Politics aren't a kind playground. They can sully the hearts of the greatest men, tear down their integrity and spirit. All The King's Men is a powerful, polished focus on politics' nature, the avarice of humanity and how even the greatest intentions can turn awry.
Broderick Crawford steps into the role of Willie Stark, an ambitious, at first simple politcian wannabe with big dreams. The reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland) is supposed to document his efforts to shake up the residing governor's position but sees little there but a hopeful, naive yet kind hick. It's therefore a shock for him when he sees , as the time passes, Willie climb the social ladder ultimately leading to him becoming governer himself. However, the methods he took to make sure he won are shrouded in mystery; and it turns out that Stark has changed in the short time between his humble beginnings and his initiation to power.
What makes the film stand out is Crawford's chilling performance as the ephemeral Willie Stark. He first manages to gain the sympathy of the viewer, before changing into a brutal, cold and efficient enforcer of public will. He does what the people want, but through methods that are shady at best. It's a tell-tale depiction of innocence lost but when the time period is considered, it feels fresh and all the more memorable. What is particularly frightening is that Willie remains a messianic character in the eyes of his "subjects", they blindly believe in him through thick and thin. Stark therefore sees himself as the same savior as the people, ignoring everything else including his own son and wife. In the end, he loses pretty much everything and ends a shell of a man obsessed with temporary commodities of little value.
John Ireland is also memorable as the story's narrator, who becomes a close acquaintance with Willie throughout his campaign and political career. He is primarily his supporter for most of the film, but he is not a blind sheep like most others. He first and foremost admires Willie's tenacity and will, while questioning some of the decisions he makes. Other notable performances are Joanne Dru as the common affection of Willie and Jack, Mercedes McCambridge as the stern assistant of Willie and Shepperd Strudwick as Joanne's character's brother, each representing various viewpoints to Willie's descent into corruption.
In terms of overall production and presentation, the film occasionally makes its age become very clear. The traditional "fade" transitions are prominent and there come the occasional moments where the actors really break out of their traditional form going into overacting territory. This is counterbalanced by the impressive pace of the story itself and how the cinematography makes the most of it. The film isn't particularly long, so no time is taken with superfluous details. Some events are condensed to just a few pictures, but nothing is lost in the interpretation. There's basically no dull point.
All The King's Men remains as relevant today as it was all those years ago in 1949. It warns of the dangers of a mindless pursuit of something you cannot handle and criticizes the common deification of political figures for just the results of their actions. It may be most memorable for Crawford's brilliant performance, but its message and cinematic poignancy is equally as worthy of praise and cements All The King's Men as a true classic of cinema.