Based on Robert Penn Warren's novel, a populist gets elected governor but is corrupted by the power.
The editor sends reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland) to cover Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), who is running for county treasurer. Willie makes a speech and is arrested. Tiny Duffy (Ralph Dumke) gives Jack his camera back. Jack learns that Willie's wife Lucy Stark (Anne Seymour) lost her teaching job. Their adopted son Tom (John Derek) says he was beaten up for giving out handbills.
On vacation Jack goes to his mother and stepfather. Jack is in love with Anne Stanton (Joanne Dru). The families argue over politics.
Willie lost the election, but he studies and becomes a lawyer. Children die in a school accident, and people say Willie was right. He files a suit. Politicians asks Willie to run for governor. Jack suspects it is to split the vote, and Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge) tells Willie that he was framed. At a fair Willie tells his story of the poor and rejects the politicians. The editor tells Jack they are no longer printing his stories.
Four years later Willie runs again, and with money he is winning. Willie hires Jack, and he tells Dr. Adam Stanton (Shepperd Strudwick) that good comes out of bad. Willie tells Judge Monte Stanton (Raymond Greenleaf) that he will be attorney general, and he promises people a free hospital, good education, and better roads.
Willie is elected and gets bills passed. Sadie becomes jealous of other women. Willie reprimands Dolph Pillsbury (Will Wright) for corruption and makes him sign a resignation letter. Attorney General Stanton says he should prosecute Pillsbury and resigns. Jack stays. Willie tells Anne he still wants to see her. Stanton has accused Willie in the newspapers, and Willie tells Jack to find something on the judge.
When Adam tells Jack and Anne that Willie is evil, Anne gets upset. Jack investigates Judge Stanton. Sadie tells Jack that Willie wants Anne. Willie's son Tom drinks and drives fast, getting into a wreck that nearly kills a girl. Her father Richard Hale goes to Willie and Tom, who admits he was wrong. Hale declines a bribe and says Willie is no good.
Willie demands that Tom play in the football game. Tom's head injury is made worse, and Adam tells Willie that he will be paralyzed for life. Jack gives the papers on Judge Stanton to Anne. Adam tells Willie he will direct the new hospital.
Willie campaigns for re-election, and he goes home to Lucy for a day. The radio reports that Hale was beaten to death and that Willie may be impeached. Willie needs votes and asks Jack to influence Stanton. Jack asks the judge to release his votes, but Stanton tells Willie that he is behind the impeachment. Willie accuses Stanton of blackmail long ago. Stanton says he will tell him in the morning but shoots himself.
Adam learns that Anne told Willie. She goes to Jack and says Adam hit her. She says that Willie is going back to Lucy. A crowd gathers at the capitol, and the legislators say they feel pressured. Willie asks people to stay, and he wins the vote. Willie speaks and then is shot by Adam, who is killed by the state troopers.
This political drama is very similar to the life of
Louisiana governor Huey Long, who helped the poor but became more
and more manipulative and dictatorial until he was assassinated
in 1935 by the son of a man he had discredited.