'All The King's Men': A new version hits our screens

'All The King's Men' inspired an Oscar-winning film in 1949 and a new version opens next week. But neither does full justice to Robert Penn Warren's great novel, says Tom Rosenthal
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The Independent Culture

The acquisition of knowledge can be systematically thought out and actually prepared for but, for most of us, it's a matter of happenstance. As a teenager in 1950 I saw and greatly admired Robert Rossen's film All the King's Men, (ATKM). I was unaware of its origins in a novel by an American writer, Robert Penn Warren. It was simply a very gripping political melodrama at an age when I enjoyed melodrama and was just beginning to become absorbed in politics. But it also fed my appetite for American history and, in the late Fifties, I got a history degree in which the "Special Subject" was American History. Inevitably, I came across Huey Long, the maverick Governor of, later Senator for, Louisiana and found myself remembering the film and realising that its protagonist Willie Stark was clearly, if loosely, based on Long.

I realised that my last long vacation would be the final opportunity to take three months off to travel before becoming a wage slave, so I decided to go to the USA and Canada. To enter the US in those days you needed to get a fullscale visa. After a long interview by the Consular official, I signed a declaration that I would not become a charge on the public purse nor attempt to overthrow the US Government. In a nearby second-hand bookshop I found a hardcover, English edition of Warren's ATKM for half-a-crown (12.5p) and bought it. Only at home did I notice that the owner's signature on the end paper was that of the US Consul who had interrogated me a few hours earlier.

I read the book with intense pleasure because, no matter how good Rossen's film was - it won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress - its mere 105 minutes gave one only the barest bones of the intricate plot and the depths of the many characters, several of whom were left out. It was 15 years before I discovered exactly how much more Rossen had omitted.

In the meantime I became a publisher and, having reached a position in which I could commission and acquire books as well as sell them, I published a 900-page definitive, but faintly exhausting, biography of Long. Warren had come across Long's career during the Depression years, when he was an Associate Professor at the only place that would employ him as a fledgling academic, Louisiana State University, ie Huey's University.

One could easily devote a small book to the differences between the film's Willie Stark and the historical Long. Long was not born dirt poor as Stark was; he owned and ran farmland; loved fine horses and owned a blood stallion; he did not have only one child, etc. But all that is to deal with the trivialities of literalness. If one accepts Carlos Fuentes's brilliant aphorism: "The only reality is fiction", then Long is definitely Stark in his flagrant use and abuse of the common man, ie the pathetic, share-cropping poor exploited first by the great corporations and the callous landowners and then manipulated by Long/Stark as he built roads that enabled them to get their crops to market; hospitals where they could be cured without payment; schools and universities where they could get a free education and so on.

Long was a great Populist and a demagogue of genius. A lawyer who had made money in private practice before he became a politician, he really did things for the poor, while making sure that he and his cronies always did well out of the gerrymandering, the fat public works contracts and all the usual large scale corruption of the Southern States in the inter-war years. Yet, when he was shot down in the State Capitol in 1935, he not only had presidential ambitions but was seen by many as the only possible rival Presidential candidate to Franklin Roosevelt. He also founded a political dynasty in Louisiana. His brother Earl became the only Governor of Louisiana to serve three terms. Another brother served in the Oklahoma legislature and as a Congressman from Louisiana, while his son Russell succeeded to his father's seat in the Senate. Earl also made it to the movies. Ron Shelton made a film about his affair with a New Orleans stripper called Blaze Star. The film, Blaze, starred Paul Newman as Earl Long and Lolita Davidovich as Blaze and was very funny.

In Warren's novel and the two movies Long lives and dies as Governor. The real-life Long, as Governor, assumed the role of Senator for Louisiana when the incumbent died in office. (This is not only legal but happens quite often in America.) As Senator he not only advanced in Washington as a national figure but was taken very seriously by Roosevelt. However, being Long, he retained his iron grip on Louisiana politics and finances. There is one priceless fact not, alas, mentioned by Warren, since it is surely so bizarre as to be worth turning into fiction. Long possessed a vast secret hoard of cash to oil the wheels of corruption - and good deeds according to your standpoint - which he kept in his suite at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. It was called the "deduct box" because it was filled by "deductions" from all the salaries of the State's employees who owed their jobs to Huey; which was the majority. When he went to Washington as Senator he took the "deduct box" with him and kept it in his safe at the Mayflower Hotel and later in the vaults of the Riggs National Bank. There it was, including affidavits damaging to Roosevelt, ready for Huey's Presidential campaign in 1936.

Shortly before his assassination, he told a close colleague, over a game of golf, that he "had moved the deduct box" but didn't say where. After his shooting the same colleague asked Huey on his deathbed the whereabouts of the "deduct box". Twice Long said "Later, Seymour, later" and died without divulging where. Perhaps it is quite simply too good a story for fiction but it makes a superb ending to that exotic life.

A few years after publishing the Long biography I became a fiction publisher and ran Secker & Warburg. There I relished the challenge rehabilitating the English reputations of writers whom I admired but who had fallen by the wayside. On a visit to New York I found that Robert Penn Warren also needed a new publisher, so I bought his latest novel Meet Me in the Green Glen. This led to an invitation to stay at Warren's house in Connecticut and, happily for me, those weekends became, until shortly before his death in 1989, an annual event. The house would be filled with high culture in all its forms. His second wife was the writer Eleanor Clark, his son was an up-and-coming sculptor and his daughter Rosanna already, like her father, a published poet.

Even in his seventies, Warren was still a commanding figure, known from his hair as Red, one-eyed following a boyhood injury and a fitness fanatic. If I'd gone to bed at 3am after one of his prodigious Saturday night dinner parties I'd be woken no later than eight, and sometimes earlier, by a strange mixture of noises from the entrance hall. There was the clanking of metal and what sounded like very painful, male human grunts. Gingerly I opened my door slowly to reveal a profusely sweating Warren, naked to the waist, with the torso of a Turkish Olympic wrestler, furiously working out with weights that would have defeated a man half his age.

The highlight of my visits was, no matter how severe the weather, the two-hour walk in the Connecticut woods before Sunday lunch. The conversation became almost as furious as the walking pace and one morning I dared to venture my analysis of ATKM. This puzzled Warren until he asked me which edition I'd read. I, puzzled in turn, said I'd the UK one. He explained that my partial misreading was now explicable and told me that the English publisher had, on grounds of length and relevance to a British audience, removed the whole of Chapter 4, the so-called Cass Mastern episode.

After lunch I took a copy of the US edition to my room and read that section. It is probably the most interesting in the whole book. Set in the mid-19th century, it tells the story of a distant forebear of the novel's first-person narrator, Jack Burden. Burden, a sometime PhD student, newspaperman and now protégé of Willie Stark, is employed to dig up the dirt in the past of Judge Irwin, Stark's only entirely incorruptible political opponent. In the chapter's juxtaposition of good and evil in one man, albeit the fictitious historical figure of Cass Mastern, it is at once a paradigm of the Judge's actual flaw and of the flaws in Burden's own character. And it puts the almost metaphysical question, can you do good by doing a bad deed?

My opinion of ATKM was instantly altered and by the time drinks were served before dinner I had not only committed Secker & Warburg to publishing the novel in England for the first time in complete form, but had persuaded Red to write an introduction which explained what had happened. In it he freely admits that the historical/political catalyst of the novel is Long's dramatic career and melodramatic death. New to me was its literal genesis as a play. In 1938, in an Umbrian field, in the shade of an olive tree near Perugia, he had begun a verse play entitled Proud Flesh. He was struck by the parallels between "Huey" and "Musso" but, the longer he stayed in Italy the more tenuous the connection between Long and Mussolini seemed to him. Warren realised how constricting the play form was for the "human context that made possible the rise of the man of power: the man of power must fill, in some deep and secret way, some blankness in the people of his world."

While most comparisons of films and the books of which they are adaptations are fairly valueless I think the inter-relationship of Warren's novel and Rossen's film is at least interesting and all the more so now that there is a second film version by Steven Zaillian opening on Friday. In all the obvious ways ATKM II is one up on Rossen. The colour photography is distinguished, the sets are lavish, the storyline, if one hasn't read the book, clearer. But Rossen's cast is, in almost every character and in every way, more convincing and authentic. Having watched both Rossen and Zaillian in the space of a few days I find it mildly perverse to cast English actors such as Jude Law and Kate Winslett as Louisianans. And I can't cope at all with Sean Penn as Stark. Broderick Crawford was Stark. Penn is simply a Hollywood idol acting Stark.

Both films omit several subsidiary characters and both have cut the Cass Mastern episode which gives ATKM its subtle moral compass, the metaphysical and philosophical dimensions which turn a great novel about US politics into, quite simply, a great American novel, possibly the best one written after 1945. There have been some very good American novels about actual politicians. But, in the final analysis, Warren is still the man.

* 'All The King's Men' opens on Friday