Mel Brooks reaches into the grab-bag for History of the World, Part I, an uneven but funny anthology comedy that features a slew of comic talent and a range of historical eras. The 1981 motion picture was written, produced and directed by Brooks, but at times it feels like it’s stretched too thin with a sketch or two too many wedged into its meagre frame.
Brooks was always the guy to go outrageous while many of his contemporaries headed into other territory. His style is vaudevillian here, with broad sketches built on one-liners and rude jokes. It makes sense in that regard and History of the World, Part I is kind of an eager throwback to days of burlesque and bawdy humour. In that respect, it’s a treat. As a film, it’s a little more difficult to appraise.
The picture opens on some cavemen depicting a few firsts in human history, including the first marriage and the first homosexual marriage. Sid Caesar is one of the cavemen, which is fantastic. History moves on to the Old Testament, where Brooks stars as Moses receiving the 15 Commandments. Brooks is again present in the Roman Empire, this time as Comicus the stand-up philosopher.
Most of the film concerns the Roman Empire, which includes Mary-Margaret Humes as a Vestal Virgin and the great Madeline Kahn as Empress Nympho. Gregory Hines is a slave named Josephus and the group tries to escape Nero (Dom DeLuise). There’s a stop-by in the Spanish Inquisition, too, and the movie winds up in the French Revolution with Brooks as a horny king and a piss-boy. Oui oui.
The opening sequence with the cavemen packs some pretty good stuff, including the appearance of the first art critic and the discovery of music. Brooks as Moses presents some good potential, but the biblical stuff doesn’t seem to reach the heights it could have until the appearance of John Hurt as Jesus in the Last Supper. Brooks as a waiter is hilarious.
The Roman Empire adventure comprises the vast majority of History of the World, Part I and it also features the most cohesive “plot.” It feels like it could’ve been its own movie at times, but there’s not enough material to swerve into longer minutes. Kahn is a treat as always. She assesses a line of soldiers for the orgy in tuneful fashion, which is really the only way to do it.
The Spanish Inquisition runs as a big musical number, complete with creative torture techniques and a nice play on the name Torquemada. Brooks plays the first Grand Inquisitor, by the way, while Jackie Mason shows up as one of the torture victims. And there’s a water ballet, which makes perfect sense.
The French Revolution sequence is a cleavage-filled romp of decadence, with Harvey Korman stealing the show as Count de Monet (or Count de Money) and Pamela Stephenson featured as Mademoiselle Rimbaud. Brooks’ piss-boy makes for some good jokes, especially when he moves the bucket. Also, Cloris Leachman tries to incite a riot and punctures a tit. So there’s that.
History of the World, Part I is one of those movies that can be quoted and described until heads roll, but actually watching it seems somehow less amusing. There are plenty of chuckles, but this isn’t among Brooks’ best efforts. It lacks the flow and continuity to really commit to reforming history in his image.
That said, there’s something to be said for its late-night dirty movie quality. It’s still the sort of thing that works in doses, like it’s supposed to be caught somewhere in the middle when everyone else is asleep and you’re trying to convalesce from seeing your in-laws at a catastrophic Sunday dinner that somehow ended with the dog wearing the lampshade and your father-in-law yelling at you again. Just me?
With a catalogue of classic comic talents and an admirably frenetic spirit that breaks all the rules, Brooks’ History of the World, Part I is a worthy trip through time. It’s kind of potholed and a lot of the jokes fall flat, but those are the breaks. After all, there’s a water ballet. And a piss-boy. And a horse named Miracle. And boobs. And Shecky Greene. And…