Mel Brooks is one of the best comedic voices in American cinema history, a man who has made some of the most influential comedies ever made. His work has tackled multiple genres, from sci-fi to Westerns to horror, and they have lampooned, parodied, and commented on a variety of topics, always with biting social commentary.
"History Of The World, Part I," although not usually regarded as his finest work, is nevertheless one of the purest Mel Brooks experiences you can have. This is a movie that fires on all cylinders and delivers an anthology of jokes and commentary on the whole history of humanity, from the stone age and the Roman times all the way to the French revolution. This is a movie I watched way too young, knowing only that it was a comedy about history and I loved comedy and history — only to then be opened to a lot more than just historical jokes.
Even the film's title is a joke, a tongue-in-cheek riff on the actual "The History of the World Volume 1" book written by Sir Walter Raleigh and abandoned halfway through. The film finishes with a promise of completing the story, and one of the best fake teases ever, with Brooks — who didn't really intend to make a sequel — ending the movie with fake teases for a sequel that never was, until now.
The movie is a riot, one that uses yesterday to comment on today, with some of the most memorable lines in cinema and a script that feels made up on the spot at the same time as it feels air-tight, with every single detail planned out in advance — well, except one.
'I'd Better Go To Biblical Times'
The film begins with a segment showing the discovery of fire during the Stone Age and how cavemen created the first societies and the first rules, from marriage to funerals, and even music. Apparently, the segment and the vibe on set were so illuminating that it made Brooks pivot from his original idea and write a whole segment just for the sake of a last-minute joke.
"I'd better go to biblical times," Brooks said in an interview with the Directors Guild of America. "I was going to skip the Bible and go to Rome."
"I said, 'No, I've got the set, just turn that thing around and it will be the mountaintop, and I did the Moses bit. 'The Lord Jehovah has … these 15 …' Crash! I drop one of the tablets. 'Ten, ten commandments.'"
Sure, the "It's good to be the king" line is quoted a lot, and is one of the most remembered lines from the film, but one could argue that the above joke about the ten commandments should be just as well remembered. It is a simple, short scene, but one that plays to Brooks' skills. The filmmaker and comedian have long excelled at making jokes that play with audiences' expectations and prior knowledge, whether it's their knowledge of the plot of "Star Wars" or the number of commandments given to Moses.
Mel Brooks And Improv
Most impressive is that the whole scene was made up last minute, when Brooks is not really big into improvisation. In an interview with Metro Philadelphia, Brooks said improv doesn't really fit in his work, at least not on film. "There is little or no improvisation in my films. You don't get lucky in film with that — only on stage." Indeed, the stage was a different matter, as writer Ernest Chambers said to The Guardian, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner's iconic "2,000 Year Old Man" was "almost totally improvised."
That's not to say he is totally opposed to improvisation. One of the best jokes in "Spaceballs," which involves Dark Helmet playing with the same action figures for the movie that Yogurt wanted to sell as merchandise, was actually improvised on the spot by Rick Moranis.
"History Of The World, Part II" is about to stop being a joke and finally become a reality, with 96-year-old Brooks on board as well. The only thing left to say is, "it's good to be the king."
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