The Set of 400: #135 – My Favorite Rolling Papyrus

Today! Because I asked ’em nicely! I said pretty please! They wouldn’t convert, so I’ll bang on their knees!

History of the World: Part I (1981)

Directed by Mel Brooks (x4)

Starring Mel Brooks (x4), Gregory Hines, Madeline Kahn (x5), Dom DeLuise (x5), Sid Caesar (x2), Harvey Korman (x2), John Hurt (x3), Cloris Leachman (x4), Ron Carey (x3), Pamela Stephenson, Mary-Margaret Humes, Rudy De Luca (x3), Orson Welles, Spike Milligan (x2), Shecky Greene, Bea Arthur, Charlie Callas (x2), Paul Mazursky, Jack Riley (x3), Art Metrano (x2), Henny Youngman, Jackie Mason (x3), Fritz Feld (x2), Barry Levinson (x3), John Hillerman

Almost certainly the movie I understood the least when I saw it dozens of times as a child, History of the World: Part I isn’t exactly the most beloved of Mel Brooks movies, is it? I mean, yeah, it’s all over the place – quite literally, what with scenes in the French Revolution, Prehistoric Times, first century Rome, and the Spanish Inquisition, never mind Hitler on Ice and Jews in Space. And while a lot of it is just a straight stream of gags, not bothering to try and hold together into anything meaningful, it’s still a really entertaining movie, with a load of great comedians.

But it does have a ton of jokes and puns that kids will not understand. Hell, they aren’t supposed to! This is an R-rated movie! “Don’t get saucy with me, Bearnaise!” “But the servant waits while the master baits.” “Do I have any openings that this man might fit?” Jeez! And really, there’s a lot more inappropriate sex gags littered throughout. And yet, I’ve seen this movie a hundred times, easily. What is the appeal here for kids?? I’ve asked this before, but what do you suppose gets children to latch on to movies and watch them endlessly? My guess is that my parents interspersed these movies that they liked in with the cartoons and whatnot, and we just took them all as films for us, and kept watching them. I’m not even sure if we watched a TV edit of this movie, or the full film. Cripes!

And while I have a hard time objectively looking at this film – it being such a staple in my entire life – I can recognize it’s a bit uneven. The Prehistoric Man bits particularly don’t work, but you’ve still got a pretty game Sid Caesar cavorting around, which is always fun. No, the highlights, clearly, are the grand musical Inquisition – easily the most famous part of the film – and the French Revolution, with Mel doing double duty as the King and his eventual double in case of trouble. In this section you get appearances from greats like Harvey Korman, Spike Milligan, and Cloris Leachman, plus it kinda tries to loop back to the rest of the film, in a wonderfully absurd finale. This isn’t to take away from the other major section of the movie – the Roman Empire – but that one sort of dissolves into sex and gay jokes that feel, oh, pretty grotesquely dated.

Rotten Tomatoes gives it a pretty okay 62%, but I remember critics savaging this movie, in the various movie guides and such we had when I was growing up. I wish I still had a copy of a Leonard Maltin guide, but I want to say he might’ve given it one star? Or a turkey? What was Maltin’s zero score, does anyone remember? Ebert, I recall, also hated it. But maybe people are coming around now? Do we have Mel Brooks rose colored glasses as the years go by? Hell, is The Twelve Chairs actually watchable? I think I’ve only seen it once and did not care for it. Best get it on the To-(Re)Watch list!

Mel joins Woody, Hitch, PTA, and Richard Donner as Four-Timer Directors, while also joining the Four-Timer Actors, for his previous films #157 High Anxiety, #395 Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and #198 Spaceballs. Because of his repeated use of some folks, we’ve got a ton of Two-, Three-, and Fours- today, including greats Madeline Kahn (High Anxiety, also #154 Clue, #357 JFK, and #273 The Cheap Detective) and Dom DeLuise (Spaceballs and Robin Hood, also Cheap Detective and #282 Johnny Dangerously) joining the Fives, and Cloris Leachman (High Anxiety, also #194 Bad Santa and #283 Beerfest) to the Fours.

Coming tomorrow! You motor-boatin’ son of a bitch. You old sailor, you!

2 Comments

Filed under Movies

2 responses to “The Set of 400: #135 – My Favorite Rolling Papyrus

  1. shortgirlnation

    “We all sound like Maurice Chevalier! Hnn hnn hnn!” – for kids!

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