All the King's Men (1949)
What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this classic political corruption drama has less iffy content than the 2006 remake, but it's still not particularly likely to interest kids. The main character, Stark, has affairs and blackmails a judge; the movie also deals with class issues. Characters drink, and two are assassinated (not very graphic).
What's the story?
ALL THE KING'S MEN is the story of the rise and fall of a Southern politician, based on the career of Louisiana's Huey Long. Here, the politician is named Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), and the Southern state where it takes place is never named. Stark is a poor but honest lawyer in a small town who crusades against a corrupt political machine. Stark runs for governor, promising to tax the rich to pay for better services for the poor. He wins, and spends generously on new highways, schools, hospitals, and bridges. But this is accomplished through corruption and graft. At first, he insists it is the only way to accomplish what he has dreamed of for the state. But he becomes caught up in the power of the position, and soon he becomes power hungry and ruthless.
Is it any good?
Assigned to cover Stark's campaign, journalist Jack Burden asks his editor, "What's so special about him?" "They say he's an honest man," is the reply, and this puts him in the "man bites dog" category of newsworthiness. And he is an honest man, at first, motivated to study law and to run for office out of a genuine desire to fight corruption and abuse of power. But, as Lord Acton famously said, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." In allowing himself to exploit the same mechanisms that he once protested, in a vain effort to use the ends to justify the means, Willie makes himself politically and spiritually vulnerable, and he does not have a trusted advisor or a moral foundation to keep him from spinning out of control.
It is interesting to watch the other characters decide how much corruption they are prepared to accept or participate in. Jack switches from being a journalist to what would now be called a specialist in "oppo" research (finding dirt on the opposing). A judge agrees to support Stark, swayed in part by the "good comes out of bad" argument, but probably swayed more by the chance to be Attorney General. Still, there is a limit, when he is forbidden to prosecute a crony of Stark's, when he must publicly oppose Stark. Even the prospect of blackmail will not force him to back down, only to kill himself.
Explore, discuss, enjoy
Families can talk about politics (and political scandals) today. What changes Stark from someone who just wants to help people to someone who is willing to do anything to get and keep power? Why was he unable to hold on to his ideals? Is it possible to accomplish what he did without making deals? How can you establish how far to go in compromising? Why did the "hicks" continue to support him, in spite of all the evidence against him?