- Movie Rating -

History of the World, Part I (1981)

| June 12, 1981

I have been wracking my brain trying to figure out what went wrong with this movie.  Here is an epic brought to us by one of the greatest comic minds of our time and it fails on such a monumental level that one day it may stand with the likes of Cleopatra and Intolerance as one of cinema’s greatest blunders.  It is a comedy, by and large, but there are long stretches that pass without a single laugh, without a single smile and are mounted on comic vignettes that are, at best, silly and outdated and, at worst, embarrassing.

History of the World Part I is one of those spot gag movies, in which the story is mounted loosely on a particular idea that becomes a coat hook onto which the gags are hung.  I don’t have a problem with that.  It’s an old Vaudeville style that can still be relevant.  But Brooks seems to have lost touch with what relevant is in comedy.  His film takes us through a series of sketches and gags dealing with four distinct periods of human history: Prehistory, The Roman Empire, The French Revolution and the Spanish Inquisition.  But the gags established feel like leftovers from “Your Show of Shows,” rebranded with Brooks’ attempts to be randy and uncouth, stupid gags involving masturbating cavemen, erections, plumping salesman and a guy selling rats because he’s so poor that he has nothing else to sell.

It’s not funny in and of itself because there’s no clear line within any of these gags.  Brooks is willing to sacrifice narrative, story and/or common sense if he thinks a gag will work.  His batting average here falls under 200.  In the span of an hour, he issues about 30 visual and verbal gags and averages about 2 laughs.  Those are horrible results from the man who made The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

But the movie is not a total loss.  I can say that I laughed a lot more at this movie than I did at Caveman and ten times as much as I did at Cheech and Chong’s Nice Dreams (from which I laughed exactly once).  There are visual gags here that work.  I liked the guy in the French Revolution section who was so poor that he had nothing for sale (his sign indicates as much).  I liked Moses coming down out from Mount Sinai with the three tablets containing God’s 15 commandments before accidentally dropping one and quickly switching it to ten.  I liked the pure joy of the Spanish Inquisition musical number in which Brooks embraces his love of musical and turns the world period of human misery into a Busby Berkley-style musical number.

Maybe that was the key.  Maybe this should have been a musical.  Perhaps the template of human history was too big for this kind of target.  Perhaps the narrow confines of the western and the monster movie allowed for a kind of parody that the expanse of human existence does not.  Maybe a grand scale musical might have been the key here.  I would love to see that in History of the World Part II.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1981) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized