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.