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History of the World: Part 1

***
1981

‘…there’s enough smart and occasionally profound moments to make this worth a revival…’

Of course, there was no History of the World Part 2, and that’s probably for the best, although the trailers for the forthcoming attractions, including Jews in Space, offer some of the best moments in Mel Brooks’ scattershot comedy. The subject is history, from cavemen (a 2001 parody) to the bible (Moses and the Last Supper), then a Roman romp and the Spanish Inquisition, leading up to a lengthy skit about the French Revolution which is probably the best remembered sequence.

I’d largely forgotten about this film until last week, when US political show Morning Joe featured a clip as part of a diatribe about political accountability; it surprised me that Mike and Joe seems so assured in their knowledge of the film and confident that we’d recognise it. I’d be interested in seeing a live-stream Mika and Joe watching the whole of Mel Brooks’ film, since there a number of decidedly non-PC gags that would make their reaction worth a look given their unexpectedly firm recommendation. Presumably they love to kick back and enjoy the comic stylings of Spike Milligan and Dom DeLuise, both of whom gets time to launch a few riffs here.

‘Even that little f*g gets it!’ squeals Mel as a stand-up talking up his routine to a crowd; a trip to the gladiatorial arena beckons if he doesn’t get any laughs. As a rule of thumb, pretty much anything goes for a laugh here, from a narration by Orson Welles, John Hurt as Jesus, a Hugh Hefner cameo, and lashings of old-school variety comedy, with Brooks as a waiter at the Last Supper feeling the most like a polished sketch-show routine. And yet some of the gags land, there’s good support from Madeline Kahn and Gregory Hines, and the ‘It’s good to be king’ catchphrase has become a popular culture staple.

Lagging somewhat behind Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and the underrated High Anxiety, History of the World Part 1 is a showcase of Brooks, by Brooks, and probably works best for indulgent fans of the comic. Each segment is too long, and more discipline was required in the edit. But as comedies go, there’s enough smart and occasionally profound moments to make this worth a revival. And the regular interventions of Miracle the wonder horse should be a lesson to us all; better times are always hopefully just around the corner, and that’s what a comedy, by nature, should suggest.

 

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  1. Outside of Space Balls and Blazing Saddles, I’m always hesitant to watch a Brooks’ film. Not because of the non-pc, but because he’s just so crude, all the time. I watched Men in Tights with Mrs B and by the end I was just shaking my head wondering how that film got the following it did.

    The whole Last Supper scene rules this one out for me though.

    • I hear you! And yes, that particular scene will rule out a large lump of the potential audience. This is a time capsule of gags before PC, and while there are great moments, there are also plenty of bits that create eye-rolls. Might have a second look at Men in Tights, but when the misses outweigh the hits, it’s time to stop…

  2. Well…you know me and comedies, and to be honest except for Spaceballs, I haven’t been a huge Mel Brooks fan, so yeah I’m sorry to say that this one is a skip for me. Unless…it features ironing in some way. Great post as always though! 😊😊

  3. I remember catching this when it came out and watched it again a few years ago. Lots of energy. Of course it runs all over political correctness, which wasn’t a thing at the time. Brooks just thought gays and blacks were funny. But it’s so crude and shameless it defies you to be offended. And a lot of the bits have stuck in my head for forty years now, which is something.

    • I’ve rarely seen a film with such highs and lows; some of the gay and race jokes really stick in the craw. But over the piece, I can’t help feeling his heart was in the right place…

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