All The King’s Men: Absolute Power

All the King’s Men is an interesting look at power and its effect on the people it surrounds. The story centers on two flawed young men – Jack Burden & Willie Stark. When we first meet Jack Burden, he is a listless newspaper man running from the life he knew and looking for something to believe in. When we first meet Willie Stark, he is a good-natured, good-hearted, buffoon who wants to make something of himself. By the end of the film, Jack and Willie have effectively ruined the lives of most everyone they hold dear. Willie has transformed into a power-seeking authoritative value-vacuum and Jack, as much as he tries to pretend he’s an observer, has become Willie’s right-hand man, his hatchet-man, and the reason that Willie is able to amass the power he has. The two well-meaning men get courted, and consumed, by the allure of power and the effectiveness of playing dirty.

Director Robert Rossen displays this transition in many subtle, and sometimes not so subtle ways. One of the first things we learn about Willie is that he doesn’t drink because his wife, Lucy, has asked him not to. Willie thinks the world of his caring, dutiful, and educated wife. He places her above himself, mostly because of her education, and would do anything she asked of him. He takes his first drink on the night he discovers his first gubernatorial campaign is a ploy. Robert Pen Warren wrote Willie’s relationship with alcohol in a symbolic way. In taking that first drink, he is embracing his future as an ambitious politician who will do whatever it takes to gain power. In that drink, he is throwing out his life as a student of the law, the land, and traditional family values. It is in that drink, that he accepts his changed view of Lucy. Education is no longer the golden ticket he used to believe it was, and thus Lucy is no longer the almost God-like being she was.

Though at this point Willie turns his back on books and Lucy, he does not turn his back on education. He simply chooses different “teachers.” Willie is portrayed in that scene almost like a little kid. Jack is coaching him on his speech. Sadie “teaches” him the truth of his campaign, and eventually how to play dirty. It is she that gives him his first drink. It is she that leads him on the path to winning through dirty politics, and like he happily followed Lucy’s example of a moral life of books, he willingly follows Sadie’s example of how to win. Throughout the scene, Sadie and Jack remain standing while Willie either lies on the bed or sits on the edge looking up as a child would at his “superiors.”

Willie Stark, the figure of power in this film, is often shot from a lower angle, using the convention that a low angle symbolizes power. One of the places that this technique is most profound is during Willie’s speech the day after he discovered the ruse. He is mad and determined to win. It is there that he is given power by the people, and it is here that he is captured from the most extreme low-angle yet. Before that speech, the camera usually remained at eye-level or looking down on him, but after the speech he is shot through more low-angles and is usually made the primary figure in the screen.

At the end of the film, Rossen shoots his close-ups of the crowd from a slightly lowered camera angle. Like I’ve mentioned, low shots give the figure they are looking up to a god-like position. The angle shows that they hold the power. In the shots of the crowd, they are shot at a slightly low angle with the people brightly lit against a pitch black sky. The supporters are carrying torches in many scenes, as if they were a mob going to hunt the ogre. Rossen, I think, planed these shots carefully. The angle suggests the pressure the mobs of supporters are placing on the legislature, but does not over state their power. The shot suggests also that they are the poor dumb townsfolk that become easily riled up and go off to hunt the ogre in old feudal stories – exactly how Willy sees them. He can send them on their way to blindly hunt down his opposition because they are too dumb to understand. It also suggests the mythic aura that Stark has built around himself and the divide between the people and the power. We, the informed viewer, know who Stark has become and what he now stands for. This causes us to watch Willy’s supporters in disgust wondering why they still support the man. They, however, are only able to see the good things that Stark has done for the state. They don’t see the lives ruined, the deaths caused, the blackmail, and the bribes.

The cinematography in this film is astounding and contributes to the picture’s overall message, and effectiveness. Another aspect that made the film work so well was Rossen’s choice to shoot on location. Shooting on location rather than on a constructed set allowed the film to have an added authenticity and an added difference between country and city life. The difference in the use of location for the campaign sequences is profound. Wille truly is traveling among the people, rather than pretending he is, which gives the film an authentic feel. In addition, Rossen hired non-professional performers to be the extras in his film. If he had hired extras from the city to play the rural townspeople, the viewer would have been distracted wondering why something didn’t look right, rather than paying attention to Willie. The use of the rural locals led credibility to the scenes.

It is no wonder that this film won the Best Picture Oscar in 1949. It is a thought-provoking venture that displays an understanding and appreciation of filmmaking. The film aptly displays the dangers of power and of building that power on threats and bribes. It leaves the viewer with much to think about and consider. All the King’s Men is a film through and thorough, much more than a simple entertainment venture.

Author’s Note: Interesting, too, is to compare the 1949 version with the 2006 version.

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