[box cover]

History of the World Part I

The Mel Brooks Box Set Collection

Not many people would think of turning the Spanish Inquisition into a show-stopping song-and-dance number — luckily, Mel Brooks is one of the few who would. Sprinkled with moments of brilliance like that one, History of the World Part I (1981) is a solid — if not outstanding — comedy, with enough of Brooks' ribald irreverence to gloss over the weak spots. Set up as a jaunt through the first several thousand years of human existence, History of the World opens in the Stone Age and makes a brief stop in Old Testament times ("The Lord has given unto you these Fifteen … Ten! Ten Commandments!") before lingering for a while in the Roman Empire, popping in on Torquemada and his inquisitors for their show, and finishing up with an extended stay in Paris during the French Revolution. The Roman and revolutionary segments make up the bulk of the movie; in the first, Brooks stars as Comicus, a stand-up philosopher who falls afoul of corpulent Emperor Caesar (Dom DeLuise) and makes a run for it accompanied by cool-cat ex-slave Josephus (Gregory Hines), fast-talking Swiftus (Ron Carey), and vestal virgin Miriam (Mary-Margaret Humes). Once the revolution hits, Brooks does double duty as lecherous King Louis XVI and his piss-boy Doppelganger, trying his best to stay alive as the poverty-stricken masses (spurred on by Cloris Leachman) call for his head. As in any Brooks comedy, though, the plot plays a definite second fiddle to the punchlines. And those there are a-plenty, from the groan-inducing ("Let's face it — you can't Torquemada anything!") to the naughty ("Say, Bob, do I have any openings that this man might fit?") to the timeless ("It's good to be the king."). Through it all, Brooks & Co. seem to be enjoying themselves hugely; stand-outs among the ensemble include Hines, Leachman, Madeline Kahn as randy Empress Nympho, Harvey Korman as irritable Count de Monet, and Brooks himself. The cast's weakest link is probably Pamela Stephenson, who overplays her role as earnest ingenue Mademoiselle Rimbaud, but that's where History of the World's episodic nature is an advantage — if you don't like the segment you're watching (and the longer ones, particularly the French Revolution, do drag a bit in spots), history will march on soon enough. Fox brings the film to DVD both as a stand-alone disc and as part of the "Mel Brooks Box Set Collection." The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) holds up well; audio options include an English Dolby Digital Stereo track and English, Spanish, and French mono tracks (English and Spanish subtitles are available). The only official extra is the movie's theatrical trailer, but the fake preview for History of the World Part II that precedes the end credits (touting segments like "Hitler on Ice" and "Jews in Space") has always seemed like a bonus in and of itself. Keep-case (slimline case in the box set).
—Betsy Bozdech

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