It’s Good to Be the King – History of the World Part I (1981)

The title itself is probably the funniest thing in Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I. After his razor-sharp parodies of Westerns (Blazing Saddles) and classic horror movies (Young Frankenstein), Brooks was practically the king of cinematic comedy. When his next two efforts (Silent Movie and High Anxiety) fizzled a little with audiences, the filmmaker decided to go big by targeting Hollywood historical epics for his next film genre spoof. In doing so, his new movie even had ambitions to ridicule the entirety of humanity’s existence.

That’s a lot of ground to cover in just 92 minutes, and the Part I tag at the end of the title implies the promise of one or more sequels that Brooks never actually had any intention of making (until now). That it was always planned to be an incomplete history was part of the joke. Sadly, although it became a home video staple and may be remembered with some fondness, the film was never one of Brooks’ stronger comedies. In fact, it falls pretty far below his classics.

History of the World Part 1 (1981) Dom DeLuise & Madeline Kahn
Title:History of the World Part I
Year of Release: 1981
Director: Mel Brooks
Watched On: Hulu
Also Available On: Blu-ray
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

History of the World Part I puts its best gag right up front. In a scene mocking the famous prologue from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, we find a bunch of proto-humans discovering the true meaning of life and effectively explaining the motivation for every event of historical importance that would ever follow. It’s a crude gag, slightly raunchy and broadly pantomimed, but it delivers a ring of truth and earns a solid chuckle.

Brooks’ next bit of inspiration was to convince film legend Orson Welles to provide documentary-style narration over the movie in his most authoritative tone. That was a good call and works as intended.

The remainder of the film proceeds in chronological order skipping through history in a series of comedy sketches set during prehistoric times, the Biblical era, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, and finally the French Revolution. Brooks himself has multiple roles (first appearing as Moses), as do many members of the cast. Notable featured players include former collaborators Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Harvey Corman, as well as Sid Caesar as a caveman, Dom DeLuise as Emperor Nero, Gregory Hines as a Roman slave, and John Hurt as Jesus. (Not having Sid Caesar play Julius Caesar seems like an obvious missed opportunity.) Fellow filmmakers Paul Mazursky and Barry Levinson also cameo in the Roman segment, as does Playboy impresario Hugh Hefner.

In typical Brooks fashion, the humor is scattershot and pun-heavy. Most of the jokes are hacky and, unfortunately, damn few of them are actually funny in this outing. Large chunks of the movie feel derivative of (and much less effective than) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Honestly, beyond the opening bit, I don’t recall laughing once during this viewing. I can’t even blame that on over-familiarity with the material, as I hadn’t seen the movie in ages and didn’t remember much of it going in. As it turns out, this comedy simply isn’t very memorable.

All that said, History of the World Part I is not without an amusing moment here or there. Brooks is a likeable screen presence and engenders enough good will to carry through even his weakest efforts. I may not have laughed, but the movie at least provoked a smirk or grin from time to time. Although I don’t think I’m likely to fire this one up again anytime soon, I don’t regret sitting through it. I suppose that’s something. I just wish it were more.

History of the World Part 1 (1981) Mel Brooks as Moses

Video Streaming

While History of the World Part I was released on Blu-ray back in 2010, I don’t own that disc and had to settle for watching the movie on Hulu. Doing so was kind of an annoyance, as the Hulu app in my NVIDIA Shield decided that now would be a great time to stop working and give me error messages on anything I attempt to play. As a result, I had to switch to a Roku instead. Issues like this are why I keep redundant streaming devices in service in my home theater.

I think it’s safe to assume that the 1080p streaming copy is sourced from the same high-def master as the Blu-ray disc, albeit more heavily compressed. The 2.35:1 image is acceptably sharp, if just barely so, but also rather grainy with flat colors and contrast. It’s nothing special to look at.

According to reviews, the Blu-ray included a 5.1 soundtrack. Hulu only streams the film in 2.0 stereo. Given the limitations of the mix itself, it’s effectively mostly mono with a very slight (hardly noticeable) amount of ambience spread to the left and right main speakers when decoded with the Dolby Surround Upmixer in my A/V receiver. Even as far as that goes, it sounds incredibly flat and weak. Dialogue is clear enough, and I guess that’s as much as you can hope for because the track has nothing else of interest going on.


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