History of the World: Part I

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Think you know your history? Well prepare to think again, as Mel Brooks presents the story of man, from primitive cavemen to the decadence of the French Revolution, in his own inimitable style.

The ascent of man has been chronicled many times and in many ways, but never quite like this. Starting with a wicked spoof of 2001: A Space Odyssey, renowned funster Mel Brooks and friends take us through some of the most notable events in history, narrated in stentorian fashion by Orson Welles. The quirky evolution of Sid Caesar’s Stone Age man is followed by a previously unrecorded episode from the life of an accident-prone Moses (Brooks); we arrive next in Roman Times, where stand-up philosopher Comicus (Brooks again) earns Nero’s (Dom DeLuise) displeasure at Caesar’s Palace and flees Rome with pretty Vestal Virgin Miriam (Mary-Margaret Humes) and light-footed slave Josephus (Gregory Hines) in tow.

A brief song-and-dance by the Spanish Inquisition brings us to the French Revolution, where randy King Louis XVI (Brooks yet again) frets over the imminent arrival of Mme Defarge’s (the always wonderful Cloris Leachman) rabble, leaving a doppelganger to see to Pamela Stephenson’s Mlle Rimbaud, willing to do anything – that’s anything – to free her imprisoned father (Spike Milligan).

I don’t know whether it’s truer of comedy than any other artistic endeavour, but it’s certainly true that when comedians are hot, they’re hot and when they’re not, they’re pretty lousy. And it’s alarming how cold Mel Brooks is as writer, director and star of History of the World: Part I. The episodic structure suggests a lack of inspiration, though the term ‘episodic’ really does too much justice to some of the ‘episodes’ since only two sections – Roman Times and The French Revolution – have any sort of story or substance at all.

However, the bittiness of the material isn’t nearly as damaging as the fact that so little of it is funny. The 2001 spoof is juvenile but raises a laugh because it’s so unexpected, but most of the rest is a mixture of the puerile and the overfamiliar. The hard work that goes into creating a set and props for the Fifteen Commandments is paid off weakly, while I get the distinct impression that ‘Roman Times’ was inspired by the critical and financial success of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Unfortunately, the inspiration doesn’t make it as far as the writing, with the result that the director, DeLuise, Madeleine Kahn (as Empress Nympho) and so on are forced into slapstick and manic gurning to raise laughs, while Brooks recycles material from Las Vegas cabaret and Carry on Cleo (the Vestal Virgins played by Playboy Bunnies) and still struggles for giggles, hindered as he is by Hines’ unexciting turn (he’s no Cleavon Little) and the overwhelming blandness of Humes’ attractive but boring Miriam.

Airplane!-style literalisms fall flat (‘The streets are crawling with soldiers’), and although I’d never call Brooks racist or homophobic, he panders to lazy stereotypes throughout – he’s never been averse to using dolly birds as set dressing, of course, so it would be redundant to complain about sexism.

The remainder of the film is afflicted with the same issues, exacerbated by a sense that Brooks is raiding his own back catalogue for ideas. I don’t think there’s a direct Python influence in the Spanish Inquisition sketch, but the idea of a soft-shuffling musical number making light of an episode of persecution of Jews might just ring a bell with fans of The Producers, augmented here by nuns paying tribute to Esther Williams. Similarly, the French Revolution brings us Harvey Korman as a constantly mispronounced Count de Monet and Andreas Voutsinas as his ‘saucy’ friend Bearnaise, ripping off Blazing Saddles and The Producers in one fell swoop.

As a result, and because the plot is a fairly lame excuse to engage Stephenson and others in bosom-heaving and bodice-ripping, the attention wanders into spotting familiar British faces and figures: Cleo Rocos, Bella Emberg, Nigel Hawthorne, Andrew Sachs and so on. In fact, the cameos are generally more interesting than the jokes, so you might also spot Hugh Hefner, Jackie Mason, Bea Arthur – and John Hurt as Jesus. To be totally fair, the Last Supper skit is pretty good, but it’s one of very few moments of quality and originality. Brooks’ comedies are often extremely broad and all the better for it; here, however, you’re left wishing you were watching the infinitely more substantial films in which the jokes first appeared.

Like so many things in life, the first thing that came to mind immediately after watching History of the World: Part I was an episode of The Simpsons. I’m thinking of the one in which Bart briefly becomes a comedy sensation with the catchphrase ‘I didn’t do it!’ and ends up repeating his shtick to a jaded and unappreciative audience. I’m afraid Brooks’ shtick comes unshtuck in much the same fashion in this lazy and only fitfully funny compendium. I don’t know if Part II – trailed at the end of this movie – was ever going to be made, but I’m not in the least bit sad that it didn’t come to fruition, even if Jews in Space was to prove prophetic for Mel’s next project.

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