All the King's Men



direction and screenplay by Robert Rossen 1949

Adapted from a novel by Robert Penn Warren



Discussion Questions

Scene 1: Political Lessons
1. What is the frame here and how has it worked? Who is behind Willie’s campaign?

2. What does Willie tell us about his motives for running for governor? Did he run because he wants to do good for the people of the state, or because he wants the fame and glory? Or are these two motives somehow the same for him? Why do people generally want to do good for others and for society?

3. Which is worse, a man duped by his own vanity into being used by corrupt men to fool the people, or a man who knowingly fools the people to serve his own interests?

4. Compare the approaches of Jack and Sadie in handling Willie’s discovery that he has been framed. Do either of them care about Willie? How do they show it differently? Why does Sadie rub in his humiliation and why is she so angry? Is her attack on Willie better for him than Jack’s gentleness?

5. What is flawed about Willie’s speeches prior to learning he’s been framed? Is Jack’s advice not to try to “improve their minds” good advice for Willie? Is it good for all politicians?

Scene 2: The “Hick” Speech
1. To what desires and passions does Willie appeal when he speaks to the people in this speech? What passions does his rhetoric arouse?

2. In this speech (as well as in later speeches to the people), what lessons has he learned from Jack’s advice?

3. Is Willie telling the people the truth about himself in his hick speech?

4. In what way does Willie imitate what Sadie does to him in the former scene we viewed?

Scene 3: Good out of Bad
1. What does Burden’s Landing represent in the film? What is the significance of Jack bringing Willie to Burden’s Landing?

2. Contrast Stark’s speaking to those at Burden’s Landing with his rhetoric in the “hick” speech.

3. What is Stark’s idea about making good out of bad? What are some examples of what he has in mind?

4. What problems does Adam quickly reveal about this idea? Also, what point was Adam making when he earlier asked, “You’re sure about that?”

5. Would Adam make a better governor than Stark?

6. Earlier in the movie, McAvoy opposed Jack’s giving publicity to Stark. But now, he poses no questions, and is conspicuously shown to smile twice during the scene. Does this make sense? Has he concluded that Stark is not really dangerous? Why?

7. Jack tries to dismiss Adam’s first question with the “you know how rumors start” line. Does he not know that such deals have been made? Moreover, if Stark has nothing to hide, why is his aide’s first instinct upon hearing a charge to lie about it, even to an old friend?

8. What is Stark’s purpose in admitting to his dirty deals here?

9. Notice the way Stark, Jack and Adam are framed together during the dialogue, together with Anne and the portrait of Governor Stanton. What is the visual symbolism in this, and in the camera angle?

Scene 4: Pillsbury and the Judge’s Resignation

1. Why does Stark say Pillsbury is a thing? Why is accusing Pillsbury of blasphemous presumption against the ways of the Almighty part of “fixing him?” How can a thing be accused of blasphemy? Or this accusation just a meaningless insult?

2. How many commands does Stark give in this scene? What does this and his humiliation of Pillsbury tell us about Stark?

3. Why does the Judge resign? Is the Judge or Willie the best representative of justice in the film?

4. What happens in this scene that make the Judge “sure” and clinch his decision to resign? What has he been trying to become sure about? The Judge already knew that Stark is willing to make questionable deals. Moreover, when Stark asks him in this scene how did he think he passed his program, he says: “I knew how, but I never knew why.” What is important about answering the question of why, and what occurs in this scene that reveals the answer to the judge?

5. What is Stark’s criticism of the Judge in this scene? Does it stick? Don’t we see that the Judge has been willing to ally himself with an admitted “deal-maker,” and thus has been willing to get his hands somewhat dirty?

6. Why was it important to Willie that the Judge be his attorney general? What kind of attorney general does Stark want?

7. Why does Jack stay on? Is it a mistake, as the Judge says?

Paper Topics:
1.Coriolanus’ power is that of warrior, Patton’s that of a strategist. What is Willie Stark’s power? What can he do that others can’t, that earns him political power? Is this the way to become a great person in a democracy?

2. At one point Adam says Stark is motivated only by his pride, and Jack, narrating, says, “what if it was his pride—the fact is he got things done.” Later, Anne says Adam’s moral scruples are based on pride, and Stark seems to say the same about the Judge’s scruples. What is the movie saying about pride and its relation to doing good or evil? Is Adam’s pride fundamentally different from Stark’s? Could Stark’s pride have been directed in a more positive way to achieve good things?

3. Enumerate the things wrong with Louisiana and its politics prior to Stark. Enumerate the political sins, especially those that violate our Constitution, committed by Stark.

4. Were the deals and threats (Burden’s little black book, the tough-guy handbill distributors, etc.) necessary to get Stark’s program across and to boot out the likes of Tiny Duffy and his bosses? Can we imagine a Stark who initially used such rough methods to obtain power but who restrained himself once he achieved power?

5. How must we ultimately judge Governor Stark’s political program, aside from the corrupt means used to obtain it? If his program was impossible without those means, must that alter our judgement of it?

6. Is a thorough program of justice for the poor politically possible unless the poor are made extremely angry at their opponents? Can this anger limit itself to purely democratic expressions? If not, is it responsible to stir up such anger, even if the grievances behind it are real?

7. Why does Anne delay marriage to Jack, prior to her meeting Stark? What explains her attraction to Stark? Does this also explain Sadie’s attraction? Do the differences between Anne and Sadie suggest anything more general about women and politics? Are they convincing characters?

8. Adam seems to be portrayed as the “man of ideas” who has scruples, while Stark is certainly the “man of action” who has no scruples. Stark destroys and corrupts all those whom Adam loves, and Adam ultimately kills Stark and dies doing so. Adam, more upright than even the Judge, seems to be a purely “armchair” judge who can only, like most citizens, comment on public affairs but cannot really influence them. Does the movie thus suggest that Adam is doomed to be ineffectual, at least in the political sense, because he is a man of ideas and strict principles? Does it also suggest that only such a man can ultimately stop a man like Stark?

9. Is Jack a man of action or a man of principles, more like Willie, or more like Adam? Is he some compromise between the two? Why does he serve Stark? How much does he believe in Stark’s pledge to bring about good by using bad means? Is he a better man than Adam?

10. Compare Willie Stark and Patton as leaders. In what ways are they effective and ineffective? You might contrast Patton’s rhetoric in his appeal to the soldiers and with that of Stark’s “hick” speech.

11. Is this movie too cynical about politics generally, and about American democratic politics specifically? How does All the King’s Men both criticize and defend democracy?

12. In what ways does All the King's Men illustrate Lincoln's concerns about democracy?

13. In what ways does All the King's Men illustrate Tocqueville's concerns about democracy?

14. In what ways does All the King's Men illustrate Rousseau's concerns about the corrupting effects of living in society rather than in a natural state? In what way(s), on the other hand, does the film indicate problems with the political effects of compassion?

All the King's Men Reading

Guide to unit 2

back to unit 2