The Story Of Mankind

Director: Irwin Allen                       
Vincent Price, The Marx Brothers, Hedy Lamar

Special guest review!

By Michael Sullivan

At risk of throwing all credibility out the window (well, let's just pretend I had credibility to begin with), I just can't seem to get enough of Irwin Allen's idiotic all-star extravaganzas. I sit in awe over his hilariously awful final stabs at the disaster movie genre (The Swarm, When Time Ran Out) and especially his cheap and stupid television shows and miniseries. (Does anybody remember that Alice in Wonderland miniseries which had Sammy Davis Jr. and Scott Baio in the cast?). I love Allen's creaky films so much, I sometimes imagine "lost epics" such as The Life and Times of Abe Lincoln starring: Charles Bronson, Don Knotts, Crispin Glover, Rose McGowan, O.J. Simpson, George Kennedy (it's required by law), Chris "Corky" Burke, Dudley Do-Right, a giant robot, a magical talking hat, and Small Wonder's Tiffany Brissette as V.I.K.I.

So when I found out that one of Allen's earliest films was an adaptation of Hendrik Van Loon's book The Story Of Mankind, I had to check out the results and let me tell you, this film proves that Allen was always a cheap and incompetent director.

Opening with an inspired rip-off of It's a Wonderful Life, two angels in the form of blinking stars nervously discuss that man has discovered The Secret behind the Super H-bomb. After a lame remark about the bomb going off and there being a housing shortage in heaven, the two angels report this fact to the front office(?)

So an Outer Space Tribunal is held to see if mankind deserves to live or die. Speaking on behalf of us lowly humans is the Spirit Of Mankind (Ronald Colman). Unfortunately for mankind, the slick, charismatic Mr. Scratch (Vincent Price) is speaking against us, and after listening to Scratch's very convincing speeches of  the evils of mankind and then hearing Spirit's rather bland and dull speeches about how good we can be, I couldn't help but feel two things,

1. We deserve to die

2. I guess mankind didn't have enough money to shell out for the Spirit of Johnny Cochran and got stuck with this sub-par cosmic public defender.

Scratch is accompanied by his apprentice who greets the tribunal by blowing smoke out his ears, which Scratch reprimands him for. One thing I love in bad dramas or in bad horror are the writers attempts at comic relief. Most of the time the comedy falls flat. But sometimes if you're lucky, you get an insane non-sequiter like the scene above. (Another favorite non-sequiter moment comes from coincidentally another Price movie, The Bat, the line being, "That was the cat dropping its dentures.")

After enduring some more of Scratch's inane hijinks (which to Price's credit, even the stalest joke is said with an air of dignity), the tribunal judge lays down the film's premise. Scratch and Spirit are allowed to visit earth during any period of time since the world began. They can use people and events which are relevant to the trial.

So with that, the tribunal begins with a coma-inducing speech (from Spirit, of course) about the caveman's birth of reasoning. But just before you fall asleep, John Carradine pops up as Pharaoh Koo Foo (I know I spelled it wrong, and I really don't care), who supposedly gave Scratch the souls of a million men in exchange for immortality. To see how this happened, S and S arrive in Ancient Egypt to hide amongst a breathtaking amount of extras (two people) and watch stock footage from Land of the Pharaohs. Eventually they run out of mismatched stock footage, and Koo Foo shows up in a cramped cardboard set and demands to have pyramids built for all the nation's blood whilst stroking a real lion. (Wow! How much of the budget did that blow?) To counter the inherent evils of Koo Foo, Spirit talks about Moses (Francis X. Bushman in a ratty beard) who we see on Mt. Sinai as he listens to a very groggy-sounding God give out the Ten Commandments.

Jumping ahead past the Hundred Year War and the Greek philosophers, we find Scratch getting a big laugh from the tribunal audience by a holding a bra out in front of him. (ha, ha, ha, ha..... bra) This is actually a "clever" set up to introduce Cleopatra (Virginia Mayo). When I first saw Cleopatra's appearance in this film, I thought, "Wow! Betty Page's first legitimate acting gig!", but on closer inspection it's actually an eerily similar Mayo, who coincidentally has all of Betty's movements and mannerisms down pat. Mayo also decides to play Cleopatra like a moronic giggling nine year old girl. Although it's probably not the way most actresses would choose to play the Queen of the Nile, the way the part is played does have an undeniable camp appeal and it is a nice departure from the stultifying speeches thanks to Cleo's casual disdain for human life.

Speaking of casual disdain for human life, let's take a look at Nero (Peter Lorre), who is in the middle of hosting a party. Despite the fact that Scratch calls Nero a murderer, maniac, rapist, and pervert, the party is pretty tame. Unless you find interpretive dance and a dwarf chasing women around to be the height of  perversity. After laughing hysterically at throwing a cup at a dancer, Nero laughs hysterically as he plays his harp while Rome burns to the ground. (I'm no historian, but didn't he play a fiddle while Rome burned? Or to be more accurate, did this event ever take place at all?)

Fast-forwarding past a constantly screaming Genghis Khan and a ton of stock footage of Knights on horses. A middle-aged Hedy Lamar is pathetically trying to play the teenaged Joan Of Arc, who is later condemned to death by an angry William Schallert (Hey! Patty Duke's dad!) after being taken prisoner by the soldiers of Burgundy.

Moving right along, past a strange speech about the pros and cons of  Leonard DaVinci, we find a very embarrassed Chico Marx trying to convince Columbus that the world is flat ("Boom! No more ship."), but crafty Columbus puts a tiny ship on a grapefruit to prove him wrong. Thanks to this brand new form of transportation, the Joker (Cesar Romero as a traveling Spaniard) is able to meet Endora (Agnes Moorehead as Queen Elizabeth) so that the two dignitaries can see which one of them over enunciates every word they say the most, or was it something about a war between Spain and England? I can't remember, because at this point I couldn't get the themes to Bewitched and Batman out of my head.

Skipping ahead past a rather unfunny scene involving Sir Walter Raleigh and beer (don't ask), we get a legitimately funny moment, thanks to Groucho as Peter Minuit, who swindles Manhattan away from the Indians. Admittedly, the scene is really out of place (considering it's followed by footage of a guy getting whipped), but that only adds to the film's otherworldly charm. The final Marx brother Harpo shows up as Sir Isaac Newton and wouldn't you know it, Harpo manages to work in a gratuitous harp sequence. While playing his harp, Isaac is bonked on the head by a couple of apples. After some frantic mugging and some furious fist-shaking, Isaac discovers that his harp can cut apples into halves(?) To which Spirit adds, "But you must remember all this happened long before the invention of applesauce." (Irwin Allen, a comic genius rivaled only by the comic mind of a retarded chimpanzee)

While we're on the subject of silly miscast roles, check out America's favorite burn-out, Dennis Hopper, as an intense non-French accented Napoleon. Being a huge fan of Blue Velvet, I kept half expecting Napoleon would smear lipstick all over his face and scream, "I'll send you a love letter straight from my heart, f*cker!" while fondling Josephine's blue velvet robe. But Hopper plays it relatively straight, and is in the movie for a little more than five minutes.

The remainder of the film is mostly stock footage of the American Revolution, the gold rush, the Wright brother's first flight, and World Wars One and Two. Add to that an ambiguous ending (read: cop out) and you've got to be kidding me.

This film is truly the definition of kitsch with it's colorful cardboard sets, an endless amount of stock footage that would make Ed Wood shout, "Excessive!", overwrought dialogue, some truly ridiculous moments (Marie Antoinette and her guests laughing hysterically at a music box, Alexander Graham Bell saying, "Mr. Watson did you hear me?'' in an extremely randy and lascivious manner, William Shakespeare suggesting war with Spain to Queen Elizabeth) and, of course, the embarrassed cast.

But the Big Question remains: is it a bad movie classic? Almost. The one thing holding it back from True Greatness are Spirit's maddeningly dull speeches about morality, and most of these speeches don't make mankind look too good either. (Although the Renaissance shows how artistic and creative we can be, is that a good enough excuse not to drop the bomb on us, especially after hearing about the Salem witch trials, slavery, Nazis, and the ultimate atrocity, Renaissance fairs?) Although not lovably bad enough to be compared to Plan 9 or Cuban Rebel Girls, and not as mind-numbingly awful as Battlefield Earth or One From the Heart, The Story of Mankind is truly entertaining in spite of itself.

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check for availability of the original Hendrik Van Loon book

See also: Disk-O-Tek Holiday, On Any Sunday, That's Black Entertainment