Pros: Some parts of the film are very funny
Cons: A lot of misses with the jokes
I remember being exposed to Mel Brooks' comedies from a very young age. The first Mel Brooks' film I had the pleasure of watching was Spaceballs and this was followed shortly by Life Stinks. Whilst I did enjoy both of these films, I was not inspired enough to watch more Mel Brooks' films until I was told to watch Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein and these two films are among the funniest films I have seen to date. I also enjoyed The Producers and having thoroughly enjoyed these comedies I decided to purchase a whole collection of Mel Brooks' films. Among these films that I purchased was The History of the World: Part 1.
Starting off with a brief sequence that is reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (ape men and background music included) and describes the beginning of man, the film is then split into 5 parts.
The first part of the film is The Stone Age. This section of the film shows how a group of cavemen from the Stone Age (led by comedian Sid Caesar) discover various things, among them are heterosexual and homosexual relationships, music, how to start fire and the introduction of both the artist and the critic.
The second part of the film is The Old Testament and this is a brief sequence showing how Moses (played by Mel Brooks) brought the Ten Commandments into the world.
The third and longest part of the film is The Roman Empire. Comicus (again, played by Brooks) is a poor stand-up philosopher who, with the help of his agent Swiftus (played by Ron Carey), has won the biggest gig in all of Rome: to perform in front of the Emperor (played by Dom DeLuise). When the gig falls apart, Comicus has to find a way out of the palace to avoid being killed by Caesar and his legion of guards.
The fourth part is The Spanish Inquisition: a quick, Broadway song-and-dance sequence with Torquemada (yet again played by Brooks) explaining through song what really happened during the Spanish Inquisition.
The final part of the film is The French Revolution. With poverty in France reaching an all-time low, a group of peasants, led by Madame DeFarge (played by Cloris Leachman), seek to overthrow King Louis XVI (played once again by Brooks) and end sovereignty in France. However, a greedy Count de Monet (played by Harvey Korman) seeks the king's riches and devises a scheme to "save" the king by swapping the king with an identical-looking pee bucket boy named Jacques (yes, you guessed it - played by Mel Brooks!). However Jacques soon realises what has happened and the clock is ticking before those peasants decide to overthrow King Louis' kingdom.
The concept of the film is a very interesting one. Mel Brooks, who wrote the screenplay for the film, seeks to explain history in a way that no one else has dared to explain history. Cavemen accidentally discovered music by dropping huge rocks on each other's feet. Moses dropped a third tablet which contained an additional five commandments to the original Ten Commandments. Back in the days of the Roman Empire, there were no such thing as stand-up comedians rather stand-up philisophers with Socrates being the big fish of them all. Moses was mugged when he parted the Red Sea (hence, why he raises his arms to split the sea). A poor French peasant has to sell nothing as there is nothing for him to sell and/or to make a living on. Ridiculous ideas such as these ones create the overall slapstick feel to the film.
Various historical characters are also ridiculed. The Roman Emperor is made to look like a vile pig that stuffs his face with food, farts and burps all day long. King Louis XVI is perverted and constantly makes sexual advances to all the women around him. King Louis XVI's character constantly breaks the fourth wall and tells the audience that "its good to be the king". Even Oedipus makes a brief appearance during the Roman Empire sequence. Some of the characters made up for the film include the Empress Nympho (played by Madeleine Kahn), the Roman Emperor's wife who is constantly surrounded by young, pretty adolescent girls. With the character Count de Monet, Brooks resorts to the well-known Hedley Lamarr/Hedy Lamarr joke from Blazing Saddles with characters constantly referring to Count de Monet as Count de Money. Even though this technique is one that has been used before, it is still one that works quite well and provides enough laughs. However, the jokes around the rolling of the letter R on the name of Jacques' love interest, Mademoiselle Rimbaud (played by Pamela Stephenson), does not work quite so well.
As is customary with Brooks' screenplays, puns prevail. Other than the pun jokes with the names above, there are some very funny play on words in the script such as the very comical banter between Comicus and Jesus when they first meet in the film. A lot of the puns used throughout the film have double meaning such as the Empress Nympho asking about whether she has any openings for a male servant and the reference to Count de Monet's servant Bernaise (played by Andreas Voutsinas) being saucy. One of the funniest of these risque jokes is one uttered by Empress Nympho to a man trying to seduce her: "...but the servant waits while the master baits". There are, however, a lot of puns that do not quite work so well such as when Caesar asks for a lyre and gets a liar instead and there are jokes about homosexuals which are not funny but come across as being in poor taste.
As for the gags in the film, there are some very funny gags such as the sequence of Roman soldiers literally crawling on the street, the Roman Emperor's literal treasure bath, the Spanish Inquisition dance sequence and the critic harbouring his analytical skills to the Stone Age artist during the Stone Age. Again, adult humour prevails through a number of the gags such as references to weed, the sexual potency of eunuchs and the reference to the nuns in the Spanish Inquisition sequence. However it did feel that at least one of the gags in the film is borrowed from Monty Python's Life of Brian. The scene I refer to is the dole line sequence at the beginning of the Roman Empire sequence and this sequence is certainly not as funny as the crucifixion sequence from Life of Brian which it seeks to emulate. Also, quite a few of the gags, particularly during the final sequence of the film, really did not tickle my funny bone. The humour prevalent in Brooks' script seeks to be offensive but the problem is the humour has to be funny and offensive at the same time. The film's humour hits the offensive mark on most occasions but misses the funny mark more often than it should.
The production design of the film is decent for the film with the set for each sequence of the film suiting the film's needs. The tackiness of the costumes and the sets add more to the generally silly feel of the film. The film's musical score also suits the film being loud and extravagant when it has to be yet at the same time, maintaining a rather playful feel throughout.
What the film delivers in its production design, it does not quite deliver in acting. Mel Brooks, who plays a multitude of characters in the film, is....Mel Brooks. Brooks does not act but rather talks. Even though a lot of the jokes that come out of his mouth are funny, I personally find it better when Brooks stays behind the camera rather than acting in his films. Unfortunately there is a lot of wasted talent in the film. Even though Madeleine Kahn gets to deliver some of the funniest lines in this film, her portrayal as Empress Nympho got on my nerves. The screechy voice she uses is annoying. Other regulars from Brooks' films like Dom DeLuise, who plays the Roman Emperor, and Cloris Leachman, who plays DeFarge during the French Revolution, are wasted. Pamela Stephenson and Mary-Margaret Humes appear as love interests for Brooks' characters during the French Revolution and Roman Empire sequences and both are forgettable despite their looks. However there are a few standout performances. Harvey Korman does well as Count de Monet. He plays the straight man perfectly in the film and, even though it mimicks his performance as Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles, he is still funny. Gregory Hines appears as an Ethiopian slave named Josephus in the Roman Empire sequence and he is also entertaining throughout the film. He gets to show off some tap dancing in the film but I wish he could have shown it off a bit more. Orson Welles acts as a narrator for the film and the serious tone of his booming voice perfectly offsets the madness that eventuates during the film. There are numerous cameos in the film from various actors such as John Hurt as Jesus, Hugh Hefner as an entrepeneur in Rome, Barry Levinson as a column salesman and David Lee Roth as a monk in the Spanish Inquisition dancing sequence.
Brooks also directs the film and even though the film is only 88 minutes long, I felt that there were issues with pacing throughout the film. The shorter sequences are decently paced with enough gags scattered throughout these sequences to keep the scenes moving. The longer sequences, however, feel like they drag on much longer than they should. To me, there were not enough gags that allowed these sequences to move at a decent pace and when there are no gags or jokes in some of these sequences, these sequences end up feeling quite dead. Brooks does, however, maintain the overall slapstick feel throughout the film.
Personally I was largely disappointed by the film and its certainly not as funny as other Mel Brooks' films I have seen. I guess, however, that a lot of Brooks films I have watched in the past were his better films. Whilst History of the World: Part 1 is not good, I would not say it is a bad film either. So I guess on that basis I would just recommend the film. But be prepared not to laugh like you did in Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles or even Spaceballs. Also there is no sequel to this film for those of you that are interested.
Thanks for reading the review.