It's good to be Mel Brooks in the audacious comedy "History of the World - Part 1" (1981)
Mr. Brooks' comedy is a combination of everything you love and hate about the filmmaker's comedies. It is a smorgasbord of ideas and jokes that don't always blend well together. Not all of the jokes work. Many are vulgar and could be considered "tasteless". Some have said the movie lacks a coherent structure. Mr. Brooks takes the old Mack Sennett approach to comedy and throws in every joke he thought was funny. Yet, here I am recommending it. What could possibly be my defense for recommending a movie that makes homosexual jokes, sex jokes and makes fun of Jews? I laughed!
Audiences should pretty much know what they are walking into before the movie starts, if you are at all familiar with Mel Brooks. If not, the opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. It is a "Dawn of Man" scene, as a narrator (Orson Welles), tells us an ape like creature stood up and became man. The group of men quickly discover they have penises and begin to masturbate at a frantic speed. It is first and foremost a parody of a scene in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). And that is often what we are dealing with. Not so much comedic interpretations of historical events but rather parodies of famous scenes from historical movies. The joke is everything is presented serious, heck, Orson Welles is narrating the movie (which may be a reference to "King of Kings" (1961), which Mr. Welles also narrated) but the action on-screen doesn't match the seriousness of the narration, catching the audience off-guard.
The movie is an episodic comedy featuring five vignette segments that include the Stone Age, the Old Testament, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution. The Stone Age doesn't have a plot and instead is a series of set-up and punchlines focused on historical "first" such as explaining how man created fire, created music, the first homo sapiens marriage, which are are told was quickly followed by the first homosexual marriage. This segment stars Sid Caesar as the chief caveman. The Old Testament is nothing more than a one joke musing considering what would happen if Moises was unable to hold all the tablets with God's laws on them.
The two segments that take up the majority of the movie are the Roman Empire and the French Revolution. The French Revolution episode borrows not from history but mainly Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper". King Louis XVI (Brooks) learns of a revolt being brewed by the working class of France, headed by Madame Defarge (Cloris Leachman). Many will recognize the character's name from Charles Dicken's "A Tale of Two Cities". One of the King's advisors, Count de Monet (Harvey Korman), who is consistently called "count the money", notices a strong resemblance between the King and what is known as "the piss boy" (Brooks again). The plan is to disguise the piss boy as the King and allow the mob to kill him instead of the real King, who will be out of the country.
Whereas the Roman Empire segment is not based on any particular moment in history with Mr. Brooks playing a stand-up philosopher, Comicus, who thanks to his agent, Swiftus (Ron Carey) gets a job playing in the main room at Caesar's Palace to perform for Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise). A funny thing happens to Comicus on the way to the palace, he meets a slave, Josephus (Gregory Hines, in the his screen debut), who thanks to a sex craved empress, named Nympho (Madeline Khan) wins his freedom and gets a job at the palace.
Mr. Brooks is undoubtedly best known for directing "Blazing Saddles" (1974) and "Young Frankenstein" (1974), two movies routinely listed among the funniest comedies ever made. I admire both very much but I have a fondness for "History of the World" and consider it my favorite comedy by Mr. Brooks. If filmmakers are artist then Mr. Brooks has given myself a large canvass to poke comedic fun at, no less than the history of the world. It provides a lot of room for satire and anachronistic humor. For that reason it is my favorite. The screenplay was written by Mr. Brooks alone, a feat he had not done since his second film, "The Twelve Chairs" (1970). Because of that I find this to be the most "pure Brooks" comedy. It may also be the reason the comedy goes in plenty of different directors. Without a Gene Wilder or gang of comedy writers collaborating with him, there is no one to tell Mr. Brooks something is a bad idea or doesn't fit.
Yet I can't deny I laugh when watching the movie. I failed to describe the Spanish Inquisition segment which once again doesn't focus on a plot but becomes an Esther Williams song and dance sequence. It is comedic brilliance, that like the best of Mr. Brooks' comedies, holds nothing sacred. The Inquisition itself was a dark time in history dealing with religious intolerance and torture. It doesn't lend itself to song and dance but that is what makes it funny IF you are in tune with Mr. Brooks' sensibilities. Otherwise it is simply bad taste. And that goes for the rest of the picture.
I often feel "History of the World" is overlooked because of "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" and so when I say this is my favorite Brooks comedy it may seem to be an odd choice, not the "correct" choice by society's standards. I'm not sure how others view the move's reputation today or how well it has aged but upon watching it again I find it holds up well.
I'm not sure if I would say "History of the World" should be an introduction into Mr. Brooks' comedies but it definitely should be in the top three movies you see as one ventures into these comedies as it is "typical" of Mr. Brooks' humor.