Vote and Matter: Don’t and You’re ‘Mad as the Hatter’

Editor’s Note: Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men is routinely listed in the top five novels in American literature, although it appears to have dropped off the radar screen of the masses in today’s so-called “conservative” TV-driven American culture. It is still available in book stores and worth the read, especially for the middle class and working poor who are often misled by politicians who really do not have their economic interests in mind. It may be “the culture stupid,” but the remake of this movie should be at the top of their list to see before the Nov. 7 election.

Movie Website and Trailer

Key Quote: “If you don’t vote, you don’t matter.”

by Henry B. Rosenbush

Charismatic, controversial and mendacious best describes the life of Huey P. Long, whose political career included tenures as railroad commissioner, state senator and finally governor of Louisiana (1928-35). His assassination in the State Capitol building on the evening of September 8, 1935 has historically been attributed to Dr. Carl Weiss, although evidence culled in the 1990s suggests that Dr. Weiss was framed. Trained in law, Long’s journey to the gubernatorial mansion was filled with personal corruption, but on the other side, Long brought numerous benefits to his dirt-poor state.

Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer winning novel, All the King’s Men was a scathing examination of Populist Southern Governor Willie Stark’s rise and fall. The novel inspired four films, the 1949 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Actor (Broderick Crawford) and Mercedes McCambridge (Supporting Actress), a 1953 version produced by James Cagney, the 1989 Paul Newman version “Blaze,” a comedic retelling from the point of view of stripper Blaze Starr, the recent 2006 film with Sean Penn, two made for television adaptations, a TV special, an opera and an excellent Ken Burns documentary in 1987.

While the 1949 film remains the best of the lot the most recent version at least was released during the upcoming election season. It’s a shame that this one has slipped quietly away, dropping off the top 50 list last week. Roundly panned by critics (of 134 national reviews it only received 14 positive nods) for myriad reasons; casting numerous Brits in the roles of Southerners, murky subplots, a shaky narrative, well, you get the idea.

I recently viewed the new version with a skeptical eye being a devout fan of the original. Before I continue, however, a brief plot synopsis of the 1949 version.

Willie Stark (Crawford) is first seen as a nave, albeit, persistent irritant to local politicos when arrested for trying to give out hand bills. As narrated by journalist Jack Burden, efficiently portrayed by John Ireland, we see Stark as a poor schmuck in over his head.

Noble in the beginning, he is energized by the realization his warnings of shoddy construction at a local school by a politicians’ relative was prescient; a collapsed stairway kills and maims children. He is later tabbed to run for office but unbeknownst to him is really a pawn to split the “hick votes. Once he is made aware of the deception by Ireland and campaign manager Sadie Burke (McCambridge) he gives an impassioned speech to the gathered hicks telling them only a hick will help a hick. After losing, he runs again and finally is elected.

Through a series of machinations of the true Draconian variety, Stark surrounds himself with former enemies and hires Burden, partly because he likes him and appreciated the fair reportage given him by the journo, but mostly due to his abundant background on people that will later lead to betrayal, infidelity suicide, murder and finally assassination.

Stark eventually seduces Burden’s erstwhile fiance Anne Stanton (Joanna Dru), her brother, Adam (Sheppard Strudwick) and even her uncle, a powerful judge. Although both the 1949 and 2006 versions include some subplots that detract slightly, the impetus is the same; Stark keeps his promises to build new roads, schools, hospitals and the financing of numerous building projects. All this is done at a high price. Although enigmatic at times, Stark’s demise is predictable, and his assassination at the film’s conclusion leaves the survivors with enough intense distress that even Dr. Phil wouldn’t be able to solve their dilemmas.

The 2006 version updates the action from the 1940s to the 1950s, jettisons subplots from the earlier film concerning his cuckolding, an alcoholic son, a murder and the comeuppance of some former enemies. It does have its own subplots, one concerning the judge’s own corrupt background, which was an important link in the novel.

Credit is due to director Steven Zaillian for an earnest attempt at a political statement that unfortunately wasn’t seen by the mass audience he intended to view his film.

Tech credits were fine down the line, but I was amused at the choice of actors Jude Law, Kate Winslet, both Brits, and Anthony Hopkins (Welsh) portraying southerners; their accents often slipping through.

A major subplot added is that of Sugar Boy, the stuttering driver of Stark who is seen target practicing, perhaps as dj vu for the ending when he kills the assassin. The poorest perf comes from Mark Ruffalo as Adam, the idealistic doctor and brother of Anne, who kills Stark as revenge for orchestrating the judge’s suicide. In top form, however, is Sean Penn, a talented left-coast actor, whose political views are certainly a nuance to his presentation of Stark. His impassioned speeches before enthralled voters strike a chord with today’s voters who have to make serious changes in our government this November.

A key scenario in ATKM that should not be lost today is “If you don’t vote, you don’t matter. As with the fictionalized Stark, who knew to remain in power meant controlling the hearts, minds and anger of his constituency, we, too, must vote, but in today’s world, with intelligence and apprehension.

Do we want a government that continues to ignore the ills facing us in this country or remain ignorant to the impact on the world stage? Apathy will not solve the issues we face. Not voting is madness, not unlike that of the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland. We have the power to influence next month’s elections before we’re so far down the rabbit hole that we are buried for another four years.

Editor’s Note: While we went into this movie skeptical of the casting of Sean Penn as Willie Stark (Huey Long), he is one of the finest actors working today and pulled off the role in a convincing way. It is too bad that this movie seems to be almost totally off the radar screen of the direct descendants of the populists who would find this movie appealing – if the mainstream corporate media were in a position to point it out to them.