A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Mel Brooks's movie “History of the World, Part 1” is a rambling, undisciplined, sometimes embarrassing failure from one of the most gifted comic filmmakers around. What went wrong? Brooks never seems to have a clear idea of the rationale of his movie, so there's no confident narrative impetus to carry it along. His "history" framework doesn't have an approach or point of view; it's basically just a laundry-line for whatever gags he can hang on it.
What is this bizarre grab bag? Is it a parody of old Biblical, Roman, and French historical epics? Sometimes. Is it one-shot, comedy revue blackouts? Sometimes. Is it satire aimed at pompous targets? Sometimes. But most of the time it's basically just expensive sets sitting around waiting for Brooks to do something funny in front of them.
Brooks seems to rely on his own spontaneous comic genius in this film, and genius, even when you have it, is not something to be relied upon. He provides isolated moments that are indeed hilarious, moments that find an inspired image and zing us with it (as when a slave boogies through the streets of ancient Rome with a loud transistor radio glued to his ear). But as the movie creeps on, we realize that the inspirations are going to be rare, and that Brooks has not bothered to create a framework for the movie or to people it with characters. It's all just cardboard comic cutouts.
The film has another serious problem: It is in unfunny bad taste. That sounds strange coming from me. I've always enjoyed Brooks's ventures into taboo subject matter, and I still think his "Springtime for Hitler" from “The Producers” and the celebrated campfire scene in “Blazing Saddles” were hilarious. He seemed to be demonstrating that you could get away with almost anything in a movie, if you made it funny enough. (Told that “The Prodcuers” was vulgar, he once responded loftily, "It rises below vulgarity.") But this time, the things he's trying to get away with aren't funny. There is, for example, the movie's tiresome series of jokes about urination. There must be comic possibilities in the subject (and he finds one when he shows a Stone Age critic's method of reviewing a cave painting), but there is nothing inherently funny about urination, and Brooks proves it here, again and again.