History of the World, Part I (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Making historical events funny.

In 1979 Mel Brooks was riding high after directing 4 hit movies and as he was walking across a studio parking lot a man who had worked on his crew from his previous films asked him what his next project would be. Brooks, feeling the pressure to come up with something big and splashy, told him it was going to be about the history of the world. This film ended up being the result of that conversation although it’s hard to call it a movie at all since it’s really just a collection of vignettes dealing with 4 specific periods: The Stone Age, The Roman Empire, The Spanish Inquisition, and The French Revolution.

At first glance it’s almost shocking that something this overreaching could’ve been produced to begin with. Had anyone but Brooks approached the studio heads with this concept it would’ve been slapped down immediately and the person told not to come back until they had an idea that was more focused, but because of Brooks’ prior success these same executives decided to swallow their better judgement. Not only did they unwisely give it the green light, but they threw more money at it than any of his previous film budgets combined; a whooping 11 million, which all pretty much goes to waste.

It’s not like there aren’t a few funny moments here and there: the musical number during the Spanish Inquisition, the Last Supper parody, and the Jews in space all elicit a few chuckles, but the rest of it’s lame and corny like skits from some mediocre variety show. An overarching character that would’v been in all of the scenes was needed like a time traveler from the modern day who goes back and interacts with all the people from the time periods, which could’ve been a riot.

A lot of familiar faces pop in-and-out, but many of them are onscreen for only a few seconds. A better idea would’ve been to whittle down the cast list to only a handful of performers and then having them play the different roles in each time period instead of just introducing more stars into the mix, which only helps to give the already bloated production a very cluttered feel.

Not only does Brooks cast himself into too many of the film’s major roles, which makes the thing seem like a vanity project, but he also relies too heavily on his aging Hollywood friends in supporting parts instead of introducing a young vibrant talent into the mix that could’ve helped attract new, younger fans. It also doesn’t help that Richard Pryor was set to play a big role in this, but then just two days before shooting he suffered a serious accident that burned his face and forced him to bow out leaving Gregory Hines to replace him who is not nearly as funny or dynamic.

I couldn’t help but connect this thing with Bill Cosby’s mega-flop Leonard Part 6.  Apparently many people on the production crew of that film felt the material was subpar, but too afraid to approach Cosby, who was such a big star at the time, to tell him. I can only presume there were also people on the crew of this film who felt the same way, but didn’t want to jeopardize their careers by speaking up, which is too bad. While this movie did ultimately make money it was mainly during its first week and enthusiasm due to bad word-of-mouth quickly dwindled afterwards. Brooks reputation never fully recovered, which is why no one even a big star should be above constructive criticism, which  might’ve helped modify this clunker into becoming something better.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: June 12, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Mel Brooks

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

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