Mel Brooks broke into television in 1949 as a writer and sometimes featured performer for Sid Caesar's "The Admiral Broadway Review" and "Your Show of Shows." Not surprisingly, his early roots as a stand-up comic and comedy-revue writer surface repeatedly in his films--none more so than "The History of the World: Part I" (1981), which feels like one long variety-show sketch after the next. The only structure here is the very general concept of "history."
While it may make perfect sense that Brooks' "history" begins with The Stone Age and moves quickly to The Old Testament, there's no logical reason why the script suddenly lingers around the time of The Roman Empire, apart from the obvious: Brooks had more jokes for this time period, or a real fondness for toga parties. In fact, one of the best sight gags involves a banner advertising an upcoming orgy, with a cutaway to Playboy icon Hugh Hefner in toga, smoking his trademark pipe and surrounded by Roman beauties.
Brooks' auteur philosophy seems to be Speak softly and carry a big schtick. His classic films remain "The Producers" (1968), "Blazing Saddles" (1974) and "Young Frankenstein" (1974), with the bulk of his movies falling in the two or two-and-a-half star range precisely because Brooks' is s sucker for schtick. When it works, it's wonderful, but when it's overdone or overly familiar (as is too often the case), it's as flat as unleavened bread.
While there are more funny bits here than in "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" (1993), "History of the World: Part 1" is still nowhere near the comedy that Brooks is capable of producing. Maybe he was too close to the material to really make some hard decisions about the jokes that should stay and the jokes that should go. In this sketch parade he plays Moses (who breaks a third tablet of commandments and shouts, "TEN commandments" to the unseen throng), a Roman patrician, a Spanish inquisitor, King Louis XVI, and one of Louis's attendants. Only as King Louis does Brooks' performance approach the ribald energy of his more famous cameos. That's part of what keeps this film in the mildly entertaining category. The thing is Brooks' unusual reliance on medium shots for almost everything, so that visually the film seems less robust than a film like "Blazing Saddles," which offers unusual angles and framing that support the mood of each sequence. Here, a tripod could have done the job.
The first two historical periods are covered so quickly that it's a shocker to encounter stand-up philosopher Comicus (Brooks) in a long segment involving his love of a Vestal virgin (Mary-Margaret Humes), his relationship with a Ethiopian slave (Gregory Hines) who dances the soft shoe at the slave market, and an encounter with Caesar (Dom DeLuise) and his Empress Nympho (Madeline Kahn). There are some funny moments when Comicus gets to play Caesar's Palace and tells jokes about the emperor that fall flat, and the rest of this segment concerns Comicus' escape to Judea and his next blundering encounter . . . serving the Last Supper and stealing a little of Jesus' (John Hurt's) thunder.
Then it's on to a medium-length sketch about The Spanish Inquisition, with Brooks finding comedy in torture, and the funniest moments coming from a cart hauling away peasants who've died from the black plague. Finally, there's a very long sequence about The French Revolution that contains a few funny gags ("It's good to be the king") . . . but also some of the grosser, low-class ones. The whole concept of a "piss boy" is a little bizarre, to say the least, but it's a main element of this episode to have Brooks collecting urine from noblemen as they stand and chat with others.
Brooks pays Sid Caesar back by using him in several sequences, as well as stand-up comedian Shecky Greene. But fans of Mel Brooks films will recognize a lot of familiar faces, with regulars like Cloris Leachman, Harvey Korman, Ron Carey, and Rudy De Luca getting the call again. By the time we get to the film's end and phony trailers like "Hitler on Ice" and "Jews in Space," you get the feeling that Brooks is still trying to find his way. This isn't one of his sure-handed efforts, but it passes, at least, for light entertainment.
For a catalog title, "History of the World: Part I" looks fantastic in 1080p. Colors are bolder than some of the jokes, and edges are crisply defined so that there's a pleasing sense of 3-dimensionality. Close-ups reveal the kind of skin texture and detail that we've come to expect from High Definition, and black levels are sufficiently strong to provide nice contrasts in bright light and no loss of detail in darker scenes. And I saw no edge enhancement or artifacts from the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig disc (@28MBPS). It's a surprisingly strong picture in every way.
Once again Fox went with what appears to be an industry standard now, an English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio that delivers strong and resonant bass notes and prioritizes the dialogue, music, and effects nicely. Though the rear speakers don't get as much of a workout as you'd expect, given the potential for ambient sound, and though the high-end tweeters aren't really challenged by the soundtrack, it's a fairly dynamic audio that really comes into play during Brooks' spoof of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Additional audio options are English Mono and French, Spanish, and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Korean.
Two short features were made especially for HD: "Musical Mel: Inventing 'The Inquisition'" and "Making History: Mel Brooks on Creating the World." Both are worth watching but really don't contain a lot of unexpected insights. And a "Real History of the World" trivia track emerges as something that could have been much stronger in terms of the details and also the relationship between real events and Brooks' comedy. As with other Brooks titles released on May 11, there's also an isolated musical score track that I can't imagine appealing to anyone other than would-be composers for film.
As sketch comedy goes, Mel Brooks' "History of the World: Part I" isn't bad. But it also isn't up to the level of his best work. I will say this, though: in 1080p, it looks so good that you're apt to be more easily won over than if you watched in standard def.