#9 in my ranking of Mel Brooks’ filmography.
Mel Brooks just finally embraces the sketch comedy format in film after edging closer and closer to it over the previous few movies. It’s also the first film where Brooks was his own boss as the owner of the production company Brooksfilms, and I wonder if Brooks is one of those talents who really needs a counterbalance like Gene Wilder to make things work. It’s the first film of his since The Twelve Chairs where he has sole writing credit. I bring this all up because History of the World: Part I is a hugely mixed bag. There’s one bit of brilliance and a whole lot of middling entertainment here and there. Freed from the concerns of trying to make a full story, he seems to have simply gone for what he thought was funny, and he stretched concepts very thin looking for the funny.
The movie begins with a comedic homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s opening sequence of The Dawn of Man with homo erectus raising to his feet and then masturbating with somber tones from Orson Welles as the narrator and a plain title of “Our Forefathers”. It’s amusing. Then we get a series of comedic vignettes starring Sid Caesar as the head of a tribe of cavemen as they figure out early concepts like marriage (hitting the mate on the head with a club), art criticism (peeing on a cave painting), and music (throwing rocks on the toes of people to make them howl in agony). It’s amusing.
After a brief one shot scene of Moses dropping five of the fifteen commandments God gave him on Mount Sinai, we move on to the largest bulk of the film: The Roman Empire. The story here is about a stand up philosopher (bullshit artist) Comicus (Brooks) who gets the greatest gig of his life to play Caesar’s Palace for Caesar Nero (Dom DeLuise) himself as well as the Empress Nympho (Madeline Kahn). Along the way, they meet the Vestal Virgin Miriam (Mary-Margaret Humes) and former slave Josephus (Gregory Hines) who becomes wine bearer to the Empress. Comicus bombs horribly when he starts making fat and corruption jokes at Caesar’s expense, creating a race to escape Rome that sweeps up Miriam, Josephus, and Comicus’ agent Swiftus (Ron Carey). After escaping on a chariot trailing a large joint that gets the pursuing Roman guards high, they end up in Judea where Comicus gets a job as a server in the inn that houses the Last Supper where Jesus (John Hurt) is praying with his disciples. I wouldn’t really call these series of events a story, more like an excuse to have Roman related humor for forty-five minutes like the Roman Senate popping up with a cameo where they denounce the poor or Josephus failing to prove his status as a eunuch at the sight of an erotic dance by an attractive woman. Most of the humor hinges on the idea that the anachronism of Josephus acting like he’s from Harlem in a Roman setting is hilarious. There are amusing bits here and there, like Bea Arthur’s cameo as an unemployment insurance agent, but it’s really not enough to carry the whole thing.
Then we get one of the best things Brooks ever did: The Spanish Inquisition. This is on par with the “Springtime for Hitler” number in The Producers, a musical number of such gaudy outrageousness set to fun music written by Brooks that it is kind of a miracle it exists at all. Brooks is Torquemada, the High Inquisitor, as he toe taps his way through a line of Jews trying to convert them to Christianity with torture, song, dance, and synchronized swimming nuns.
And then, The French Revolution comes, and I get the feeling that Brooks could have made a whole movie out of this. It’s not great, but there’s an actual story here about the Count de Money…I mean Monet (Harvey Korman) who wishes to protect the life of King Louis XVI (Brooks) from the impending revolution by replacing him with the piss boy Jacques (also Brooks) who is the spitting image of his king. There’s also a young woman Rimbaud (Pamela Stephenson) who is pleading with the king for the life of her father, imprisoned at the Bastille for the past ten years. Combine that with Jacques getting made up to look like the king, and you’ve got a recipe for some hijinks that…almost immediately come to an end when Madame Defarge (Cloris Leachman) barges into the palace with her horde of revolutionaries, ready to wipe out the old order. There was a whole movie of stuff here shoved into the film’s final twenty minutes. As it stands, it has the advantage of Brooks realizing the amusement of Louis repeatedly saying “It’s good to be the king,” to the camera, and not a whole lot else. It’s amusing in fits, much like the bulk of the film.
Besides the Spanish Inquisition number, the only part really worthwhile in the film is the Coming Attractions trailer for the sequel that was never intended. “Hitler on Ice” and “Jews in Space” are marvelous little tidbits of comedy. “A Viking Funeral” is a single sight gag that doesn’t do a whole lot, though.
It’s quotable here and there, but the anthology nature of the film is either taken too far or not nearly far enough. Spending half the film in the Roman Empire does the film few favors, but the French Revolution felt like a movie full of stuff crammed into about twenty minutes. Thank goodness there’s The Spanish Inquisition, though.