Directed by Mel Brooks
Written by Mel Brooks
Starring Mel Brooks, Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Gregory Hines, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Ron Carey, Pamela Stephenson, Sid Caesar and Mary-Margaret Humes. Narrated by Orson Welles
Runtime 92 minutes
Mel Brooks was a genius. The key word there is was. The past tense is not a result of his physical death, but that of his creative death starting in 1981 with History of the World, Part I. After wooing the world with the brilliance of The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (with the little known The Twelve Chairs coming between The Producers and Blazing Saddles), he made a couple of good attempts at spoofs (Silent Movie and High Anxiety) before ditching intelligent satire/spoof and going for easy jokes and sloppy filmmaking from History of the World, Part I through his final film as a director (so far) Dracula, Dead and Loving It in 1995. While signs started sprouting up in Silent Movie and High Anxiety that Brooks wasn’t concerned with quality filmmaking anymore, History of the World, Part I solidified it.
The film is a pastiche of sequences, some short and some unmercifully long, that ‘document’ the history of the world starting with the dawn of man (poking fun at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey). There is a quick jump to the Old Testament before languishing in The Roman Empire for the bulk of the film. Eventually passing from there to The Spanish Inquisition, Brooks finally makes a good impression by turning the atrocities of the Inquisition into a Busby Berkley-style musical number lightly jabbing at the Spanish Catholic Church torturing Jews into becoming Christians or die. With the bright spot over, he passes to the French Revolution (where we get the oft-quoted line “It’s good to be the king”) where he finishes out the film spoofing French Revolution literature like The Man in the Iron Mask and A Tale of Two Cities.
The myriad of top-quality names that show up in the film should come as no surprise, as Brooks was friends with many of them and the script probably read well. While Brooks plays a total of five characters throughout the film, he also enlists greats such as Dom DeLuise, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn (all of whom were in previous, better Brooks films) and Gregory Hines. He even got Orson Welles to narrate, but he was probably trying to get money for one of his many unfinished/unfunded projects. Let’s not forget that one of his final screen credits was as the voice of a living planet in The Transformers: The Movie. Each and every one of them used their considerable talents to absolutely no avail in this film. DeLuise hammed it up as Emperor Nero and Leachman does the same spoofing Madame Defarge from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and neither of them are funny because they are playing their characters too broadly. None of their jokes connect, so they try physical humor (DeLuise falling off his couch/throne, Leachman puncturing a breast with a knitting needle) and that doesn’t work either. The only one who manages to get any laughs at all is Kahn because, well, she’s Madeline Kahn (though her character closely resembles her Lilly von Schtupp from Blazing Saddles).
That’s not to say it’s all bad. There are some funny parts, as the aforementioned Spanish Inquisition sequence. Here, Brooks plays Torquemada, the infamous monk who was High Inquisitor during the height of the Inquisition’s brutal methods of torturing Jews in order to make them convert to Christianity. That doesn’t sound inherently funny, but Books makes it into an incredibly entertaining musical number with a very catchy tune. This is the kind of stuff Brooks does best, taking something horrible and making it funny (remember the play and song Springtime for Hitler from The Producers?) to kind of take the power of it away. More time in this setting may have benefitted the film, working in some talking scenes with the musical number, but alas it was not to be. Another funny bit is Harvey Korman’s character Count de Monet always having to correct people when they call him Count de Money. The title is also a joke, but a much more obscure one, poking fun at Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World, Volume 1. It’s a joke because Raleigh was killed before he could write any more volumes.
Brooks took sole writing credit for this film, something he hadn’t done since 1970’s The Twelve Chairs and wouldn’t do again for the four films he directed after this. His screenplay would likely have benefited from some collaboration, as on its own its frightfully uneven. That’s to be expected with a sketch film (even Monty Python never managed to make a smooth sketch film), but all the pieces are out of balance. Some sequences last only a few minutes while the Roman Empire section takes up 49 of the 92-minute runtime and the French Revolution taking up about 20. The only thing that makes sense when looking at those numbers is that Brooks set out to spoof the old ‘sword and sandal’ epics and couldn’t come up with something feature length, so he started writing shorter bits around it. The same theory applies to the French Revolution sequence. Regardless of impetus, Brooks falls very short in his writing, plugging in obvious jokes, flat one-liners and some borderline racist elements that work against what he did in Blazing Saddles, where he used racism in the film to point out how stupid and backwards racists are. Here, he makes Gregory Hines do a soft-shoe (which isn’t so bad in and of itself, since Hines was a remarkable tap-dancer) and save the day by recognizing marijuana and using it against the Romans in pursuit. It’s just enough to get a cringe without getting a laugh.
Brooks also drops the ball as director. Normally known for getting some great performances out of his actors, here it just seems like he couldn’t be bothered. So much of the film is littered with flat line reads that it feels like all he wanted was the jokes. His timing is off too; his editing never seems to find a pattern or rhythm making the film feel herkey-jerky. Even his sound editing is terrible, inserting lines of dialogue in post-production that are either unnecessary or not funny while a character is off-screen or has their back turned so syncing isn’t an issue, though that is off at times too.
It’s a sad thing when you watch a talented filmmaker put out a film that looks like they just didn’t care about what they were doing. Up until this point, Brooks at least seemed to have an interest and a passion for his projects and reveled in the goofiness he put on screen. History of the World, Part I is lazy and half-hearted at best and a mark of incompetence at worst. It’s nothing more than a hodge-podge of bad jokes, sloppy filmmaking and disengaged actors that seem like they’re doing a favor for a friend instead of actually liking the material. This film may have seemed like a good idea but by the time it was finished, it marked the beginning of a steep decline for Brooks that he never recovered from. Knowing that Brooks had/has the capacity for great things, History of the World, Part I is just depressing.