“Even in the most primitive man, the need to create was part of his nature. This need, this talent, clearly separated early man from animals who would never know this gift. And here, in a cave somewhere in the North American Continent, about two million years ago, the first artist was born. And, of course, with the birth of the artist came the inevitable afterbirth … the critic.”
That’s me. Afterbirth here. Brooks always did love to poke fun at the critics. And why not? Unfortunately, this was not one of his better films and likely received a lot of poking from the brethren. It was one of his worst films at the box office, pulling in only $31 million. Compared to many of his hits, it must have been a disappointing take for Mel at the time. Now out, along with some other of his films, on Blu-ray, this rather forgettable film looks even more dated and overindulgent than ever. Certainly, there are some classic moments. Mel, is, after all, Mel. But he never could string enough of them together to meet expectations. Too bad, really. It was a grand idea.
“The greatest calamity that could befall early man was the loss of fire. Fire. The mysterious phenomenon that cooked his food, heated his cave, and kept him alive. If he could not start a fire, he and his would surely die.”
If anyone knows a thing or two about setting things on fire, it’s Mel Brooks. From Blazing Saddles to the opening credits of Robin Hood: Men In Tights, Brooks has a thing for fire. Maybe it’s appropriate, because no one can set a film style on fire like Mel Brooks. He’s roasted more film styles and genres than any man alive. With History Of The World Part I he pokes a little fun at the historic epic. Narrated by the commanding voice of Orson Welles, History Of The World Part I sounded like an epic from the very start. The film covers a few major events in the history of the world:
The Stone Age:
The film begins with a group of ape-men standing around doing rather vulgar things to their bodies. I could swear at least one is wearing sunglasses. Early relationships, art, and music are explored in this section with comic legend Sid Caesar as the leader of the cavemen.
The Old Testament:
Moses delivers the 15 … ooops …. 10 Commandments.
The Roman Empire:
Comicus (Brooks) is an out-of-work stand-up philosopher who is in line to collect unemployment benefits when he learns he’s been engaged to perform at Caesar’s (Deluise) palace. While in the market he and vestal virgin Miriam (Hughs) help to rescue a slave Josephus (Hines) who has been sentenced to the lions. The three end up causing quite a stir at the palace while Empress Nympho (Kahn) tries to protect them. They barely escape with their lives.
The Spanish Inquisition:
This is probably the most remembered bit from the film. It’s a song and dance number featuring Brooks as the chief torturer Torquemada and his wacky monks. The bit includes a synchronized swimming routine and a giant roulette wheel with Jews strapped to the wheel.
The French Revolution:
Brooks is both King Louis XVI and his “pissboy” who happens to look enough like the King to be set up to take the fall when the peasants revolt against the nobility.
This one was different from the traditional Brooks films in a lot of ways. I’ve already mentioned the fact that it was his first R-rated film. It was also one of those rare instances where Brooks himself was pretty much the lead actor in the movie. There is also no actual single story thread, although there is some amusing bleed over from segment to segment. Richard Pryor was originally scheduled to play the Gregory Hines role, but that’s when he had that whole setting-his-face-on-fire incident and could not do the movie. Hines was actually recommended to Mel by Madeline Kahn and works in the role just fine.
And so we get a history lesson according to Mel. I’m not sure if there were ever any intentions to continue with another chapter. I do know that there never was a Part II even though the film ends with a promise of more to come that included Hitler on Ice and Jews in Space. A sneak peak at what might have been. This one is worth picking up only for the Mel Brooks completist. As painful as it is to recommend a pass on the King of Comedy, this one tends to disappoint.
The History Of The World Part I is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. This might look like the most dated transfer of all of the recent Mel Brooks Blu-ray releases. I’m also sorry to have to report there is evidence of significant DNR (Digital Noise Reduction) going on here. If you get it, take a look at Mel’s routine in the Palace. The background has been scrubbed into a blur even when the focus is on one of the guys heckling. There’s not a terrible amount of detail or sharpness here. Colors are soft. I will say the print is cleaner than I expected. Someone did take some extra care to clean up any dirt and scratches. It’s not pristine, and we’re not talking 4k restoration, but it is far better than a print this age usually looks. Black levels are fair with a little definition. Most of the darker scenes are in the beginning of the film. This is primarily a very bright film. Under those conditions it looks fine for what it is.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is much better than the image on this one. The Spanish Inquisition number has a lot more flair than I remembered from other versions I’ve seen of the movie. Dialog is fine. There’s not a lot of surround usage, but it really isn’t that kind of a movie.
Musical Mel – Inventing The Inquisition: (10:40) This is a very nice look at the whole Inquisition musical number. It’s an appropriate feature when you consider this truly is the stand-out piece of the film. There are also bits of musical moments from other Brooks films. There’s a pretty heavy Brooks love-fest going on as cast and crew from several of his films praise his musical genius.
Making History – Mel Brooks On Creating The World: (10:04): Brooks drives this retrospective piece that includes many of his usual cast and crew members.
Trivia Track: This option brings up some interesting historical facts during playback.
In what became the second of my three-film Mel Brooks marathon, I took a look at The History Of The World Part I on Blu-ray and in high definition. This one I don’t believe I’ve seen more than once before, and that was at the box office when the film was first released in 1981. I have to admit it is likely my least favorite Mel Brooks film. It was his first R-rated film, and I think he went quite a bit overboard with the concept. It’s by far the most vulgar of his films. It’s unfortunate, because, honestly, Brooks never needed that sort of gimmick. He was the master, and the fact that he could get laughs without stooping to the lowest common denominator was his strength. Mel always lived by one simple rule, a rule I truly believe he forgot this time around: “Movies is magic”.