Mel Brooks pokes fun at the entire civilization of mankind, mocking the Stone Age, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, and the French Revolution.
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The black screen begins to emit light as Richard Strauss’ magnificent “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (the ascending anthem of “2001: A Space Odyssey”) blares through the speakers. Guided by the narration from the esteemed Orson Welles and in time for the climactic music, several species of ape-men begin to stand for the first time in erect fashion . . . and collectively begin masturbating furiously before crashing to the ground.
And what better way to begin a classic Mel Brooks comedy than to display our ancestral forefathers giving origin to the name Homo erectus?
Given the protracted nature of mankind’s history, it is not surprising that Brooks’ seventh picture is more of a collection of farcical sketches than a formulaic feature-length comedy. Even though this movie is somewhat accurate as it chronicles the historic activities of characters such as Tomas de Torquemada and King Louis XVI, it should be previewed by parents before handed off to children studying for their seventh grade history exam.
In fact, after the relatively PG-humor of “Young Frankenstein”, “Silent Movie”, and most recently “High Anxiety”, one began to wonder if the man who strapped on “Blazing Saddles” had gone soft on his audiences. But armed with a history book indexed with pages of ridiculously named characters, Mr. Brooks makes the audience his classroom. And he has lots of dirty pictures to draw upon the chalkboard.
Accompanying their old friend on his historical romp in his legendary crew of raucous teachers: Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, and of course, Cloris Leachman (funny as hell as the French revolutionary Madame DeFarge). As in “Blazing Saddles”, Richard Pryor was cast to play a principal character. And once again, Mr. Pryor had to be replaced by another actor. Shortly before filming was to begin, Pryor accidentally set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine and drinking 151. In addition to the role of the slave Josephus, the incident cost Mr. Pryor severe skin grafts. But it did create for him a comic routine that will last for all eternity: “When you are on fire, people get out of your way.”
After losing Pryor a second time as a principal actor, Brooks gave the role of Josephus to the late Gregory Hines (seriously, the man has got to be tired of funerals) in his cinematic screen debut. Thus began an enjoyable but tragically brief acting career for Mr. Hines.
Other notable appearances from talented comedians include Dom DeLuise as Julius Caesar, looking like James Gandolfini with a hangover, and old-time collaborator Sid Caesar as a caveman named Gunga. Fans of Brooks might remember that he used to write for Caesar on “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour” in the 1950’s. Bea Arthur, Hugh Hefner, and Henny Youngman all make crowd-pleasing cameos during the Roman Empire segment. Hef must have brought a squad of Playmates with him because Brooks ended up casting several of them as Vestal Virgins.
But before we get there, let’s cover Brooks’ summary of the Stone Age, where Gunga the caveman makes grand discoveries for prehistoric mankind. As Welles narrates, this is the movie at its most uproarious, with each discovery funnier than the first. Classic moment: the thrilled expression on Sid Caesar’s face as he clubs a cavewoman and drags her away in the first Homo sapien marriage.
The director/writer/star makes rampant appearances throughout his parody of the historical spectacular as Tomas de Torquemada, the first Inquisitor General of fifteenth century Spain, as well as Moses, presenting these fifteen, “CRASH!” . . . ten commandments for all to obey. I have to credit Mr. Brooks for installing within me the correct pronunciation of Torquemada’s name: “Let’s face it, you can’t torquemada anything.”
But while these episodes evoke great laughter from the audience, particularly the Spanish Inquisition being set to an elaborate musical number, the bulk of storyline material is dedicated to two separate parodies: The Roman Empire, ridiculing the sword and sandal epic and The French Revolution, mocking the costume period drama.