‘History Of The World Part 1’ Has Divided Fans Of Mel Brooks For Decades

In just under four years in the mid 1970s, Mel Brooks directed four comedies that received great reviews and performed well at the box office. Even though Silent Movie and High Anxiety didn’t earn as much at the box office as Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, they were still modest success. So, the big question was what would Mel do next?

Surprisingly, he turned his attention to producing The Elephant Man with a young avant garde director named David Lynch. It was a big surprise. He kept his name off the credits because he wanted people to take the movie seriously. And they did.

But there was nothing serious about History of the World Part 1, an anthology containing several shorter stories set during the Roman Empire during the time of Nero and also during the beginning of the French Revolution. This would be the first time since The Twelve Chairs that Brooks had sole writing credit on a movie. It might have helped if some of the other writers had worked on the script. A young and up and coming filmmaker named Barry Levinson had co-wrote Silent Movie and High Anxiety.

The beginning of History begins with the Dawn of Man and it kinda sets the tone for the rest of the movie as a bunch of cave men rise up and begin to pretend to masturbate before they pass out. The next segment is about cavemen with Sid Caesar playing the chief caveman as it looks into them trying to discover fire; dealing with relationships by the stereotypical man clobbering a woman on the back of the head with a club; as well as painting on the walls which leads to the first critic who urinates on the wall.

The use of urination will be common in the rest of the movie. History starts off very slow and unfunny. It isn’t until it moves on to a short by hilarious segment where Brooks plays Moses being instructed by God (voice of Carl Reiner) to inscribe the Commandments. But there were 15, not 10. However, Moses drops the third tablet on the ground by mistake. It’s silly but it works in its delivery.

Then, the focus shifts to the Roman Empire. This is probably the longest one probably because the use of sets and costumes costs so much, why keep it to just 10 minutes or so? Brooks reappears as Comicus a stand-up philosopher, who along with his agent, Swiftus (Ron Carey), meet an enslaved man, Josephus (Gregory Hines in his first role) and also a vestal virgin, Miriam (Mary-Magaret Humes). After stopping a man from harming a hurt white horse Miracle, in the town square, Miriam talks Empress Nympho (Madeline Kahn) into giving Josephus a job as a wine steward at the palace where Comicus is set to perform.

However, at the palace, Nero (Dom DeLuise) doesn’t like some of Comicus’ jokes and when Josephus accidentally pours wine on his lap, he orders the two to fight gladiator style to the death. But they end up escaping and being chased by high military officer Marcus Vindictus (Sheckey Greene) and other Roman soldiers. While this part does have some great use of costume design and sets, it’s hard not to watch this and realize the Monty Pythons did it better two years earlier with Life of Brian. There is a great interaction between Josephus and Oedipus (Ronny Graham) that helps give the movie its R rating.

Even though it’s set during the time of Nero, there are many anachronisms such as a gag involving Moses parting a river even though Moses was long dead and a scene in which Comicus finds himself as a waiter in a diner in Judea. His first job is serving Jesus (John Hurt) and the disciples at the Last Supper. Nero didn’t become Emperor until a good 21 years after Jesus died.

The movie changes to The Spanish Inquistion in which Brooks plays Torquemada who sings in a Busby Berkeley-style musical production as Torquemada and others harass and torture Jewish people they want to convert. At one point the movie resorts to a group of nuns taking off their robes and engaging in an Esther Williams-style aquatic ballet number. It’s a big production and shows how Brooks does just as good with song-and-dance numbers as he does with comedy parody. He says, you make fun of the things you love. And someone like Brooks grew up on these types of musicals.

The last sketch focuses on The French Revolution as Madame Defarge (Cloris Leachman) and other poor French people are planning to revolt against King Louis XVI (Brooks again). This is the one segment in which the R rating is warranted as Brooks plays Louis as a power-hungry pervert who constantly gropes or grinds on whatever gorgeous woman he sees and then turns to the camera and says the iconic line, “It’s good to be the king.”

When Count de Monet (Harvey Korman) arrives, he tells Louis of the suspicion of a revolt. There is a running gag where the Count is called “Count the money.” The Count notices a similarity between Louis and Jacques, (Brooks again), a servant otherwise known as “the piss boy” because he carries around a bucket for people to urinate in. Here’s where Brooks bring back the urination joke from the caveman segment thinking it’s funny. But it isn’t.

The French Revolution segment seems like a missed opportunity to have more fun with Jacques pretending to be the King. But the segment has Jacques helping Mademoiselle Rimbaud (Pamela Stephenson) getting her father (Spike Milligan) out of prison. And the elder Rimbaud has gone crazy and has a lot of dead animals in his cell he still thinks are alive.

One brief segment that concludes the movie titled Jews in Space became popular following Marjorie Taylor Greene’s comments about Jewish space laser. The segment, just over a minute long, takes on the Star Wars/Battlestar Gallactica craze of the era by having spaceships which look like the Star of David in battle. The segment also has a song “Jews in Space” that sounds a lot like the “Men in Tights” number from Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

Hulu is scheduled to stream History of the World Part II, a sequel series in March. While Brooks intended the title to be a joke and The History of the World, Volume 1 by Sir Walter Raleigh with no intended sequel, there is a lot of anticipation for the Hulu series. Part I is one of the movies that has divided Brooks fans as some think he can do no wrong, while others look at it, along with Life Stinks, Robin Hood and Dracula: Dead and Loving It as his worst.

Critics were divided. Roger Ebert gave it two stars in his review while Gene Siskel liked it awarding it three stars. It was nominated for Worst Picture at 1981 Stinkers Bad Movie Awards. Pauline Kael also wrote a positive review while Leonard Maltin didn’t care for it. Produced on a budget of $10 million, it was still a modest success at the time pulling in almost $32 million at the box office.

I’m on the fence and the movie suffers the same problems most movies like this suffer. If you’re going to do an anthology, everyone must pop. Beginning with two segments that don’t produce many laughs is worrisome. But the Moses, Roman Empire and Spanish Inquisition scenes definitely are worth the price of admission. I don’t know if Brooks didn’t have enough in the budget to make the French Revolution longer. I also feel the movie might have benefitted from an additional writer or two. Rudy DeLuca, who helped him write on previous movies, appears during the Roman Empire sequence.

Regardless, it still has more laughs than some movies do today. And seeing Brooks have fun with some of his constant co-stars, like DeLuca, Korman, Kahn, Carey and DeLuise is a nice treat. Hines does a great role and makes it his own. Richard Pryor had initially been hired but had been seriously injured when he set himself on fire shortly before production began. Brooks shows that he’s still the King of Comedy and well, it’s good to be the king.

What do you think? Please comment.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: