Oct 2, 2020
Movies that Predicted Trump: All the King’s Men (1949)
This is part of a series of reviews we’re calling Movies that Predicted Trump, where we discuss the films that foretold (in ways both large and small) the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. (Read the other reviews in this series: Idiocracy, Bulworth, Bob Roberts, A Face in the Crowd, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, and The Dead Zone.)
History time, kids! Once upon a time, in a magical land of wealth and opportunity commonly known as the US of A lived a humble country lawyer named Huey P. Long. The nation had just emerged as one of the victors of a bloody World War and was going through an exciting period of technological progress and prosperity, blissfully unaware of the looming Wall Street crash and the ensuing Great Depression. But in Huey’s home state of Louisiana, particularly in the rural regions where he grew up, the signs were already there: Poor farmers were struggling to keep up with a heavily industrialized economy, small businesses were facing the crushing monopolies of big corporations, and there was rampant government corruption and a resurgent Ku Klux Klan terrorizing black neighborhoods.
Such was the by-now depressingly familiar backdrop of Huey Long’s gradual rise to power. Before entering politics, Long had already made a name for himself as a legal champion of the little guy by defending farmers and workers against big business interests, so it came as no surprise that he continued to do so when he decided to run for governor. What set him apart from his fellow Democratic candidates was his tone and rhetoric: as loud, angry, and tempestuous as the most fanatical hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, Long wielded his oratorical powers like a sledgehammer, railing mercilessly against corrupt establishment politicians and the big oil companies who owned them. After coming in third in the 1924 election, Huey P. Long was finally elected governor of Louisiana in 1928.
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To this day, Long’s governorship of Louisiana remains one of the most controversial non-presidential administrations in American history. He’s credited with considerably expanding Louisiana’s infrastructure by building more roads and bridges, as well as improving healthcare and literacy for the poor, but he also earned a reputation as an iron-fisted quasi-dictator who frequently resorted to bullying, bribery, and other dirty tricks to get his way. With his popularity growing beyond his home state, Long set his sights on an even higher prize: a seat in the US Senate, which he won in 1930, but wouldn’t occupy until the completion of his term as governor in 1932. Now that he was officially in the big boys’ playground, Long could start applying his ideas and methods on a national level, all while keeping a tight grip on Louisiana through loyal cronies like his successors Alvin Olin King and Oscar K. Allen.
Needless to say, this potent combination of corruption and left-wing populism made him a lot of enemies, both in Louisiana and Washington DC. And as his ambitions escalated, so did threats to his personal safety. And on September 8, 1935, just one month after announcing his candidacy for president of the United States, Huey P. Long was shot dead at the Louisiana State Capitol by the son-in-law of a political opponent. He was 42.
As you can see, the story of Huey P. Long’s rise and downfall is the kind of stuff great American tragedies are made of: A small-town idealist overcomes adversity to rise to the top and improve the lives of his fellow men, decides that the best way to do so is by beating the system at its own game, and is ultimately brought down by his own lust for power, thus perpetuating a cycle of corruption and cruelty that always benefits the powerful. So naturally, it inspired a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Written by acclaimed novelist and literary critic Robert Penn Warren in 1946, All the King’s Men presents the fictionalized account of a Depression-era Southern politician from the point of view of a local journalist who becomes a trusted member of his inner circle. The book was a big critical and commercial success, no doubt bolstered by fresh memories of both Long and the ascent of much more right-leaning populist dictators in Europe, so a big-screen treatment was inevitable. And indeed, in 1949, producer/writer/director Robert Rossen adapted All The King’s Men into a prestigious drama that went on to win three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Recapping the movie’s plot feels a little redundant at this point, as it mirrors Huey Long’s career, beliefs, and personality in almost every respect, save for names and tertiary characters. Standing in for the Kingfish, as Long came to be known, is crusading country politician Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), whom young local reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland) first meets on an assignment to cover his campaign for county treasurer. After witnessing him get arrested and released following a virulent public speech against the county commission, Jack drives Stark back to his house, where he meets Stark’s rural working-class family. The courage, integrity, and resolve displayed by Stark throughout his ordeal, coupled with his humble background and attachment to his family, win Jack over and prompt him to write a gushing puff piece lauding the man as a brave and honest new champion of the underdog.
Despite opposition from his rich Southern high society family, as well as the potential jeopardy it represents for his impending marriage to a former governor’s daughter, Jack continues to follow Stark and support his efforts. After losing his bid for county treasurer, Stark undergoes a brief change of career by taking up law to represent the poor in court. He makes a political comeback when a fire escape accident caused by a lack of school funding (an issue he raised during his campaign) kills several children. After a successful lawsuit against local politicians makes him a hero to the common folk, establishment bosses trick him into running for governor in order to split the “hick” vote between two opposition candidates and leave their own candidate with a clearer path to victory.
Initially kept in the dark by a reluctant Jack, Stark soon learns the truth from his cynical secretary Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge), and drowns his humiliation in bourbon just a day before he’s due to give a big speech. As with Bulworth, this drinking spree leads to the film’s most famous scene, where a half-drunk Willie Stark ditches his prepared speech and addresses the crowd using coarse, unfiltered language to speak directly to their shared working-class experiences, defiantly referring to them and himself as “hicks”. To everyone’s astonishment, he publicly exposes the politicians who tricked him, and announces his decision to one-up them by staying in the race and standing on his own two feet. The speech is a triumphant success that re-energizes his campaign and ultimately results in a close second place to the establishment candidate.
Four years later, Willie Stark runs for governor again, this time fighting a much dirtier campaign, with questionable funding and the help of powerful former opponents, and wins the election handily. As a reward for his work in the campaign, Jack is given a job as one of Stark’s aides and confidantes. In the ensuing years, he witnesses his boss descend further into corruption even as he improves his constituents’ lives by building and renovating dams, bridges, and hospitals. Critics and opponents get silenced through blackmail, intimidation, bribery, and violence. Stark starts openly cheating on his wife with Sadie as well as with Jack’s own fiancée Anne (Joanne Dru). His luck runs out, however, when his son gets involved in a drunk driving accident that kills his girlfriend. Stark tries to cover up the cause of the accident, but is quickly exposed by the girl’s father, who then mysteriously vanishes after a failed attempted bribe. Things go from bad to worse when Stark forces his still-convalescent son to play at a college football game, and a tackle from the opposing team sends the boy back to hospital, paralyzing him for life.
Just when he’s about to begin his re-election campaign, Stark gets caught in his biggest scandal yet, when police find the body of his son’s late girlfriend’s father, apparently beaten to death. Now openly accusing Stark of murder, a coalition of opponents led by former ally—and Anne’s uncle—Judge Stanton (Raymond Greenleaf) successfully organizes to pass a resolution calling for his impeachment. Stark responds by blackmailing Stanton with dirty secrets about his past that Jack dug up, causing the judge to commit suicide. With the leader of the opposition dead, and an angry army of supporters gathered outside the State Capitol, Stark wins his impeachment trial, only to be fatally shot by Judge Stanton’s nephew after his victory speech. The film ends with a close-up of his dying face as he bemoans his fate: to die just when he had “the whole world” within his grasp.
Winning the Oscar for Best Picture can be something of a poisoned chalice, as the decision often reflects the heat of the period’s cultural zeitgeist, and doesn’t always hold up to later evaluations. Fortunately, that’s not the case with All the King’s Men, which may not be the absolute best film that came out in 1949 (that honor goes to The Third Man), but is certainly among the award’s worthier recipients. Although most scenes take place in the rural south, the story is told in visual and narrative language typically associated with city-based film noirs: Dark shadows, angular cinematography, strong close-ups, disillusioned voice-over narration, and so on. Considering noirs were arguably American cinema’s best outlet at the time for expressing political anxieties about fascism, communism, and political exploitation of the fears both created, it makes perfect sense for a drama about the dangers of populism to borrow their aesthetics. The film often feels equal parts realistic crime drama and authoritarian propaganda, thanks to Robert Rossen’s scrupulous attention to detail in character interactions and the many newsreel-style dissolve montages that punctuate the plot.
This feeling is further anchored by Broderick Crawford’s magnificent Oscar-winning performance as Willie Stark. Dominating the screen without losing sight of his character’s failings, he manages to be both loud and timid, brash and insecure, imbuing his every move and utterance with resentful defiance, as if he needs to make himself bigger with every scene just to keep existing. This driving need to assert dominance as a constant defense mechanism is a common trait in despots and demagogues—and just one of the more obvious ways the film seems to prefigure Donald Trump’s own rise to power.
As with Jay Bulworth, Willie Stark’s left-wing policies are closer to what a testosterone-pumped Bernie Sanders might do than any of Trump’s major proposals. There’s no appeal to nationalist fervor, no anti-immigrant rhetoric, and no incitement to racial or religious prejudice (something that was also true of his real-life counterpart, which was quite remarkable for a 1930s southern politician). Stark and Long both also differ from Trump in terms of background; they each come from a relatively modest farming family, whereas Trump is a billionaire tycoon who inherited his father’s millions. Where they come together is in the cause and context of their respective success.
Smarter, better-informed people than myself have written at length on the disenfranchised white blue collar workers of the Rust Belt and the crucial role they (or at the very least, Trump’s message to them) played in deciding the 2016 election. Differences in respective economic situations notwithstanding, Trump’s rise to power and Stark’s rise are both brought on by the same factors upon which most populists thrive: Disempowerment, victimization, and fear of change—in both cases, the fear of being left behind by a rapidly changing world where your lifestyle, beliefs, and traditions are unwelcome. Much like Trump supporters, Stark’s voters are portrayed as proud emblems of traditional American values and workmanship upon whom the ruling class looks down as ignorant rubes whose concerns are unworthy of any sincere attention.
Which leads me to the other important point of comparison, which is how Stark and Trump exploit the functioning of this ruling class to get to power. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a filmmaker whose Communist ties caused him to be persecuted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Robert Rossen paints a bleakly cynical view of American political institutions; echoing popular sentiment that’s felt today at a global level, the political system portrayed in the film is an exclusive club of bullying crooks that only accepts members who won’t disrupt the status quo. Under these conditions, it’s not hard to conclude that the only way to achieve positive change is to fight fire with fire by being even more ruthless and conniving as those in power. These notions have been well-assimilated by professional politicians, but they don’t exactly make for good campaign slogans… unless you use your outsider status to frame your lack of ethics as a principled revolt against the establishment.
This is a message that’s always been at the core of everything Donald Trump has ever said, written, and done: To be successful, you have to be the toughest, smartest, meanest son of a bitch in the room and crush everyone that stands between you and your goal if you can’t turn them to your side. It’s a philosophy frequently espoused by American media and pop culture, often with the justification that such traits are necessary to survive in a world defined by power struggles. But whereas Rossen sees these traits as tragic flaws in human nature, Trump sees them as laudatory marks of character strength, virtue, and valor. And therein lies the most important difference between Trump and Willie Stark: Stark rose to power and ultimately fell because he betrayed the principles that drove him to politics. Trump won because he upheld his principles to their highest possible degree.
In addition to being a gripping work of cinema, All the King’s Men is also a timelessly insightful examination of the mechanisms that give birth to populist movements and perpetuate structures of dominance. Without propping up its main character as a bogeyman or making him some kind of martyr or tool of an all-powerful system, it reminds us that men like Huey P. Long or Donald J. Trump aren’t problems in and of themselves, so much as the symptoms of chronic, possibly incurable diseases inherent to man-made institutions.