Dir: Mel Brooks, 1981
By 1981, Mel Brooks had to change his game. The boys responsible for Airplane! had rewritten the rules of comedy and the legendary director had to adapt keep playing.
After the unspectacular results of his High Anxiety, it was clear that the public needed something different and two brothers with their friend supplied the prescription.
A sketch film based in various periods in history, The History Of The World Part 1 sees the start of Brooks’ self-referential humour with many gags from this point onward making their way to his later output.
As is common with Mel Brooks films, this is a hit and miss affair. Some parts work absolutely brilliantly, with genuine belly laughs and catchy show numbers. Others tend to either drag on a bit too long or just don’t sit well.
Filled with Brooks’s friends and regulars, he is, somehow, able to rope in a gang of high profile stars.
Starting with Sid Caesar as a caveman, Brooks hilariously shows us how music was invented, what passed for entertainment and the creation of art and its critics, all narrated earnestly by Orson Welles.
That segment is fantastic. It’s funny, lighthearted and imaginative. But the writer and director seems unable to keep that strength of ideas flowing.
Overly long, the following parody needed extensive work done on it as Brooks loses steam and relies on cheap jokes without any of the subtlety or genius that is intermittently prevalent.
Set during the Roman Empire, the director takes the lead which, to be honest, wasn’t a wise move. Brooks can manage and succeed as a co-star with a reduced screen presence but he is unable to carry a film, regardless of its length.
Assisting him is the late Gregory Hines, wonderfully out acting and outshining our lead star. Hines had a gift for comedy and, deservedly, gets the majority of the laughs despite Brooks seeming too interested in trying to make himself shine.
The sketch does redeem itself, though, and ends on a high with a recreation of the Last Supper and John Hurt looking superb as Jesus.
However, the real highlight of the film is the musical number, The Inquisition. Staged like a Busby Berkeley show, the skit has Brooks playing Torquemada, singing and dancing along to a jaunty and enormously catchy tune.
It’s here where the directors well I’d ideas is full. Synchronised swimming, backup singers a guest appearance by Jackie Mason and numerous funny moments place this, firmly, in the great scenes of cinema.
History Of The World Part 1 is like a see-saw; it goes up and then down, up and then down again.
In all fairness, The Inquisition sketch is a hard act to follow but there should have been a stronger finale than the one we have.
Set during the French revolution, Brooks, again, takes the lead but is more successful than his previous attempt. Aided by veteran stars Madeleine Kahn, Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman, alternative comedian and Mrs. Billy Connolly, Pamela Stephenson, is on hand to play the (mostly) straight role.
Resorting to uninspired jokes, such as the Count being called Count de Monet. You do have to smile at the line; “Don’t be saucy with me, Bearnaise!”, though.
Guest starring Spike Milligan, the sketch relies too much on toilet humour, notably a character called garcon de pisse (also played by Brooks), a servant who walks around with a bucket for people to urinate in.
Ending with a fake trailer for History Of The World Part 2, many ideas, later, found their way into Brooks’s other work; most prominently Jews In Space which became Spaceballs and the theme tune was reused as the Men In Tights song for Robin Hood: Men In Tights.
Despite the negativity, History Of The World Part 1 has an enjoyable charm and is a pleasant ride.
It isn’t one you could watch over and over again, but it’s good for a watch once in a while.