Fox // 1981 // 92 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // May 20th, 2010
"It's good to be the king."
Come along with funny guy Mel Brooks as you learn about the history of mankind one laugh at a time. Your tour guides through this crazy ride include early man, the Romans, the Greeks, Jesus, Leonardo DaVinci, Emperor Nero, King Louis XVI, Moses and God himself. As we witness time unfold we're drawn into the story of stand up philosopher Comicus (Mel Brooks), his newly freed slave (Gregory Hines, Running Scared), the brash Empress Nympho (Madeline Kahn, Young Frankenstein) and a host of other characters -- played by Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Orson Welles, Dom Deluise and more -- as we discover that those who do not learn from history are doomed to laugh at it!
Though it was lambasted upon it's original release, the fact of the matter is History of the World: Part I is a very funny movie. Critically drubbed for being scattershot and crude, the film has aged quite well and Brooks' combination of slapstick humor and witty one liners still elicit chuckles today. While the film retains some trappings of its time (the very early '80s), the setting and costumes make sure it never feels like a time capsule. The film is stacked with hysterical moments -- from King Louis XVI's naughty orgy to a revisionist take of The Last Supper -- and Brooks is in fine form as writer, director and star.
The key to History of the World: Part I working so well is the infectious nature of the cast. Mel Brooks is sharp and on target as Comicus, a stand up comic who finally gets to play Caesar's Palace ("When you die at the palace, you really DIE at the palace!"). Mel Brooks is one of those rare actors -- like Woody Allen -- who is essentially Mel Brooks no matter what character he's playing. This is sometimes to great effect, as in History of the World: Part I, and sometimes to not-so-great effect (i.e., a lot of his other movies). Gregory Hines is bubbly and warm as a condemned slave Josephus, a tap dancer with a heart -- among other body parts -- of gold. Almost stealing the show is Madeline Kahn as Empress Nympho (one of the great character names in all of cinematic history), a lip smacking beast of a woman whose appetite for men is as funny as it is insatiable. Along the way we get a lot of great cameo appearances, including Bea Arthur as a Roman unemployment office worker ("Did you bulls**t last week? Did you TRY to bulls**t last week?") and the bombastic Orson Welles as the story's narrator (a deft and wonderful choice). It's nice to see familiar faces popping up in cameos that matter. Unlike the dreaded Disaster/Epic/Date Movie, History of the World: Part I knows how to use cameos and pop culture comedy in the right way.
The film has a breezy feel to it, clipping along from one historical event to another without much need for story. In fact, while there technically is a 'plot' here, plus subplots of various fictional accounts of real events, that's really never the point. The point Mel wants to make is to urinate, defecate, fart and vandalize as many human milestones as he can. And he generally succeeds. Yes, some of the moments (including some rather laborious caveman gags) fall a bit flat. Yet when a movie is able to make you laugh more than 50% of the time, I'd consider that a very good laugh-to-cricket ratio.
Sadly, this would be one of Mel's final 'great' comedies before his career hit a downward spiral in the mid-to-late '80s. After History of the World: Part I we got the mildly amusing To Be Or Not To Be (one of Mel's only starring roles he didn't direct), the near great Spaceballs (a film to this day I can't figure out if I like because it's funny or because of nostalgia) and finally a slew of unfunny duds (the horrible Dracula: Dead and Loving It, the so-so Robin Hood: Men in Tights and the aptly titled Life Stinks) that would leave viewers shaking their heads until his famous turn in adapting his hit films to the Broadway stage. While the '90s Mel kind of crashed and burned, at least we can always have a history lesson to fall back on with History of the World: Part I.
Presented in 2.40:1 1080p, this hi-def upgrade is an excellent step up from the original DVD presentation. The period costumes, colorful sets and mildly impressive special effects all take on a life of their own. Colors are mostly rock solid with the image retaining a wonderful crispness to it. While there is still a light amount of grain, it gives the movie a warm film-like feel. Overall Fox has gone to great lengths to bring this film to Blu-ray, and with sparkling results. Likewise, the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is equally as impressive. While your rear speakers are not going to shift into wall-shattering mode, they are still used frequently and to nice effect when needed. I had no issues hearing any of the dialogue, and the music (including some very giddy song and dance numbers) is exciting and clearly rendered. Overall this is an impressive video and audio presentation from Fox and a worthwhile upgrade for those with hi-def players. And for you purists out there, kudos to Fox for including the original Dolby Mono track as well.
For those of you who are big History of the World: Part I fans, this disc's supplemental features may be a bit of a let down. Included here are two short 10-minute featurettes ("Musical Mel: Inventing 'The Inquisition' " and "Making History: Mel Brooks on Creating the World") that, while interesting, are far too short and don't cover much ground. 10 minutes is hardly enough time to dig into the making of a film. Finally there is a trivia track that can be selected during the film, as well as trailers to five other Mel Brooks movies.
How do you not love a movie that features the first artistic wall rendering (by a caveman), followed by the first art critic's response (urinating on said caveman's masterpiece)? Mel Brooks and Fox are both acquitted on account of this being a pleasing presentation of the film and a genuinely funny movie experience.
Too funny to be guilty!
Review content copyright © 2010 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Trivia Track