The story of Huey Long is one of the most compelling political narratives in the twentieth century. When it became obvious that the government would need to establish a sort of social safety net, as the Great Depression threatened to turn into a major socioeconomic upheaval, there were conflicting visions as to how this should take place. While the version that eventually grew under President Roosevelt created a network of public assistance, the version promoted by Huey Long promised a much more socialistic emphasis, using higher degrees of taxation to move resources down the socioeconomic food chain. However, as corruption threatened to undermine all of Long’s best intentions, the story caught the attention of Robert Penn Warren, who wrote the novel All the King’s Men to detail all that was great, and all that was tawdry, about Long’s experiments in social engineering. Governor Willie Stark, Penn Warren’s character who was Huey Long in all but name, believed that “[m]an is conceived in sin and born in corruption. There’s always something” in a person’s past that is useful for blackmail (All the King’s Men). This cynicism is what fueled Stark’s anger, and it is what gives him what he wants in the story. Unfortunately, it also opens the door to his assassination. In the 1949 film version, which has long been seen as an example as a use of film in order to urge social change (Moss), the breakneck pace at which Governor Stark wants to bring about change brings him enemies on both sides of the political aisle, and his ruthless use of blackmail brings chaos to the entire state. There are two particular scenes that show the ways in which Governor Stark’s insistence on destroying any obstacles to his own advancement bring tragedy to himself and others. The techniques of filmmaking contribute to this sense of chaos in both scenes.
One scene has to do with Stark’s son, Tom. Even though Tom has been seriously injured in a recent car accident, Stark insists that his son play in the football game anyway, for the state university. During the football game, filmed in a packed stadium, the ambiance is anything but the typical Saturday tilt. The camera shakes with the motion typical for a handheld and is in constant motion, getting closer to the field. When it turns to show fans of the game, the angle is never quite horizontal but is instead canted, suggesting some unrest. The public address announcer is difficult to understand, and the sounds of the crowd show unrest and anger. It is almost as though there is nothing interesting at all going on down on the field. When Tom shows up to the game, the governor is down on the field, insisting that he goes in. At this point, the focus of the camera on the drama of the governor and the son, demonstrated through close-up shots, shows that the real emphasis is not on the game; instead, it is about the governor. The only reason that Governor Stark wants his son to play is that he does not want any personal embarrassment for himself. When his son goes in, the frenetic pace of the action shows a bit of acceleration, as the action moves more quickly and more choppily than normal football footage has, as the motion from the handheld camera shows. The purpose of this is to show the turmoil at work in the son’s mind, and the chaos that Governor Stark’s hubris has unleashed on the field (Reisz & Millar). As one might have predicted, Tom is injured and ends up being paralyzed. The pace of the football play and the chaotic swirling of sound in the football game push the suspense until Tom’s injury.
Later in the film, as all of the chaos is starting to eat away at Governor Stark, he gives a speech at a town gathering. At the start of the scene, the camera shows him sitting on a playground, in a swing designed for a child. Jack Burden is feeding him alcohol from a flask, and the governor can’t get enough of it. The paradox here is that the governor is a helpless child, unable even to hold his own drink, sitting on a child’s toy. When it comes time for him to talk, he staggers to the stage and stumbles up the steps. Pounding water during his introduction, the governor nonetheless turns and gives a riveting speech. The anger at work in it shows the corrosion that has eaten away at his soul since his rise to power. The combination of high-angle shots and canted angles in different shots during the speech show the alienation that has taken place between Stark and his former political base. At the start, Stark stood on the same level with his audiences and talked to them. During this speech, he is up on a stage and glowering down at the common people – the people who brought him into power. When the viewer sees Stark and his audience, the camera is elevated, pointing down from a high-angle shot on Stark and further down on the audience, heightening the distance that has now grown between the governor and the populace (Turner). The facial expressions of the audience range between neutral and stern; when the camera focuses on the people’s faces, it comes from a low-angle shot. The hopeful smiles and expressions of awe that gilded the faces of Stark’s supporters during his early speeches have been replaced by dour, serious looks. No one talks; everyone looks at him grimly as he makes his way through his rant. When the camera looks from the audience, it uses a low-angle shot upward at Stark, again showing the distance that has grown between the governor and his people. When the governor’s speech becomes outrageous and the local leaders try to corral him, the camera keeps the governor in the center of each scene, moving back from a height. The result of this is a sign that the governor has lost prestige from earlier, becoming a much smaller man with his ranting and raving than he had been when he wanted to bring economic equality to every member of the state.
Over the course of All the King’s Men, the psychological mood of all of the characters worsens as Governor Stark’s power first invigorates but then pollutes the state. Each person whom the governor takes into the grip of blackmail morally and emotionally corrodes. Whether it is the judge with the platinum reputation, who ends up in the pits of disgrace, or Jack Burden, who finds out that the love of his youth is really his half-sister, the product of an adulterous affair between the judge and his mother, everyone falls prey to darkness. The consumption of alcohol speeds up, the incidence of disillusionment becomes more and more frequent, and by the time the governor is shot to death, there is enough filth for everyone to have a share. There are few films that do a more pervasive job of establishing the depravity of humanity.
All The King’s Men. Dir. Robert Rossen. Perf. Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1949. Film.
Moss, Laurence S. “Film and the Transmission of Economic Knowledge: A Report.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 69(1): 290-320. Print.
Penn Warren, Robert. All the King’s Men. New York: Mariner Books, c1996. Print.
Reisz, Karel and Millar, Gavin. The Technique of Film Editing, 2nd Edition. New York: Focal Press, 2009. Print.
Turner, Graeme. Film as Social Practice. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.