They say that even with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, they couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together ever again. Who knew that lessons from Mother Goose would last lifetimes?
My English professor once told me there are five great stories in the world. Sitting there, watching Steven Zaillian’s film All the King’s Men based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel of the same title, I am starting to believe that is true.
For Willie Stark (Sean Penn), he may have been Humpty Dumpty, sitting on a wall to be adored as governor of the good people of 1950s Louisiana. Or perhaps newly elected Governor Willie Stark was Jay Gatsby, someone who was “great” in a corrupt world because he was the only one who held true to pure goals. Stark wanted to build roads and bridges and schools and hospitals for the “hicks” like himself. Like Gatsby, Stark came from a humble background, but whereas Gatsby made a point of blending in with the genteel wealthy society in the West Egg of New York, like another man from over 2,000-plus-years-old, Stark made a point of sticking out. And like that man of Nazareth, born in a little town of Bethlehem, Willie Stark was crucified for it.
It’s funny, because Stark said that he would nail up anyone who stood in his way in one of his many Scarlett O’Hara inspired never-go-hungry-again speeches: “Nail up Joe Harrison! Nail up McMurphy! Nail up any bastard who gets between you and the roads and bridges and the schools you need! If they don’t deliver, give me the hammer and I’ll do it.”
Willie Stark promised that he would break anyone who got between his promises to the people, the other poor “hicks” of Louisiana: “Your will is my strength, and your need is my justice, and I shall live in your right and your will. And if any man tries to stop me from fulfilling that right and that will, I’ll break him.”
No one would get between a man and his promises.
Oh, but Governor Stark, they did. They did get between you and your promises. Who are “they”? Why, Governor Stark, they are the wealthy, the upper class that did not vote you into office. They are the big corporations who wonder where you will get the money to build your roads and bridges and schools. They are the judges and the conservatives who are crying for your impeachment. And who are you, Mr. Stark, but a man with a promise? Who are you to say that state money should go to the schools and hospitals and not the big oil companies?
Who are you, Mr. Stark, but a man?
If Mr. Stark was a man as great as Gatsby himself, Jack Burden (Jude Law) is the quiet and reflective Nick Carraway of All the King’s Men, an accomplished journalist narrating the story of an unconventional governor. Like Nick Carraway, Burden comes from money, with the powerful Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins) who is the deciding judge to Stark’s impeachment as Burden’s surrogate father and the preceding governor’s children Anne (Kate Winslet) and Adam (Mark Ruffalo) Stanton as his childhood friends. Burden was a newspaper columnist for The Chronicle, writing about Willie Stark, the guy next door.
“As I watched him shake his big fist and listened to his words boom out across that field, I had the feeling that here was a man with a will of iron,” said Burden. “I had the feeling that Willie Stark would neither be steered away nor scared away from his purpose. I had the feeling that in Willie Stark, Kanoma County had found that rare thing: an honest man with courage.”
Burden claims that he doesn’t know how he got mixed into Stark’s life, a renowned journalist becoming Stark’s personal assistant. Sure, Stark doesn’t call everyone “old sport” or drive a yellow car, but while working for Stark, Burden finds himself opening the skeleton key into his past.
Behind the door and down the rabbit hole, Burden found his father who did more than teach him how to hold a gun and launch catapults. He found that the one and only girl he loved wasn’t as perfect as he always thought she was. He found that his best friend who couldn’t look at anything broke without fixing it was capable of breaking a lot more than imaginable.
In the end, we learn that there is no green light over the horizon and everything is as fragile as an egg sitting precariously on a pedestal. Any goals or plans or dreams can fall to pieces with a gunshot. And even with all the king’s horses and all the kings men, that hope, that dream, can never but put together again. It makes us wonder if there really is such a thing as “good.”
“Do you know what good comes out of?” asked Stark. “… Out of bad. That’s what good comes out of. Because you can’t make it out of anything else. You didn’t know that, did you?”