hurt him. Divorce would hurt his career.
Jack: His career!
Anne: Jack, Jack, what are you going to do? You can't leave him now. He needs you now more than he ever did before.
Jack: What Willie needs, Willie's got.
Anne: You don't know him. You've known him all these years and you don't really know him at all.
Jack: What about Adam?
Jack: Well, you don't have to worry about him. If Adam finds out, it'll be easy to prove a Stanton is no different than anyone else. Just show him these. (He hands her evidence he uncovered about her uncle.) Willie was right. Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, even Judge Stanton. Show them to him, Anne. Change the picture of the world that Adam has in his head, just like our picture of it has been changed. Wipe out everything he's ever believed in, it'll be good for him. There's no god but Willie Stark. I'm his prophet and you're his ---. (She turns her head in disgrace and shame.) Anne, Anne, I'm sorry. I didn't mean. Anne.
Dr. Stanton is persuaded to change his mind and head the new hospital, probably due to coaxing from his sister Anne to accept the position. He vows to resist any of Stark's legendary interference, however, and doesn't answer Stark's offer of a deal: "You stay on your side of the fence, I'll stay on mine." Burden's callous and cynical voice-over comments on Willie's demagoguery: "Now he had us all, me, Anne, and Adam. Now we all worked for him."
A narrated, propagandistic newsreel about the governor's accomplishments is projected in a screening room in documentary style, destined to be played in movie theatres throughout the country for his re-election campaign. It portrays the heritage he has built of various monuments and public works (a toll-free bridge, Stark College to provide an education to "every man, woman, and child - rich or poor," Stark Museum, and the Willie Stark Library) - all dedicated to the people. Stark is also shown reviewing a lineup of his personal police force. When the film concludes, Stark questions why the final dichotomous question should be included:
And so the eyes of the entire nation are now focused upon Governor Willie Stark. An amazing phenomenon on the American political scene. The whole state is filled with his accomplishments. Each one of them, of course, bearing his personal signature to make sure that no one will ever forget who gave them to the state. This is the way the roads used to be, but there are those who claim that they were adequate for the people's needs, that you don't need a four or six lane highway for a horse and buggy. When Stark boasts of his great school system, his critics say, 'You can't go to school and work in the fields at the same time,' and they question the benefit of these projects, charging that the need and poverty of the people is as great as before. Willie Stark has never forgotten the source of his power - the people who supported him. He still keeps his touch with these people of the backwoods, making periodic trips to such places as Kanoma City, now famous as his birthplace. For those who say that Willie Stark is a man of destiny, there are others who claim that he is a man of evil, a man who cares neither for the people or the state, but only for his own personal power and ambition. Obviously, these ambitions go far beyond the boundaries of the state. Just how far, only time will tell. Meanwhile, he is here, and from the looks of things, he is here to stay. Willie Stark - Messiah or Dictator?
Stark appears to be planning to eventually move on to the White House after a second gubernatorial campaign. The Chronicle reports that "STARK BEGINS RE-ELECTION CAMPAIGN - State-wide Tour Starts with Visit to Kanoma City." A convoy of black vehicles transports Willie to his rural homestead for a "day with the family." For the benefit of photographers, Jack Burden sets up a hypocritical portrait of family harmony on the front porch, including Tom (in a wheelchair), Willie's aging father, and embittered wife in the picture. After wolfing down a home-cooked meal by his wife, Willie shows his father the new radio he has bought for him and how to receive police reports. To Willie's consternation, his aspirations are short-circuited when a special bulletin announces the discovery of the body of Richard Hale:
A medical examination revealed that he was beaten to death. The ugly charge of official murder has been hurled at the administration by a coalition of Stark's opponents led by Judge Stanton, lately an outspoken critic of the administration. Thus, an almost forgotten incident provided the spark that might set off the explosion needed to rock Willie Stark out of power. The latest report is that impeachment proceedings may be instituted...
Realizing the need for his wife's and son's familial support for positive publicity against claims of murder, Stark demands that Lucy and Tom immediately return to the capital city with him. Tom contemptuously denounces his stepfather's duplicity:
Tom: Now he needs us, now that he's in trouble, he needs us so he can lead us around like monkeys with rings in our nose so he can say to people, 'Look at me, feel sorry for me. Just a family man with a wife and a crippled son.'
Willie: (raising his hand wrathfully) Shut up!
Tom: Why don't you leave us alone?..
Willie: How many scrapes have I gotten him out of? How many girls?
Lucy: Willie, stop!
Willie: It's not him they're after, it's me. How many half-witted apes do you think I'm gonna have to pay to square this one? What do you think this is gonna cost me?
Lucy: What do you think it cost him?
Willie: A man builds for his son, that's all he builds for.
Lucy: Willie. (Willie takes a swig from a bourbon bottle handed to him by Jack.)
Willie's wife and son have no choice but to join him for the drive back to the state capital.
A House resolution of impeachment - for incompetence, corruption, favoritism in office and "other high crimes," is passed against the governor of the state. The next stage in impeachment proceedings is a trial in the Senate - the votes against Willie are being stacked up. Willie schemes to use the information dug up by Burden to confront reputable Judge Stanton who controls the decisive votes ("four Senators wrapped up in his hip pocket"), but Burden refuses to cooperate by providing the facts. The voice-over narration by Burden continues, accompanied by another montage of Willie's barnstorming tactics and barking speeches to seek the hick-vote, and to sway the impeachment votes of Senators who back Judge Stanton:
The chips were down and Willie knew it. He was fighting for his life. He roared across the state making speech after speech and all of them adding up to the same thing. It's not me they're after, it's you. Willie hollered FOUL. Willie knew if you hollered long enough, hard enough, and loud enough, people begin to believe you. Just in case they didn't, he organized spontaneous demonstrations....In case anyone hollered back, he organized spontaneous slugging. Willie pulled every trick he ever knew - and added a few more...And always the trail led to one place, to Burden's Landing and the Judge.
At Burden's Landing, Jack brings a message to Judge Stanton to release his votes against Willie Stark, but the Judge refuses to repeat his mistake twice: "I made a mistake once, Jack, when I resigned, but it was too easy then just resigning and pulling out. Well, Jack, I've made my choice. I have nothing more to lose." Willie barges into the mansion and personally confronts Judge Stanton with Burden's incriminating evidence (relayed to him by Anne in a foolish betrayal of her uncle):
You know, Judge, dirt's a funny thing. Some of it rubs off on everybody.
The reputable judge is reminded, over twenty-five years earlier, of how he acquired the job of consul for the Fortune Electric Company - through blackmail. Willie's loyal "hatchet-man," Jack Burden, urges the Judge to release his opposition votes, to save his reputation. As his answer to the governor, the disgraced Stanton commits suicide a few moments later, off-screen. Adam realizes that it was Anne, and not Jack, that exposed the damning evidence to Willie, on account of her intimate affair with the governor.
The impeachment threats are softened with the arrival of hordes of supportive hicks into the state capital. A radio bulletin in Jack Burden's hotel room reports: "From all over the state, they're streaming in, from the hill country and farms, the lumber camps, by boat, by train, by horse and on foot. Willie Stark's Army. The state capital is filled with rumors, one of which is that Stark is planning to seize power by force. As commander of the state militia, he has..." Jack switches off the radio, in disgust. Anne arrives - distraught over a falling-out between herself and Willie, and with her brother Adam. Anne tells Jack that Willie is returning to his wife Lucy. She begs Jack to help locate her disgruntled and outraged brother:
Anne: I tried to explain to him [Adam] that it wasn't the way he thought it was.
Jack: How was it, Anne? You tell me.
Anne: He hit me, Jack. My own brother, he hit me.
Jack: Your brother's an old-fashioned man. He believes in his sister's honor. Me, I'm a modern man, the 20th-century type, I run.
Anne: I'm frightened, Jack.
Jack: For who, your brother or Willie?
Anne: We're through.
Jack: Who's through with who?
Anne: He called me this afternoon. He's going back to Lucy. He said it was better this way.
Jack: Better for who, him?
Anne: Both of us.
Jack: Did he tell you that too when he asked you to betray the judge? At least I walked out on him.
Anne: Oh Jack, help me, please! Please! Adam's all I've got left now. Oh Jack, if you ever loved me.
Jack: If I ever loved you? I'll go find Adam.
In the final memorable scene, the state capital building is mobbed and surrounded by legions of intimidating supporters loudly shouting out their encouragement for Stark. The people's triumphant hero is inside defending himself during the impeachment hearings. The public-address system is used to encourage the mob to remain in place until the proceedings have concluded. The results of the balloting later that evening determine that Willie has again beaten an impeachment rap. The unscrupulous Stark emerges on the front steps to deliver a boisterous victory speech to the idolatrous crowd:
They tried to ruin me but they are ruined. They tried to ruin me, because they did not like what I have done. Do you like what I have done? (The mob cheers wildly.) Remember, it is not I who have won, but you. Your will is my strength, and your need is my justice, and I shall live in your right and your will. And if any man tries to stop me from fulfilling that right and that will, I'll break him. I'll break him with my bare hands, for I have the strength of many.
As he walks away with Jack's arm wrapped in his own, Stark is gunned down with two shots at close-range by an assassin - the embittered and vengeful young Dr. Stanton, Anne's brother and the nephew of the judge whose career Willie has ruined. In the immediate aftermath, Adam is gunned down by Stark's accompanying bodyguard Sugar Boy. Pandemonium breaks out. After Anne and Jack both kneel over Adam's body in shock, Jack grabs her by the arms and challenges her to give "meaning" to Adam's death by telling the people the truth about Willie Stark:
Jack: Anne, where are you going?
Anne: I don't know. Leave me alone.
Jack: To do what.
Anne: I don't care.
Jack: No, that's too easy.
Anne: I don't know, I don't know, I don't know!
Jack: I do.
Anne: Leave me alone, please.
Jack: No, no more.
Anne: He's dead.
Jack: We're alive.
Anne: My brother's dead.
Jack: We've got to go on living.
Jack: So that Adam's death has meaning. So that it wasn't wasted. Anne, our life has to give his death meaning. Don't you see that? Look at those people. LOOK AT THEM! They still believe. And we've got to make them see Willie the way Adam always saw him or there's no meaning in anything, anything.
[With Anne, Burden plans to remain in the capital city to finish the job that Adam had started - to literally and figuratively destroy the treacherous legend and life of Willie Stark.]
Mortally wounded and dying on the steps, a dismayed Stark delivers his final words to Jack, Sugar Boy, Sadie, and Tiny Duffy - in close-up:
Could have been whole world - Willie Stark. The whole world - Willie Stark. Why does he do it to me - Willie Stark? Why?
[Historical Note: Huey Long was assassinated
in September of 1935 by 29 year-old Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, a respected
Baton Rouge, Louisiana surgeon-physician whose father-in-law Judge B.
Henry Pavy was being personally and politically attacked by Long. Weiss
died in the gunfire, and Long died two days later.]
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