All the King’s Men is a 2006 political drama based on the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. In it, author Robert Penn Warren tells the darkly intriguing tale—rooted in reality—of an idealistic man’s evolution from a charismatic rural politician to one of the most controversial political figures in history. All the King’s Men touches on themes that have remained relevant to this day, unveiling webs of political corruption and offering commentary on the ambiguity of humankind’s moral character. These ideas translate seamlessly into Columbia Pictures and Relativity Media’s dialogue-driven political drama, which benefits from the influence of several noteworthy individuals:
Although he appeared in the Oscar-nominated 1993 documentary The War Room, which chronicled the 1992 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, All the King’s Men executive producer James Carville has made his name primarily as a political consultant and commentator rather than an entertainer, serving as the host of Crossfire on CNN. Still, his occasional forays into the entertainment industries—which included appearances in the films The People vs. Larry Flynt and Old School, as well as the HBO drama K Street—placed him within the social circles of several noteworthy filmmakers.
Carville’s many interactions with Hollywood’s leading creative minds gave him the chance to share one of his own ideas for a major motion picture: an updated, entirely faithful adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. He eventually convinced Mike Medavoy and David Thwaites of Phoenix Pictures that the novel’s political intrigue and universal themes of good and evil, love, and betrayal would resonate with modern audiences. Says Medavoy, “The book is about human nature, about imperfect people who are neither good nor bad but who fall somewhere in between, who start off with good intentions but become compromised by power, with tragic results.”
Huey P. Long
Huey P. Long is the legendary and, to many, infamous politician who inspired All the King’s Men and its main character, Willie Stark. Born and raised in Winn Parish, Louisiana, Huey Long grew through a rebellious adolescence to study law at Tulane University and went on to work with the Louisiana Public Service Commission during the early decades of the 1900s. Although he lost his first gubernatorial election in 1924, he was victorious four years later, gliding into office on a populist platform built on rousing promises of improved roads and free school textbooks. His promises—often including Robin Hood-like notions of taking from the rich to benefit the poor— resonated with Louisiana’s impoverished rural communities, and in 1930, his constituents elected him to the United States Senate. By 1935, Huey Long had mounted a presidential campaign, but his rapid rise to political prominence came to an abrupt end at the hands of an acquaintance, who gunned him down as he was emerging from the Louisiana state capitol building on September 8, 1935. He died two days later.
Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren was born on April 24, 1905, on a tobacco farm in Guthrie, Kentucky, and grew to become one of most revered literary minds in American history. His adolescent plans to join the Navy came to a halt when an accident left him blind in one eye at the age of 15. Instead, he studied engineering at Vanderbilt University, where he became friends with the prominent group of modern poets known as The Fugitives. Warren’s studies took him to the University of California, Yale, and Oxford, where he studied English as a Rhodes Scholar. He then embarked on a successful teaching career at institutions including Vanderbilt, Louisiana State University, and the University of Minnesota.
Warren received three Pulitzer Prizes over the course of his literary career. The first was for his 1946 work, All the King’s Men, the most celebrated of his ten novels, which also include At Heaven’s Gate and Night Rider. He received his other two Pulitzers for his collections of poetry. He is the only person to receive the Pulitzer for both poetry and fiction, and in 1986, he became the first US Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.
Steve Zaillian is the four-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker whom James Carville sought out to both write and direct a faithful film adaptation of Warren’s novel. Zaillian is well known for writing such noteworthy films as Schindler’s List, for which he received the 1994 Oscar for best adapted screenplay; Gangs of New York (2002); and American Gangster (2007). In addition to his screenwriting achievements, he also directed the Oscar-nominated Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) and A Civil Action (1998).
Well-known for his powerful performances in moving dramatic films, Sean Penn was the filmmakers’ first choice to play the memorable role of Willie Stark. Penn won the Best Actor Oscar for his performances in Mystic River (2003) and Milk (2008), as well as nominations for his roles in I Am Sam (2001), Dead Man Walking (1995), and Sweet and Lowdown (1999). Producer Mike Medavoy described the role as the “perfect match” for Sean Penn, while writer-director Steve Zaillian remarked, “Sean is powerful, he’s thoughtful and he’s charismatic—all the same qualities that Willie Stark possesses.”