Review of “History of the World: Part 1” (1981)

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This is our Saturday pizza and bad movie offering, one we’d both seen before but not for many years. We’d tried a new wine, something called a Malbec. To my (*cough*) discriminating palate, it tasted a lot like a cab and was quite yummy.

Plot:

This Mel Brooks farce is told in five historical vignettes centered on 1) The Stone Age, 2) The Old Testament, 3) The Roman Empire, 4) The Spanish Inquisition, and 5) The French Revolution.

The Stone Age opens with men arising at dawn to the overture of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” After, um, exploring themselves, Stone Age man goes on to invent art—with the inevitable art critic, marriage, and music. The “Hallelujah Chorus” is apparently a lot older than you think.

The Old Testament is brief but explains why there are ten rather than fifteen commandments.

During the Roman Empire segment, Mel Brooks plays Comicus, a stand-up philosopher. He gets a gig at Caesar’s palace before Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise). Unfortunately, he forgets where he is and tells the wrong jokes. As Comicus says, “When you die at the Palace, you really die.”

Mel Brooks plays Tomás de Torquemada (1420-1498), the first Grand Inquisitor. He is known for the use of torture against those who didn’t convert. Funnily enough, he came from a converso background. (“Torquemada this, Torquemada that. I can’t Torquemada anything.”) The segment is portrayed in a song and dance number that concludes with synchronized swimming that hints at water torture of Jewish victims. It is grandiose, absurd, bizarre, and not exactly in the best of taste.

The final main segment depicts events around the French Revolution. Mel Brooks is King Louis XVI, and the plot borrows from such works as Dumas The Man in the Iron Mask and Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper.

A few unexpected “coming attractions” at the very end round out the silly movie: Hitler ice skating, a Viking funeral (you find out why those horned helmets weren’t real), and a final segment obviously influenced by Star Wars.

Thoughts:

I saw this movie way back in 1981 in something called a “theater.” I thought it was hysterical, even if parts crossed some boundaries. It has great scenes. Louis XVI declaring his love for the peasants while skeet shooting with them—as targets (“PULL!”)—is classic. So is the first art critic. These bits can still make me laugh.

Having said that, I can’t say that as a whole, this movie has aged well. For starters, its crude adolescent humor (“Do I have any openings this man might fill?”) and its ridicule of gay men don’t work for me.

While hardly a scene fails to show Mel Brooks’ face, there are many other fine actors in this. Gregory Hines is a tap-dancing, chariot-driving, very-large-joint-rolling Josephus in Rome. Cloris Leachman is a rabble-rousing Madame Defarge. Madeline Kahn as Empress Nympho makes Emperor Nero’s cringe-worthy wind-breaking funny by rolling her eyes.

I wish this film had been as good as I remembered. The high points were really high and enjoyable. Sadly, they didn’t make up for the low points.



Title: History of the World: Part 1 (1981)

Director:
Mel Brooks

Writer:
Mel Brooks

Cast:
Mel Brooks as Moses, Comicus, Torquemada, Jacques, King Louis XVI
Gregory Hines as Josephus
Dom DeLuise as Emperor Nero
Madeline Kahn as Empress Nympho
Harvey Korman as Count de Monet
Cloris Leachman as Madame Defarge
Ron Carey as Swiftus

Released: 1981
Length:  1 hour, 32 minutes

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

2 thoughts on “Review of “History of the World: Part 1” (1981)

  1. I have this movie courtesy of an 8-movie box set of Mel Brooks films. Like you, I like some bits, but aren’t really amused by others. Of the 1980s films in this set, I prefer his remake of “To Be or Not to Be.”

    1. I liked “To Be or Not To Be” also. Like this one, it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. Even with the parts that I don’t like, I laughed at the parts I enjoyed. Some things are just silly. The movies are entertaining.

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