The ambitions of Mel Brooks’s 1981 comedy History of the World, Part 1 are clear from the title. Parodying films as varied as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the great Hollywood musicals of the 1930s, and the epics of DeMile, Lean, and Wyler, Brooks takes viewers from the days of early man up through to the bellicose streets of 18th century France. Though History remains firmly outside the top tier of Brook’s work, which includes The Producers (1967), Blazing Saddles (1974), and Young Frankenstein (1974), it shares with those films an incisive take on film genre characteristic of Brooks’s singular style and sensibility.
For decades, viewers have wondered whether Brooks may deliver a sequel. While he never intended to do so (a classic example of Brooks’s playful relationship with his audience), Hulu has resurrected the title and turned it into a miniseries, History of the World, Part 2. Taking on a television format seems like an appropriate choice. Unlike the epics to which the film so lovingly mocks and pays homage, History of the World, Part 1 is not a linear tale. While Brooks himself has played a 2,000-year-old man for decades, characters in the film do not travel from one chapter of history to the other. Nor are there really any throughlines. Chapters vary in length and format: sometimes there is singing, other times we are guided by a narrator, voiced by Orson Welles.
Audiences watching History of the World, Part 1 may be put off, at first, by its structure. The absence of a character with whom we can experience a range of emotions leaves some moments wanting. The chapter lengths at times play as too dissimilar. Some are brief sketches, others are fewer than ten minutes, and two of the four main chapters, on the Roman Empire and French Revolution, take up the bulk of the film. When Martin Scorsese presented the AFI Life Achievement Award to Brooks in 2013, he said that it was Brooks’s ability to make comedy part of a “cohesive whole” that made him a master filmmaker. Perhaps that is what makes History such an odd watch: one must lean into the incohesion to make it all work.
The film’s best chapter tells the history of the Spanish Inquisition in fewer than nine minutes. Taking the form of a Busby Berkeley dance number, Brooks plays Torquemada, who in real life was the first Grand Inquisitor. Brooks wastes no time in extracting comedy from this otherwise horrific situation. “Let’s face it,” a man says, referring to the unrelenting cruelty of Brooks’s character, “you can’t ‘Talk ‘im Outta’ anything.” Once Brooks appears, he leads the torture of the Jews through a mix of song and dance. Torture devices become props in the routines. A group of nuns emerge, take off their clothes, and dive into a swimming pool, from which they rise to form a menorah. It is absurd, hilarious, and brimming with history of both the world and the medium of film. If someone were to ask for one scene to capture Brooks’s sensibility as an artist, this example would be at the top of the list.
And that is how History functions best: as a showcase for Brooks as a director, writer, producer, and performer. Its episodic nature recalls a number of great comedy traditions, like sketch comedy, the TV variety show, and the sitcom. In talking about the influence of Abbott and Costello on Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld described his intentions for the show as one driven solely by the laugh. Comedy reigns supreme. Or, as was famously the mantra for the characters of Seinfeld, “no hugging, no learning.” History offers a similar feel. Everything — length, format, tone — plays as if it were done in an effort to achieve maximum comedic effect, cohesion be damned.
Brooks, throughout his work, is constantly telling us “what really happened” in history. To Carl Reiner in the 2,000-year-old man skit, he shares that Sigmund Freud was, in fact, a good basketball player,but we might not remember that because he “set up the shots.” In his brief sketch on Biblical times in History, Brooks plays Moses, who emerges from Mount Sinai shouting about the “Fifteen Commandments,” which he holds etched on three stone tablets. Just as he excitedly shares his discovery, he drops one of the tablets. Staring down briefly at the shattered stone, he amends his declaration: “Ten Commandments!”
In the hands of Mel Brooks, hagiography goes by the wayside. Individuals do shape history, but they are just as fallible, feckless, and fun to mock as the rest of us. It is the kind of populism found in Blazing Saddles, and not unlike the critique of consumerism found in Spaceballs (1987). All sacred cows are fair game. The only great man of history to be found is Brooks himself, a claim he would back with a wink and a smile. Indeed, as Brooks, playing King Louis XVI, tells us in History, it is good to be the king.
“History of the World Part I” is now streaming on Hulu.