Pillar of the community Willie Stark is duped into standing in a gubernatorial election. However, he gets a taste for politics and the high life and, once in office, he abandons his principles and begins lining his pockets.
The easiest way to get a handle on this bitingly cynical political picture is to imagine a Mr Smith Goes to Washington in which James Stewart becomes corrupted by the very power he believed could only be used for good. Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning source novel was based on the career of just such a character, Huey Long, the `Kingfish' of Deep Southern politics in the 1920s, who so abused his position as Governor of Louisiana that he was assassinated by Baton Rouge physician, Carl Austin Weiss, in 1935.
In the book, Willie Stark's rise from small-town laywer to state legislator is presented in a series of Kane-like flashbacks, as journalist Jack Burdern takes stock of his life and times. But director Robert Rossen relegated Burden to a supporting role (although John Ireland still attempts to act as Stark's conscience and provides the film's narration) in order to concentrate on Stark, whose rise and fall is now presented chronologically, so as not to distract the audience from the hard-hitting political realities with which they're about to be confronted. Shooting on location in rundown Stockton, California enhanced the action's authenticity. But the whole conceit could have collapsed had the Oscar-winning Broderick Crawford (until then a character actor and occasional B-movie lead) not been able credibly to portray Stark's passage from a greenhorn doing a correspondence course to better serve his clients into a monstrous power-addled grafter. Mercedes McCambridge similarly earned herself a Best Supporting Oscar as scheming political aide, Sadie Burke. But it's Crawford who dominates proceedings and his tour de force performance has prevented All the King's Men from dating over the intervening half century, as every subsequent era has had its own man of the people who Jekylls into a self-serving Hyde once in office and begins championing his own demagoguery over democracy.
A savage indictment of the system, this was the Primary Colors of its day and it still packs one hell of a punch.