These films are mirror images of each other. Make that Mirror Universe images, like that episode of Star Trek where evil Spock has a beard. You might think that’s fairly common among remakes, but my experience is quite different. Most remakes either carefully follow the same path as the original, with some new bells and whistles thrown in, or they try to blaze a new trail. With All the King’s Men, this is the first time I’ve encountered a remake that unashamedly tells the exact same tale, but consistently makes an opposite and inferior creative choice in telling it. Every time the 1949 motion picture goes left, the 2006 version goes right, and every time directly into a brick wall. In doing so, it achieves something of significance. The may be the single best example of a terrible remake effectively illustrating in its terribleness what make the first film so great.
Both All the King’s Men are adaptations of the Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name by Robert Penn Warren. That novel, despite what its author may have tried to claim, was a fictionalization of the life of Huey Long, a Louisiana politician of the 1920s and 30s who was nicknamed The Kingfish. Yeah, that’s what they called him. It was a more literary world back then. Nowadays, political monikers seldom rise above the sophomoric snark of Tricky Dick or Slick Willie. Long was a strident populist who battled the established powers that ran his state, and proposed wealth redistribution and spending on public works to benefit the common man. He was also accused of demagoguery at best, and dictatorial ambitions at worst, until his assassination brought an end to the national movement he led.
Long’s alter ego on screen is Willie Stark, first portrayed by Broderick Crawford and then by Sean Penn. All the King’s Men isn’t really about Willie, though, in either edition. The main character is Jack Burden, an irresolute young man from a rich family who has fallen into the ink-stained profession of a journalist. He’s brought along with Willie on his rise to power, becoming both Willie’s tool and his conscience.
Now, I’m going to go into the plot of both movies in some detail because knowing where and how they diverge is essential to understanding why one is very good and the other is…well, this is a family website so let’s just say the other is really not good at all.
In the 1949 flick, which is not based in Louisiana, but in some backwoods Anystate, USA, Burden (John Ireland) is dispatched by his editor to do a story about a political gadfly running for treasurer in some dirt poor county, and railing against the graft and corruption of the county commissioners who run their little kingdom more like ancient feudal lords than democratically elected officials. Burden finds Willie (Crawford) giving a speech in the street about how political bosses are stealing the people’s money, with his son Tom (John Derek) handing out pamphlets. The speech is broken up by the sheriff on the orders of local kingpin Tiny Duffy (Ralph Dumke). Willie’s contempt for the smug Duffy and his invincible ignorance can’t be disguised. Durden meets Willie’s father and Willie’s strong, noble and self-sacrificing wife Lucy (Anne Seymour) and hears about Willie’s dreams of a better world, along with a flash of ego that what Willie wants is a better Willie.
Durden writes a series of articles about Willie, and comes to see him as an honest man fighting the good fight. Taking a break, Durden returns to his ancestral home and the old money family and friends he fled from long ago. He is largely indifferent to his mother, and has nothing but distaste for his step-father, but is thrilled to be reunited with his lost love Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru), her doctor brother Adam (Shepperd Strudwick) and their uncle, the esteemed Judge Stanton (Raymond Greenleaf). Durden’s arch-conservative stepfather loathes Willie, while Adam and the Judge are both intrigued by the promise of Willie’s ideas. Durden asks Anne to come away with him and she agrees, but Jack changes his mind and wants her to wait until he knows what kind of man he wants to be.
Durden returns to the newspaper to learn that Willie lost his election. We next see Willie earning his law degree and starting a practice to serve the ordinary folks and their ordinary problems. Then a tragic accident that Willie warned everyone was possible occurs, and Willie finds himself the most popular and respected man in the county. A series of news articles, preserved in Willie’s scrapbooks as his wife disapprovingly looks on, detail his rise to prominence. Willie gets so big, he’s recruited to run for governor. The people recruiting Willie, however, only want him to run and split the so-called “hick vote” to allow the incompetent and easily controlled incumbent to win. They saddle Willie with horrible speeches and terrible advice, dooming his campaign before it can begin.
But, just as Willie falls into despair, something stops him. Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge), a political fixer from the state capitol sent to make good and sure Willie looses, tears away Willie’s veil of political innocence and, in a mixture of pity for him and disgust at the corrupt sea in which she swims, spurs him into fighting back. After that kick in the teeth, Willie finds his populist voice as the champion of the little guy and wages a thrilling campaign for governor that…looses.
Undeterred, Willie brings Sadie and Jack along as he builds his own political machine, something that includes playing nice and making deals with the sort of rich and powerful people Durden finds so tiring. Four years later, Willie rides a tidal wave of popular will into the governor’s office, and begins a “share the wealth” policy of taxing those who used to run the state and spending the money to better the lives of the little people. That includes building a free hospital for the public and recruiting Adam Stanton to run it, though by that time Adam has grown leery of Willie’s autocratic methods.
Through scandal and tragedy with his son, Willie perseveres until a move to impeach him gains strength from the support of Judge Stanton, who had been Willie’s attorney general, but quit when he saw that Willie didn’t disapprove of graft and backroom deals so much as Willie just wanted to be the one in charge of them. Willie orders Durden to dig up some dirt on the Judge and Jack does, but he refuses to tell it to Willie and only shares the information with Anne. But Anne has fallen in love with Willie and tells him the Judge’s secret, which Willie uses to try and pressure the Judge to abandon the impeachment effort. Instead, the Judge kills himself and it is Adam who in turn, just as Willie Stark defeats those who want to remove him from power, guns down Willie for befouling his sister and forcing the Judge into suicide.
I hope spoiling the plot of 1949’s All the King’s Men to this extent won’t prevent you from watching it. It is a very good film that is more than a little reminiscent of Citizen Kane, though without the visual and narrative brilliance of Orson Welles. Broderick Crawford is, as anyone familiar with his work would expect, tremendous. But the real star of this thing is Mercedes McCambridge. She gives an incredible performance in an amazing role of a woman hard as the barrel of a gun and as merciless as small pox. Combined with one of the most powerful and more realistic portrayals of politics in Hollywood history, this film deserves to be called a “must see”.
The 2006 remake? Oy. It starts with a mistake and goes downhill from there. This thing opens up with Willie (Penn) and Durden (Jude Law) on their way to confront the judge over impeaching Willie. Why is that a mistake? Because the first time the viewer is introduced to Willie, he’s cast in a dark and menacing light. The original had Willie as a crusader for good like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. Watching him subtly and carefully transform into something out of a gangster flick, like Edward G. Robinson or Jimmy Cagney, is the whole point of the story. The viewer doesn’t fully appreciate what a force for evil Willie has become until it smacks you in the face. By beginning with Willie as a bad guy, it undermines every scene that comes after it where the audience is supposed to see Willie as the hero. You can root for a good guy who turns bad, but not if you don’t see him as a good in the first place. Not content with ruining that element, the remake then screws things up even more by never having 2006 Willie ever do anything all that terrible. 1949 had Willie create his own personal army, exploit the threat of the masses to protect himself and may have straight up ordered a man killed. 2006 Willie bangs, off screen, a variety of ladies whom are not his wife, but doesn’t do much else that could be called threatening or reprehensible. By removing that paradox of good and evil in Willie, the remake neuters its own story.
Then the remake flashes back to its beginning, which essentially dispenses with ALL of the foundational story of Willie Stark and Jack Durden laid out in the first film, replacing it with a brief conversation between Willie and Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini), now a servant of the capitol city political machine, and a briefer flashback when Jack, Anne (Kate Winslet) and Adam (Mark Ruffalo) go for a moonlight swim. I am not exaggerating much when I tell you the first 45 minutes or so of the original is condensed into less than 10 minutes of the remake.
I understand why the remakers did it. That first 45 minutes in 1949 is kind of slow and it’s not clear where it’s all leading. If Crawford were a little less magnetic and McCambridge a bit less incendiary, it would be a tough slog today’s ADHD audience. But all of that stuff is what builds a connection between the audience and the characters on screen, and it’s what gives some weight and dimension to the plot twists that come later in the story. By trying to get around all that and get right away to the “good parts”, 2006’s All the King’s Men sacrifices any chance to reach the viewer on a deeper level. The original introduces Anne and Adam early on and gives them a few scenes to flesh them out as characters. When Anne betrays her family and her old love, or when Adam plunges into despair, you feel something. The remake brings them into the story only when absolutely necessary to the plot and never gives the viewer much of a reason to care if they live or die.
This approach also reduces Willie’s wife, someone very important to the tone and theme of the original, to mere window dressing. And Sadie? The most exciting person in the 1949 story becomes nothing more than a smudge on the window in 2006, limply brought to life by Patricia Clarkson. There have been a multitude of appalling remakes. What Rob Zombie did to Halloween would deserve the death penalty in a more enlightened age. But the emotional evisceration of Sadie and her reduction from crucial figure to afterthought may be the dumbest and most objectionable thing any remaker has ever done. Wasting the superb Clarkson in such a role is like pouring salt into an open wound, and then jumping up and down on it.
And while 1949 Willie needs it explained to him what a patsy he is, 2006’s Willie figures it out almost all on his own. So, the audience never really has even a moment where they can feel sympathy for Willie, and connect with him as a “real” person. And in the remake, Willie wins his first campaign for governor. The effect is to fatally undermine the realism which fuels the original. And not only that, in the remake it is Jack who confronts the Judge (Anthony Hopkins) with his secret to try and blackmail him! What? The remake turns Jack Durden from a conflicted hero into an out-and-out scumbag. How was that supposed to work? And, since it isn’t Willie who causes the Judge’s death, why does Adam shoot him? Well, in 2006, Adam is a borderline nutcase who just goes into a paranoid fugue and blows Willie away. That’s what actually happens!
In 1949, watching Willie devolve from a man trying to do good into a monster out to protect no one but himself is almost beautiful. In 2006, Willie doesn’t change an iota. He’s the same guy all through the story and with the questionable actions by 1949 Willie (and by Huey Long in real history) either excised from the script or whitewashed, there’s no internal conflict to make the story worth a damn.
Much like the genius of Mercedes McCambridge, the performance of Sean Penn has to be given special mention. Penn performs this role the way Joe Cocker signs a song. Whenever Willie gives a big speech, which is far more often in the remake than the original, Penn does it while making all these abrupt lurches and spasms. I’m not sure what effect he was going for, but he looks like a spastic marionette with an amateur at the strings. It’s very mannered and “actorly” and the more you watch it, the more irritating it becomes.
I don’t know which of these movies is a more faithful adaptation of the book, or better representation of The Kingfish himself. I don’t care about that. I care about watching a good movie, and 1949’s All the King’s Men soars high over that bar while its Bearded Spock of a remake crawls under it like a cockroach. It is rare to see as many outstanding performers in such a cinematic turkey, so I thought I’d leave you with a few films where it and they are much, much, much better.
Jude Law is great in Gattaca and Repo Men.
Patricia Clarkson is the bomb in Married Life.
James Gandolfini is marvelous in Welcome to the Rileys.
Sean Penn….well, go watch almost anything else he’s ever done, except that stinker he made with Madonna.
There’s always Titanic for Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo was in this neat little thing called The Kids Are All Right.
And Anthony Hopkins? He’s had bigger and better roles, but you can’t go wrong with The Lion in Winter.
Of course, what I really want to do now is see everything Mercedes McCambridge has ever been in.
All the King’s Men (1949)
Written and directed by Robert Rossen.
Starring Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru, Mercedes McCambridge, John Derek, Shepperd Strudwick, Ralph Dumke, Anne Seymour and Walter Burke.
All the King’s Men (2006)
Written and directed by Steven Zaillian.
Starring Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Jackie Earle Haley and Kathy Baker.