By 1980, it was becoming apparent that Mel Brooks’s best work was behind him. His legendary run had given way to inconsistent comedies that struggled to maintain their momentum for the length of a feature. History of the World, Part I may be the last great Brooks film precisely because it indirectly addresses this growing weakness in the director’s work by trading an extended narrative for a series of act-length mini-stories along with some briefer interludes. Returning Brooks to his roots doing sketch comedy with Carl Reiner, the film plays to Brooks’s strengths as a conceptual comic, burning through an idea as long as it has life and jumping ship when the gag wears too thin.
As the title would suggest, the film runs through various epochs of human history, starting with a prehistoric introduction that apes the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Guided by Orson Welles’s stentorian, solemn narration, we see the dawn of man as a group of apes stand on two legs, freeing their forelimbs to wield tools, only to promptly masturbate in collective thrashes of ecstasy. That sets the tone effectively enough, and Brooks tears through the early stages of human history with puckish abandon, throwing in a number of inspired gags such as the first cave painter spawning the first critic, who silently gauges the art and promptly lifts up his clothes to piss on it.
Sometimes entire setups exist for a single joke, such as Brooks posing as Moses bringing down three stone tablets from Mount Sinai and exclaiming that God had given him 15 commandments before dropping and shattering one tablet, only to improvise and say the Lord only gave him 10. Even a throwaway like this, though, shows a keen eye for production design, aping the epic scale of Cecil B. DeMille in sweeping vistas of matte-painting backgrounds and classical lighting to make Brooks’s Moses look freshly painted in oil. Later, Brooks stages an all-out musical number about the Spanish Inquisition, restaging the horror of mass torture as a Vegas revue complete with heretics being spun like a slot machine display and a showgirl extravaganza of nuns. Brooks’s knack for mimicking the styles of that which he parodies makes these gags actually look the part, only relying on flimsy props and backgrounds to be true to old religious epics.
Brooks takes the DeMille parody to its fullest heights in an extended segment set in Rome, where the director plays Comicus, a “stand-up philosopher” (or “bullshit artist,” as an unemployment office worker understands it). Brooks is in his element here, mocking not merely sword-and-sandal conventions but his own background as a comic, with Comicus angling to get a gig in “Ceasar’s palace.” When he succeeds, his act is a collection of groaner jokes that cross Borscht Belt punchlines with Roman references. A sample: “These Christians are so poor, they only have one god!” Of course, the penalty for bombing in front of the emperor (Dom DeLuise) is significantly worse than not getting booked again, and soon Comicus is scrambling for his life, along with a slave, Josephus (Gregory Hines), and a palace virgin, Miriam (Mary-Margaret Humes). Their flight weakens the arc somewhat, if only because it is plot-driven compared to the more laid-back parody that precedes it; once again, Madeline Kahn steals a Brooks film in her appearance as the empress, bored and trawling among the male servants for participants in an orgy.
Things get back on track with the final act. Set in Paris on the eve of the Revolution, this stretch marked the most inspired work Brooks had done since Blazing Saddles. Brooks mocks historical film convention with relish, teasing the tendency to have non-English characters speak English but approximate some farcical notion of realism by having them speak it with approximately appropriate inflections As one peasant woman laments to her squalid comrades, “We are so poor we do not even have a language, just a stupid accent!” But Brooks reserves his best jokes for his depiction of Versailles and the rotting aristocracy. Playing Louis XVI, Brooks modulates his broad expressions with an underlying trace of genuine sociopathy, undercutting the king’s boisterous laughs and ribald behavior with the cold confidence of a man who knows he can fondle and harass everyone around him with impunity. “It’s good to be the king,” Louis XVI regularly says after grabbing a woman or shooting a peasant for target practice, looking straight into the camera without blinking. The comedy is dark, and this vision of power as rapacious, stupid and unrepentant is all too relevant to see in 2018.
Seen as one of Brooks’s weaker features today for its scattered nature, History of the World, Part I feels like the last meaningful Brooks film precisely because of its fragmented, sketch-like nature. This is the last time Brooks’s comedy would have an edge, a sense of macabre observation that gave his loony shtick purpose. Apart from some dated material (just about every classic Brooks movie has a mincing gay stereotype that was stale even when it was made), History of the World, Part I makes each of its segments work, spiraling off in unexpected directions but remaining focused enough not to derail. Admittedly, though, it’s hard to watch the director’s historical farce, impressively mounted as it is, and not think of the even more anarchic, and more literate, comedy being done on similar topics by Monty Python. To watch characters here pull faces in ancient Rome and refer to orgies and executions is to be reminded of Life of Brian’s piercing takedown of both Roman history and biblical parable. Brooks was working with a stale form of shtick more or less from the moment he got into making movies, but his work felt fresh and freewheeling. Here, even as he succeeds, it becomes impossible not to feel that comedy tastes were passing him by, and that he had nowhere to go from here but down.