November 01, 2006

Catilina: All the King's Men 1949

Given the fact that a remake has just been made- it seems like its time to turn back to the original 1949 version of All the King's Men. All the King's Men is a film of many sides and many views- concerning the rise and fall of a southern governor, Willie Stark (modelled on Huey Long governor of Lousiana- the film was adapted from a book of the same name). We see the film through the eyes of a journalist- Stark's amanuensis and later political sleaze merchant, Jack Burden. Through Jack's eyes we understand Stark's peculiar appeal- a man without guile, very much Mr Smith, a man with resentment at being out-manouervred and a man with good intentions who rises to become governor of his state through campaigning sometimes roughly against the old established political machines. Stark's career is divided into two parts: his first two campaigns against corruption in which he appears to be a Don Quixote of American politics- honourable but inefficient- and then after his honourable tilt for the governorship he becomes a second Stark who wins the governorship and is gradually destroyed by power.

This film therefore falls into the category of tragedy, a great man is destroyed by a fatal flaw. Its worth though analysing what his greatness and what his flaw consist of. The film portrays Willie as a successful governor, his greatness is his creation of a state which can fulfill its citizens' wants, which can educate them, can care for them when they are sick and which has their good at its heart. His fall though is that the methods he uses to create such a state and to maintain it through his own government (we get no hint he has a successor or a party behind him) are methods which are dubious- he develops appetites for power which consume those around him either sexually or morally. Willie falls not because he makes a political mistake or a policy error but because he turns into a bad man. Echoing through this film is a conversation in which Willie states that so long as he helps the people of the state he can make up the rules as he goes along- he can be as evil as he likes personally so long as he is benificent- the conclusion of the film is that the opposite is true.

Inside the film lurk the ideals of republicanism- the parallels to Mr Smith goes to Washington a film of the 1930s are striking and will be analysed in a later post- but key to this is that the magistrate must be an ethical man himself in order to legislate. The opposing idea of Tacitean policy is rebutted by the example of Stark and the other characters almost universal condemnation of him. Their idea is predominately classical. Through their insipid mouths, we can hear the voices of Cicero condemning Catilina, Milton condemning Cromwell. What is unusual is that this film presents the other side- we don't in Cicero's account of Catilina see Catilina's charisma or his dynamism. Judge Stanton and his friends condemn Stark but offer no solutions. Stark offers solutions and his own corruption.

Many critics of the new film that has just come out have said that this story is the oldest in the book, that its hackneyed. The New film may have lost the old one's complexity but the 1949 version gives us an old story of rise and fall, of demagogues flouting the law, but it does that in a context of political ideas stretching back to the classical world. Willie Stark is a metaphor for the threat to the Republic that the people constitute- your attitude to him depends on your attitude to that threat and whether you are willing to accept dictatorial government so long as its good over democratic government by process if its bad.

The difficulties of politics in democracy haven't changed and this film serves as a warning to the modern world of that- I can only hope the remake will when I see it do the same efficient job.


Stephen said...

I understand that your piece compares two films, but both are based on the same book by Robert Penn Warren. Now the first thing I did when I heard that this film was coming was went and got the book and read it.

If you will pardon the digression, on the day that William Styron's obit was published, I would like to state that I adopted this practice on the advice of a a friend just before we went to see "Sophie's Choice", and I have yet to regret it. The book is nearly always better than the film.

Willie Stark is doing his best in a corrupt system. He does not especially enrich himself - he gets a hospital built and provides healthcare. Sure he cuts a few corners, using the same practices as his opponents. But the people love him for it. Now would he have done better to stay in opposition and demand a clean up? Or is a politician obliged to deliver something for his supporters based on his campaign promises? Simply labeling him "corrupt" will not do.

Plato dealt with this issue by inventing a master race of "guardians" - incorruptibles. A solution which has yet to be put into practice anywhere. As Churchill remarked, democracy is the worst system of government - except for all the others. And the price of democracy ...

Gracchi said...

Stephen I agree and I've read the book too but I think that the first film especailly is a different beast to the book- firstly because it concentrates on Stark to the exclusion of the journalist Burden who is much more central to the book and secondly because it makes many of the characters like Anne Stanton much less complicated- Anne in the film is a pretty twenty year old, in the book she is an embittered mid-thirty year old woman for whom Stark seems more of a redemption.

I'm not sure about the practice of reading a book after seeing a film- my own perspective is that considering the film as a version of the book makes you lose your appreciation for it- think of them as riffs on the same story. Just like you wouldn't evaluate Shakespeare's history plays by their source material- Richard III is a bad adaptation of Thomas More's Richard III but that's not the point. I think if you do that you always find that the original isn't reflected in the new version.

As to what you say about corruption- you are entirely right. Though that isn't the view that the film shows- I don't say that its right- but the film consistantly argues that what Stark does outweighs the good he does. In particular in the film he masks a killing performed by his son.

Thanks for your response- its always good to get such a heated response I'd be interested in your reply to this if it comes.