In a recent episode of Down & Out Reviews, we attempted to talk about The Menu (2022). As often happens in our podcasts, if I may borrow the baseball parlance, we start on our topic and end up “spraying to all fields.” If you are not a fan of the diamond, this means we talked about a bunch of different films. When Isaac gets an idea for a movie for us to talk about, I typically just give him his way. His next idea is for History of the World, Part I (1981). I suppose this is topical because the sequel is finally upon us.
When I see a title like History of the World, Part I, my first thought is: yeah, right. Luckily, this is a comedy, so none of it is meant to be taken seriously, as in a literal recounting of the entire planet’s past. Instead, it is presented episodically. The first vignette, ironically enough, comes from pre-historic times. There is a subtle spoof on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with the music and the display of human forerunners. Screen text proclaims them to be our forefathers while they do all manner of grotesque things. We move a little further along to when our ancestors lived in caves. The point here is to show how humans developed things like art, fire, and weapons. The fire bit is probably the funniest, showing the chief (Sid Caesar) attempting to get a spark by banging together two rocks. Meanwhile, somebody approaches with a lit torch. The chief attempts to light the rock on fire, but when it does not set ablaze the kindling, he passes the torch back in failure. Do you see why describing comedy is cumbersome? Anyway, there is a huge time jump from here to Ancient Rome. As we move through the bustling city streets, we come to a group of people standing in line outside of the “VNEMPLOYMENT INSVRANCE” office. One of those hoping to collect money during a lull in work is the “stand-up philosopher” Comicus (Mel Brooks). To his annoyance, before the coins could be placed in his hand, his agent Swiftus (Ron Carey) comes up to him and tells Comicus that he has a gig, appearing in Caesar’s Palace. Get it? On the way, he meets Miriam (Mary-Margaret Humes), a Vestal Virgin (a history thing), and they take a liking to each other. Together, they notice Josephus (Gregory Hines), a person about to be sold into slavery. Though he is spared that fate when the auction ends, he is told that he is to die in the arena with the rest of the Christians. His life is spared when Miriam implores Empress Nympho (Madeline Kahn) to take him on as a servant. She does so, and he is on hand for Comicus’ performance before Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise). Things are going swimmingly before two major errors are committed. First, Comicus makes a fat joke that Nero takes as being directed at him, and secondly, Josephus spills wine on the emperor. A death sentence is pronounced on them, but they are able to escape with the help of Miriam and Swiftus. They all flee to Jerusalem where Comicus takes up a job as a waiter and is on hand to be painted into Leonardo da Vinci’s (Art Metrano) “Last Supper.” Time jumps again to the Spanish Inquisition, but I will talk about that in the next paragraph. The last stop is the French Revolution. What do we know about this historical event? This might sound rhetorical because I am essentially talking to myself in these reviews, yet I say it to point the way to the kinds of stereotypes on which these movies rely. Anyway, if there is any kind of collective presumption about this event, it is that there were really poor people and really rich people. The rich live at King Louis XVI’s (Mel Brooks) palace at Versailles. King Louis XVI is a horny buffoon who gets away with whatever he wants because he, as he puts it a couple of times, “it’s good to be the king.” Still, he is approached one day by Count de Monet (Harvey Korman) with troubling news. By the way, he is insistent on it being pronounced “mo-NAY,” but everyone keeps saying “money.” In any case, he brings word of a potential revolution building among his people, which is shocking to King Louis XVI despite him using humans instead of clay pigeons for skeet shooting. Count de Monet is at least smart enough to suggest that they take measures to avoid the king falling into the hands of the mob. Count de Monet’s idea is to find a look alike to give them if and when they come to the palace, and his eyes land on Jacques (Mel Brooks), the piss bucket holder. He is a dead ringer for the king, and is thus chosen to take the sovereign’s place. He is in costume just in time for Mademoiselle Rimbaud (Pamela Stephenson) to present herself in the king’s chambers to be ravaged by him. This is part of an awful agreement she had made with the real King Louis XVI in exchange for her father (Spike Milligan) to be freed from the Bastille. The pretender manages to calm her down and issues a pardon. She returns to the palace just in time for the revolution to kick down the door and capture the fake Louis XVI. He is about to be executed by guillotine when Josephus magically appears from Roman times and rescues Jacques and the Rimbauds. They then ride off into the literal end of the movie.
I had seen History of the World, Part I a long time ago, and I had completely forgotten about the Spanish Inquisition. It is one of the more infamous moments in Church History. This makes it an easy target for people like Mel Brooks who is indifferent to Christianity, though that may be a charitable way of describing it. In the last paragraph I said I would describe this sequence more fully here, though there is not much more to say. It is presented as a song and dance number, with the main inquisitor Torquemada (Mel Brooks) gleefully singing about the awful things he and his fellow monks are doing to Jews and Muslims. Historically speaking, there is no getting around the tragedies that did occur. At the same time, it is not fair to leave the story at that one statement. Detractors of the Church bring up these occurrences in order to undermine Church teaching. To be clear, there is nothing compatible with Christianity and torture. In the fifteenth century when the Spanish Inquisition began to root out people who converted to Catholicism under false pretenses, there was not a clear picture of what was going on from the Pope’s point of view. This is underscored by the fact that the Papal position changed a few times, waffling between approval and denial. However, the Church as a whole felt, it should be noted, that it started not at the Church Universal’s behest, but at the behest of the king of Spain. Finally, the Church has apologized for the crimes that did occur. One can look at such admissions as hollow, but tell me how often it is done by heads of state? At any rate, what the film does with this material is chuck it aside in favor of stereotypical comedy.
History of the World, Part I is another example of films that were funny when I was younger, but less so as an adult. It is not just the specifically Catholic things in how they are presented that are problematic. There is also a great deal of sexuality, both innuendo and overt, but thankfully no nudity. There is also drug use here. Still, it is a Mel Brooks movie, so there will usually be a laugh or two.