Today I watched Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 1 (1981)
Whenever I review a comedy I feel it is worth bringing up the very subjective nature of humour, but in this case it is to highlight the great difficulty of making good populous humour. Sure there is plenty of comedy that squeaks by on a limited budget but that stuff rarely leaves much of a legacy, certainly not in the way Mel Brooks has. His style of humour is a very fast barrage of one liners, quipy wordplay, slapstick, and satirical anachronisms. This film is an anthology of historical shorts which parody a number of historical genres. After a brief montage of cave men making their wonderful discoveries of fire, art, and art criticism the film begins it’s first proper segment in the time of Rome that parodies sword and sandal epics. Next is my favorite sequence, a massive musical number that presents the Spanish inquisition as a Vegas style variety act, with singing, dancing, and synchronized swimming nuns! The final act takes place during the French Revolution.
The humour is, for the most part, quite lowbrow, lots of mugging about, sexual innuendo, stereotypes, and piss jokes, so many piss jokes. But at the same time there is some great work going on here below the surface. Most notably is the political satire the film offers, most obvious during the French revolution but present throughout. The film is highly critical of excessive wealth and power, both of the main antagonists are leaders of major world powers. Abuse of power is rampant throughout the movie and it is the running theme, but I would be remiss to not also mention the notable scene of gay marriage which predated any legal protection of such an institution by some time.
What drags this film down is it’s inability to maintain the longer segments, the film is obviously just about the laughs but because of that the pacing feels a little off. The Spanish inquisition makes for a big finale which is then followed by another long sequence in France which is much less climactic. At least Brooks’ consistent casting of himself makes the protagonists consistent in a fun way. But all that being said this film still moves along quite quickly and if the humour is your thing, it is delivered in ample helpings. There may be a handful of better, more well known Mel Brooks works, but this is no slouch, blending bawdy, low brow humour with some fun social satire and genre parody into a truly lovable comedy. 4/5