|History of the World, Part I|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Mel Brooks|
|Produced by||Mel Brooks|
|Written by||Mel Brooks|
|Narrated by||Orson Welles|
|Music by||John Morris|
|Edited by||John C. Howard|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Box office||$31.7 million|
History of the World, Part I is a 1981 American sketch comedy film written, produced, and directed by Mel Brooks. Brooks also stars in the film, playing five roles: Moses, Comicus the stand-up philosopher, Tomás de Torquemada, King Louis XVI, and Jacques, le garçon de pisse. The large ensemble cast also features Sid Caesar, Shecky Greene, Gregory Hines (in his film debut), Charlie Callas; and Brooks regulars Ron Carey, Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Andreas Voutsinas, and Spike Milligan.
The film also has cameo appearances by Royce D. Applegate, Beatrice Arthur, Hugh Hefner, John Hurt, Phil Leeds, Barry Levinson, Jackie Mason, Paul Mazursky, Andrew Sachs and Henny Youngman, among others. Orson Welles narrates each story.
The film, is a parody of the historical spectacular film genre anthology, including the sword and sandal epic and the period costume drama subgenres. The four main segments consist of stories set during the Stone Age, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, and the French Revolution. Other intermediate skits include reenactments of the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Last Supper.
Cavemen (including Sid Caesar) depict the invention of fire, the first artist (which in turn gives rise to the first critic), the first marriages (homosapien and then homosexual), early weapons (particularly a spear), and early funerals. Also depicted are early attempts at comedy and music, by smashing each other's feet with rocks and thus creating an orchestra of screams (until performing Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" at the end).
Moses (Mel Brooks) is shown coming down from Mount Sinai carrying three stone tablets after receiving the Law from God (the voice of an uncredited Carl Reiner). When announcing the giving of the reception of the law to the people, Moses proclaims, "The Lord Jehovah has given unto you these fifteen..." (whereupon he drops one of the tablets, which promptly shatters) "Oy... ten! TEN Commandments! For all to obey!"
Comicus (Brooks again), a stand-up philosopher, is notified by his agent Swiftus (Ron Carey) that he has landed a gig at Caesar's palace. En route to the palace Comicus meets and falls in love with a Vestal Virgin named Miriam (Mary-Margaret Humes) and befriends an Ethiopian slave named Josephus (Gregory Hines). Josephus' life is spared when he is conscripted into the service of the Empress Nympho (Madeline Kahn).
At the Palace, Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise) gorges on food, ogles pretty maidens and waits to be entertained. Comicus forgets his audience and begins to crack insulting one-liners about the emperor's abundant body contours and corrupt ways. Josephus absentmindedly pours a jug of wine into Nero's lap and is ordered to fight Comicus to the death in a gladiatorial manner. They fight their way out of the palace, assisted in their escape by Miriam, Empress Nympho and a horse named Miracle.
After Miriam helps Comicus, Josephus and Swiftus briefly find refuge in Empress Nympho's home, Josephus is "outed" among a row of eunuchs after "reacting" to a seductive dancer's performance, and the group is chased by Roman soldiers led by Marcus Vindictus (Shecky Greene). As the soldiers gain on the group's cart (pulled by Miracle), Josephus instructs them to pull over in a field and requests much papyrus. He takes "Roman Red" marijuana which is growing alongside the road and rolls it into the papyrus, forming a device he calls Mighty Joint, sets fire to it and mounts it to the back of their chariot, trailing smoke into the chasing army.
The resulting smoke confuses and incapacitates the trailing Roman army. The escaping group then sets sail from the port to Judea. While waiting tables at a restaurant, Comicus blunders into a private room where the Last Supper is taking place, as Jesus is telling the apostles "One of you has betrayed me tonight". The Apostles are in fear. Comicus says "JUDAS." Judas, startled, almost jumps out of his seat as Comicus replies "Do you want some mulled wine?", and interrupts Jesus (John Hurt) repeatedly (using his name as an expression for dismay or concern, right in front of him). Eventually, Leonardo da Vinci (Art Metrano) arrives to paint the group's portrait. Dissatisfied that he can only see the backs of half of their heads, he has them move to one side of the table and paints them with Comicus behind Jesus, holding a silver plate which doubles as a halo.
The Spanish Inquisition segment is performed in the style of a grandiose Busby Berkeley production. The segment is one long song-and-dance number featuring Brooks as the infamous Torquemada. The segment opens with a herald introducing Torquemada and making a play on his name, noting that despite the pleas for mercy from the condemned, that you "can't Torquemada anything" (talk him outta anything). Several instances of "comical" torture are shown including a spinning iron maiden and "water torture" re-imagined as an Esther Williams-style aquatic ballet with nuns. Jackie Mason and Ronny Graham have cameos in this scene as Jewish torture victims.
In her tavern Madame Defarge (Cloris Leachman) incites a mob to plot the French Revolution. Meanwhile, King Louis of France (Brooks again) is warned by his advisors, Count de Monet (played by Harvey Korman and mistakenly called "Count da Money" by the king and others) and his associate Béarnaise (Andreas Voutsinas), that the peasants do not think he likes them -- a suspicion reinforced by the king's use of peasants as clay pigeons in a murderous (and humorous) game of skeet. A beautiful woman, Mademoiselle Rimbaud (Pamela Stephenson), asks King Louis to free her father, who has been imprisoned in the Bastille for 10 years because he said "the poor ain't so bad." He agrees to the pardon under the condition that she have sex with him that night, while threatening that should she refuse, her father will die. He then gives her 10 seconds to decide between "hump or death" and at the last second she agrees to "hump".
De Monet manages to convince the king that the revolution is building and he needs to go into hiding, so they will need a stand-in to pretend to be him. Thus Jacques (also Brooks), the garçon de pisse (a.k.a. "piss-boy"), is chosen to impersonate the real king. Later that night, Mlle Rimbaud, unaware of the subterfuge, arrives and offers herself to the piss-boy who is dressed as the king. As she invites him to take her virginity, he pardons her father without requiring the sexual favors. After Mlle Rimbaud and her senile father (Spike Milligan) return from the prison, the peasants burst into the room and capture the piss-boy "king" and Mlle Rimbaud. They are taken to the guillotine for the crimes committed by the crown. When asked if he would like a blindfold or any last words, Jacques declines. However, when they test the guillotine, Jacques make a final request for Novocain. The executioner declares "there is no such thing known to medical science", to which Jacques replies "I'll wait". Just as Jacques is about to be beheaded, Rimbaud muses that "only a miracle can save him now", and Josephus arrives in a cart pulled by Miracle, the horse from the film's Roman Empire segment. They all escape Paris, riding away in the cart. The last shot is of the party approaching a mountain carved with the words "THE END."
The end of the film presents a mock teaser trailer for History of the World, Part II, narrated by Brooks, which promises to include Hitler on Ice, a Viking funeral, and "Jews in Space", a parody of Star Wars and The Muppet Show.
Despite the preview, no sequel has been released or was ever planned, and the "Part I" of the film's title is merely a historical joke (The History of the World, Volume 1 was written by Sir Walter Raleigh while prisoner in the Tower of London; he had only managed to complete the first volume before being beheaded).
Brooks recalled that the inspiration for the film came about from an incident in 1979:
"I was walking across the parking lot at 20th-Century Fox on my way to my office when one of the grips who had worked on High Anxiety shouted to me from the back of a moving truck. 'Hey Mel, what's next? Planning a big one?'
From out of the blue the biggest title I could think of popped into my mind: 'Yes, the biggest movie ever made. It's called 'History of the World.' Someone else on the truck yelled: 'How can you cover the whole world in one movie?'
'You're right,' I shouted. 'Maybe I'll call it 'History of the World -- Part I.'"
Richard Pryor was to play the role of Josephus, but two days before he was to shoot his part he was hospitalized with serious burns in a much-publicized incident. Brooks was about to write the part out when Madeline Kahn suggested Gregory Hines. Comicus' arrival at Caesar's palace was filmed at the Caesars Palace hotel in Las Vegas.
One scene was removed from the final cut of the film that referred to the Three Mile Island accident. "I had a father and a mother," Brooks said, "made up to look like half a dog and half a cat as a result of a nuclear meltdown. But the audience was seriously chilled and didn't laugh, so I left it out."
The film currently holds an approval rating of 58% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 31 reviews. The film was nominated for Worst Picture at the 1981 Stinkers Bad Movie Awards but lost to Tarzan, the Ape Man. The revised ballot, released in 2007, removed its Worst Picture nomination and instead gave it nominations for Most Painfully Unfunny Comedy (for which it won) and Worst Song for "The Inquisition" (lost to the song "Baby Talk" from Paternity).
Roger Ebert gave the film two stars out of four and described it as "a rambling, undisciplined, sometimes embarrassing failure from one of the most gifted comic filmmakers around. What went wrong? Brooks never seems to have a clear idea of the rationale of his movie, so there's no confident narrative impetus to carry it along."Gene Siskel, however, gave it three stars out of four and said that even though the film "borrows heavily from [Brooks's ] previous work," it "contains a bunch of solid laughs."Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote, "There are loads of familiarly funny gags in the film ... But the movie is so sour that its humor is often undermined, because so many of the jokes are either mean-spirited or scatological, or both."Pauline Kael of The New Yorker was positive and wrote, "It's an all-out assault on taste and taboo, and it made me laugh a lot."Variety called it "a disappointingly uneven farce which serves up a fair share of hearty laughs during its first half, but sputters out long before the close."Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Presumably everyone was so busy doing shtick and reacting off each other that there was no one left to mind the story and to say, 'Not funny.' Not only not funny, but a big, overblown, crashing bore, fellas." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called it "an entertaining mishmash of skits which finds Mel Brooks back in lively form, for better and for worse ... To a considerable extent the funny stuff works in a laughing-in-spite-of-yourself way."Leonard Maltin's film guide gave the movie one-and-a-half out of a possible four stars and stated that the gags "range from hilarious to hideous. After a while there's no more momentum, and it all just lies there, despite the efforts of a large comic cast."
Jonathan Rosenbaum has always championed the film as a guilty pleasure, writing that "the wonderful stuff is so funny that it makes most of the awful stuff tolerable...Keep in mind that Brooks is more verbal than visual in orientation and you'll be amply rewarded."
The film opened in 484 theatres the same weekend as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Clash of the Titans and finished fourth for the weekend with a gross of $4.8 million, behind Raiders, Clash and Cheech and Chong's Nice Dreams. With a per-screen average of $10,000, it was Brooks' highest opening on a per-screen basis. Despite the strong start, poor word of mouth impacted its box office. Although it grossed $31.7 million, it was considered a commercial disappointment because the film had been "tracking" well and Brooks' previous films had been so successful.
History of the World, Part I was released on DVD. According to the MPAA, it was rated "R" for "crude sexual humor, language, comic violence, sex and nudity, and drug use". In May 2010, it was released on blu-ray.
DIRECTOR TRADEMARK (Mel Brooks): (sequel): At the end of the movie, a trailer is shown for "History of the World: Part II". There never has been a movie called this. The "Part I" in this movie's title is a joke.