History of the World, Part 1 is an American anthology comedy, written, produced, directed, and starring Mel Brooks. As the title suggests, the film is an anthology of the history of the world including events such as the French Revolution and the Roman Empire. Specifically, the most memorable part of the film is the depiction of the Roman Empire, which accurately parodies the early Roman Epic films of Brooks' childhood.

Plot Edit

(For our purposes, we will be focusing specifically on the portion of the film concerned with the Roman Empire)

The Roman portion of the film follows a "stand-up philosopher" Comicus (Brooks), who has been told by his agent Swiftus that he has landed a gig at Caesar's Palace (which was filmed at the actual Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada). On the way to the palace, Comicus meets a vestal virgin, Miriam, who acts as his love interest, and an Ethiopian slave, Josephus.

At his gig, Comicus makes some untimely jokes about Emperor Nero's physical appearance and corruption. At the same time, Josephus spills an entire jug of wine onto Emperor Nero, and Nero orders the two to fight each other to the death.

Miriam helps the two escape the gladiatorial arena, and they escape, along with help from Empress Nympho and a horse named Miracle.

The three takes refuge briefly with the vestal virgins, but are outed and forced to run from the Roman General Vindictus and his troops. The troops however are stopped when Josephus takes "Roman Red" marijuana and rolls into what he refers to as "the Mighty Joint." The Roman troops, after being exposed to "the Mighty Joint" are too incapacitated to continue chasing after Comicus, Josephus, and Miriam.

The three of them set sail for Judea, and while waiting tables in a restaurant, Comicus stumble onto the last supper, where Leonardo da Vinci paints him into the famous portrait "The Last Supper."

Characters Edit

A lot of the names of the characters are plays on the names of characters from an earlier sword and Sandal film Quo Vadis (1951). For example, Empress Nympho is supposed to be a play on Poppaea, the lustful, unfaithful wife of Emperor Nero. Similarly, Marcus Vidictus is a play of the main protagonist of Quo Vadis, Marcus Vinicius. These are just examples of how History of the World, Part 1 is directly talking to these early sword and sandal films.

  • Mel Brooks - Comicus, a stand-up philosopher
  • Gregory Hines - Josephus, the Ethiopian slave
  • Mary Margaret-Humes - Miriam, a vestal virgin, and Comicus' love interest
  • Dom DeLuise - Emperor Nero, Rome's Emperor (actual historical figure)
  • Madeline Kahn - Empress Nympho, Wife of Nero
  • Shecky Greene - Marcus Vidictus, Roman General/Commander

Themes Edit

Sword and sandal films has a long history of expressing themes that are meant to be a commentary of the present social, political, and economic climate of the U.S. Even though History of the World is more of a spoof of these traditional Roman epics, there are similarities in thematic choices.

Sexuality Edit

Sexuality is at the forefront of History of the World, Part 1. The presence of sexuality is undeniably blatant throughout all parts of the film, and especially in the part concerned with the Roman Empire[1]. The sexuality in the film is made overt in order to comment on it. The character Empress Nympho (short for "nymphomaniac") is the personification of female sexuality.[1] All of the light nudity and cursing is what earned the film an R rating, which is curious considering there are overt torture scenes which seem much more inappropriate (revealing of how the U.S. at the time viewed sexuality versus violence in film).

The Vestal Virgins Edit

The purpose of the Vestal Virgins is strictly to put the female form on display for the male gaze. All of the women in the Temple of the Vestal Virgins are young, beautiful, and dressed in clothes made from a gauzy, white cloth. In fact, Playboy Bunnies played all of the Vestal Virgins, an obvious display of sexuality in the film. However, the women, who are meant to serves as sex symbols, are still covered, which shows a hint of modesty.

Other Instances of Sexuality Edit

  • Eunuchs that protect the Vestal Virgins
  • The Roman soldiers shown without pants on
  • Normalized portrayal of monogamous, homosexual couple

America as Rome Edit

In earlier sword and sandal films, Rome was identified as the tyranny that America (the underdogs, or "good guys") were fighting against. However, in History of the World, we see the idea of America as Rome in full force, what with the indulgence, corruption, and enjoyment of violence as entertainment. Rome was no longer used to make the U.S. look like the good guys -- Rome was a commentary of the problematic American life.

Psychology Edit

Mel Brooks expressed a light interest in psychology, specifically Freudianism. This is made obvious in History of the World through the constant overt and implied sexual jokes and subjects of the film. Perhaps this is also a commentary of the indulgence in such things as sex that took place in the U.S. during the early 80s.

Historicity Edit

Though History of the World, Part 1 is a "spoof" and not meant as a literal anthology of the history of the world, there is some attempt at historicity in the film.

Nero Edit

One thing that History of the World got right was the character of Emperor Nero. Emperor Nero was a actual historical figure who indulged in luxuries and bad poetry, which is evident in History of the World[1]. However, there is no historical evidence that Nero was overweight, but this perhaps is to highlight the fact that he was an indulger.

Feasts Edit

For certain, Romans did have elaborate feasts (particularly wealthy Romans), and it was logical that at these parties there were prostitutes and entertainers. However, in the Roman Empire, there were no stand-up comedians, which Comicus obviously is.

Vestal Virgins Edit

In the Roman Empire, the Vestal Virgins really did exist, and they were protected by eunuchs. However, eunuchs were never used as a sexual symbol for the Romans, and were not all minorities like it assumed. Also, the concept of Vestal Virgins as some sort of sexual symbol or romantic conquest is a modern notion. Furthermore, actual Vestal Virgins were not uniformly attractive and young.

Racial Minorities in Rome Edit

There are notably more racial minorities in History of the World than in earlier sword and sandal films, specifically their references to Jewish and Ethiopian people[1]. The Romans would have definitely had connections to Jewish and Ethiopian people because of their extensive trade networks and relationships.

Film Background Edit

Mel Brooks was already a tour-de-force and notable figure in the entertainment industry and comedy world when he was inspired to make History of the World, Part 1 a parody film about historical and biblical epics. He had cut his teeth as a joke writer for several television talk shows early on in his career and honed his skills as a writer for the comedy variety shows, Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour.[2] After the two shows ended their runs, Brooks went on to create the wildly successful Emmy-winning series Get Smart alongside comedy writer Buck Henry but found the call of making feature films too hard to ignore, so he left the series shortly after the pilot episode and began work on his first feature film. The Producers (1968) was his first feature film as both a writer and director and earned him his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Mel Brooks went on to create and/or direct other successful films and specialized in spoofs/parodies of genre films such as westerns, Hitchcock, horror, roman epics, and musicals.

By the time History of the World, Part 1 came to be, Mel Brooks had already found his niche by releasing several successful comedic spoof films such as:

  • The Producers (1967) - a parody on the musical/broadway genre
  • Blazing Saddles (1974) - a parody of spaghetti western films
  • Young Frankenstein (1974) - a parody of horror films
  • Silent Movie (1976) - A parody on silent films
  • High Anxiety (1977) - A parody of the quirky films of Alfred Hitchcock

Production Edit

Casting Edit

Comedian Richard Pryor was originally chosen for the role of Josephus, the black slave who is lumped into the madness with Comicus during the Roman sequence of the film. However, after Pryor became injured by accidentally setting himself ablaze, the role was recast with tap dancer Gregory Hines who made his feature film debut. [3]

Mel Brooks assumed the role of Comicus—one of the five characters he plays in the entire film—a stand-up philospher who lands a gig at Caesar's Palace and finds himself swept up in the shenanigans that ensue after he offends Emperor Nero. Brooks sourced his inspiration for Comicus from Eddie Cantor a well known comedic actor and radio personality. "I wore the short little toga and I made my eyes pop out in reactions, like he did. My 'Comicus' was a tribute to Eddie Cantor. He was my timing, my excitement." [3]

The rest of the cast for the film was filled out with actors from his stock company and talent he had worked with in the past such as Madeline Kahn (Empress Nympho) and Dom DeLuise (Emperor Nero) His writing collaborators also made cameo appearances alongside the plethora of veteran talent who also popped up in the film briefly, most notably Hugh Hefner and Bea Arthur.

Writing Edit

History of the World: Part 1 was lightly inspired by Roman Scandals (1933), a musical comedy which starred Eddie Cantor. Mel Brooks was a fan of the film and used this as a base for the project.

For this film, Brooks avoided using a writing group and instead took on the responsibility of writing the entire film himself. As he worked on the script, Brooks frequently promoted that the film would be "the height of my vulgarity." [3] He fought to secure an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association, with his only other R-rated feature being the widely-successful Blazing Saddles.

Mel Brooks passed portions of the script around for commentary and critique at various stages of their completion in order to test out his material and gauge its comedic effectiveness. His wife, his friends, and then anybody who had the time to read his work were used to bounce his ideas off of and see what would stick.

Filming Edit

Filming of History of the World: Part 1 began on May 5, 1980 and lasted about 16 weeks. Much of the film was shot at the Shepperton Studio in England.

Brooks has stated that, History of the World's budget—around $11 Million—(the budget for The Producers was a mere $941K) was far beyond the budget of his three previous films combined. [4] This film utilized bigger sets and elaborate pieces to keep up with the splendor often portrayed in the Roman epic genre, however its most costly set was for the Spanish Inquisition segment in the film which cost nearly $1 million on its own.

Brooks liked his directing responsibilities, however noted that it was still somewhat grueling work. "...getting up at 4:30 AM, then working a 12-hour day, then staying until 9 p.m. rehearsing with the actors or plotting the next day's moves. It's very physically demanding." However he kept his spirits high and his professionalism on point to keep the set in order. "Your temperament is very critical. The director that sulks destroys the mood of the entire set. So no matter what horror I run into, I try never to be petulant. I'm up. I'm positive." [3]

Costumes Edit

Patricia Norris served as the costume designer on the film. While the costumes are not entirely historically accurate, there are minor attempts to include some authentic period details or nods to other sword and sandal films in a comical way.[5]

The Vestal Virgins are shown in long, flowing white gowns that are modest, but have wired chastity belts with a literal "no entry" sign dangling in front.

Nero is shown wearing a golden laurel wreath over his head, as well as the usual white and purple robe popularized in Quo Vadis (1951)

Empress Nympho is bathed in golden dresses and beaded headpieces like those in Cleopatra (1963) as well as shiny, metallic fabric like the sensual, Poppea in Quo Vadis.

Comicus's "short little toga" was modeled after the outfit worn by Eddie Cantor in Roman Scandals (1933) [4]

During their fight scene, Comicus and Josephus are outfitted with similar weaponry used in Spartacus (1960) complete with a trident and net, while the armor adorned by both characters as well as soldiers in the film are fashioned after those featured in earlier sword and sandal films such as, Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959).

Set Design Edit

The film hilariously substitutes the real Caesar's Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in place of Nero's place in an effort to break the fourth wall and connect to the audience by utilizing anachronism. [6] The Roman sequence of the film was not the costliest set of the film, however it still featured massive marbled rooms and hallways with pillars and statues at every corner as expected and continued in the Sword and Sandal tradition.

Many scenes were supplemented by the use of matte paintings, such as city shots in the Roman Empire sequence.[7] The majority of the sequence uses a sparse amount of sets, with most of the action occurring in Nero's common room, The Vestal Virgin chamber, or outdoors in the marketplace or the outskirts of town.

The set was not as opulent and excessive as Cleopatra (1963) however it was still fairly effective for the budget the film had and the standards commonly expected from the genre when portraying Rome onscreen.

References Edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Cyrino, Monica Silveira. “History of the World, Part 1 (1981): The Roman Empire Sequence.” Big Screen Rome, Blackwell Pub., Malden, MA, 2005.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3's%20good%20to%20be%20the%20king&pg=PA237#v=onepage&q=history%20of%20the%20world%20richard%20pryor&f=false
  4. 4.0 4.1
  6. Cyrino, Monica Silveira. Big Screen Rome. Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Print. Pgs. 194-206