When a movie is said to age well one of those things is its theme and its presentation of it. What we would today call racism in older films were social norms at the time that nobody thought anything about, which is why movies like Cimarron or Birth of a Nation have aged poorly while things with a more open minded view continue to be classics. When it comes to politics, movies discussing the politics of its era tend not to resonate with people years after. All the President’s Men, the film starring Robert Redford and detailing the Watergate scandal and the fall of Nixon, is a great movie but its events were still fresh in the minds of audiences at that time – it’s not as easy for contemporary audiences to connect with those same events. Some things never change, however, and there are films like All the King’s Men, based on the 1946 novel bu Robert Penn Warren, that do continue to resonate with contemporary audiences.
All the King’s Men, the 1949 film, tells the story of politician Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford). He is an honest man and seeks to do the best for the people in his community. He becomes a populist candidate for governor of an unnamed state (though it’s assumed to be Louisiana) and continues in his desire to do what he feels is best for the people he represents. The nature of politics corrupts him and in the end he is the villain of the story- but one of those great villains who always believes that they are doing the right thing. The film ends with Governor Stark attending his own impeachment hearing where he’s assassinated by a former supporter. It’s a very effective piece of film noir detailing concepts such as original sin (“man is conceived in sin and born in corruption”), idealism, the depravity of the political system and the effects it has on man. There IS a political message but its far overshadowed by a message about the nature and morality of politics. It does manage to skirt enough around the Hayes Code to present concepts of depravity which were forbidden topics in 1949.
The film was a success and won several Academy Awards including Best Picture. The novel and its film adaptation were both based upon the life of Lousiana governor Huey Long and his assassination in 1935. These were events that audiences in 1949 were familiar with. Long’s political ideas of “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown,” and great social works projects to combat the Great Depression were remembered by people who lived through those events and all the similar politicians of his era. While people today have only the vaguest idea of who Huey Long is, the film holds up remarkably well because politics still have not changed. Take a recent comedy like The Campaign where a good-natured man with the best of intentions enters into the world of politics and is changed by it – while the leftist politicial ideals behind All the King’s Men don’t completely speak to a contemporary audience, the idea that politics is a corrupt world that no good can come from is still very relevant in today’s society.
All the King’s Men was “remade” in 2006 by filmmaker Steve Zalliahn with an incredibly talented cast including Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins, and Mark Ruffalo. It’s not really a remake as writer/director Steve Zallihan never watched the first film and made his movie completely based upon the novel by Robert Penn Warren. I enjoyed half of the movie – the parts that pulled me out and made me grumble had nothing to do with a political message at all but rather this absolutely dull and boring romantic plot between secondary characters that went on far too long and was far too over-the-top. Sean Penn is fantastic in his portrayal of Willie Stark but the rest of the movie feels far too melodramatic. It was a failure at the box office and critics hated it and I completely understand why – there is half of a good movie here and it’s quite aggravating when it focuses on that lesser melodramatic half.
There was also a version made in 1971 produced in the USSR for Belarusian television. I have no idea about that film. I’ve never seen it but can only imagine what a 1971 Soviet movie about American politics would be like.
I don’t want to compare one film to the other on an artistic level. Rather let’s look at the politics of the first film from a modern standpoint and how those compare to the remake. Both are inspired by the life and actions of Huey Long. While the original film takes place in its time, post-depression America, the newer adaptation is set in the mid 1950s. One spoke to an audience that lived through the Great Depression and World War II and all the politics and social changes those great events brought. The other film was made during an post-911 era of ever more publicized political malfeasance. When it comes to what society sees as a scandal we’ve changed a lot in 65 years, but we still react the same way.
Here are 3 very similar speeches delivered to three completely different audiences across decades but both delivering the exact same idea:
From the 1949 film:
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From the 2006 film:
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Speech by Huey Long in 1934
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Stark’s views, which were the same as Long’s were very left. Stark’s a Democrat who constantly denounces the rich and calls to “share the wealth.” In contemporary parlance he represents the 99%, taking on those wealthy 1%ers. He desires to build roads and schools and hospitals for the people using the money of the rich to do so. For audiences in 1949 who lived through the Great Depression and FDRs social programs as part of the “New Deal” to help with America’s recovery – Stark’s views of social obligation had merit. The rich caused the depression and since they had they money they had a social obligation to help the less fortunate. This is a debate we still face today – the idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the shrinking middle class, all these things they discuss on political shows that have been topics for decades. The political ideas in a film from 1949 based on the works of a politician from over a decade earlier to “share the wealth” are still things protest for when demanding a higher minimum wage, when demanding that big businesses like Wal-Mart offer more for their needy employees. The offered solutions to these problems have been the same ones for almost 70 years – the rich need to pay to help the poor in order for everything to function. The 1949 film presents Willie Stark as doing whatever it takes to achieve these socially minded, ambitions goals which eventually lead to his downfall. The 2006 version presents a greater idea of what Stark is fighting against as there are scenes where the wealthy discuss why they don’t like Stark, questioning who is going to pay for those social projects of his and how these taxes on the rest to help others aren’t exactly just.
I’m not arguing either in favor of the right or the left – that’s not what I do. I have my own political views but I want to keep those to myself when discussing film. It has no place. I simply wish to bring up the fact that the arguments made by a film in 1949 continued to a film made in 2006 and still continue. We still have the exact same social problems almost 70 years later and people still argue for the same solutions which are refused for the same reasons. Nothing has changed. If there’s a problem perhaps 70 years of that same problem should be enough to say that these usual methods of “solving” it might not be the greatest tactic. Its the same as when one reads Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged for the first time and sees it as a brilliant political theory that we need today and one needs to point out to them that the book was written 70 years ago and if its philosophy was that brilliant and necessary then we would have adopted it already.