There are Star Wars people, and Star Trek people. Some people dig Bugs Bunny; others love Mickey Mouse. There’s DC folks, and those who Make Theirs Marvel. There’s the “boxers” crowd…and the “briefs” bunch. Red states. Blue states. You may have heated debates over any (or none) of these ways of seeing the world, but most of the time, the stakes of these discussions aren’t as very high as they might initially seem.
There are those who think humanity is worth preserving, and those who believe we ought to self-destruct our way back into a feral wasteland. That’s the discussion that takes place in Irwin Allen’s first live-action feature film, The Story of Mankind.
And that discussion is a hoot and a half!
Readers of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and devotees of Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen’s A Patriot’s History of the United States can at last rally around something, and that something is this always daffy, sometimes dull, and surprisingly still provocative 1957 film based on the children’s history book by Hendrik Willem van Loon.
Cult film fanatics who’ve yet to see this one can’t call their education complete until they do. Imagine Ed Wood mounting a historic costume production based on Conversations with Elie Wiesel and you start to get the unique flavor of this one-of-a-kind celestial courtroom drama.
OK, maybe the Ed Wood comparison is not really fair – it’s Irwin Allen, after all, the man who would eventually give us enduring disaster classics like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno – and, it’s a little too easy to say that some members of the all-star cast embarrass themselves in career-low appearances, and that the philosophical content plays a little too much like “Cosmos of the Network Stars.”
Cheesy? Oh, yeah. Sadly laughable? In parts.
Still got something to say?
The film opens with a blustery musical overture, with each cast member receiving his (or her) own trumpet fanfare: RONALD COLMAN! VINCENT PRICE! HEDY LAMARR! GROUCHO MARX! CHICO MARX! HARPO MARX! JOHN CARRADINE! CHARLES COBURN! VIRGINIA MAYO! CESAR ROMERO! PETER LORRE! DENNIS HOPPER! AGNES MOOREHEAD! HENRY DANIELL! CEDRIC HARDWICKE!
If that assemblage of star power doesn’t sell you already, read on. Here’s the setup:
Fade up on a vast starscape and a conversation taking place between two angels (depicted as twinkling stars). The angels are hemming and hawing over mankind’s “discovery of the Super H-Bomb” (which sounds a lot like the Solaranite device of Wood’s legendarily bad-great Plan 9 from Outer Space). It isn’t so much that man has discovered the bomb, it’s that he’s perfected the lethal doomsday device “60 years before he was scheduled to do so.”
“Why, they’re not ready or wise enough to handle it yet. If exploded now, the bomb would blow man and his Earth sky high!”
This dialogue is pure joy. And there’s so much more to come.
Disturbed by mankind’s moral transgression, otherworldly judges immediately convene a trial…in outer space. Chosen to represent the world’s people is the Spirit of Man (Colman), “a wanderer through time who was a combination of all men, of the pious and the fallen; the bold and the meek; the dreamers and the builders; the chaste and the guilty; the great and the small men of all times.”
Prosecuting the case—that is, making the argument that Mankind deserves to perish for its numerous sins—is none other than the great Satan himself, personified by the suave, smoothly rude Mr. Scratch (Price). If, by the end of the trial, mankind is found worthy of preservation, divine intervention will prevent the bomb’s explosion. If not, we are told, the imminent detonation of the bomb will be permitted to destroy the world.
The ground rules for the trial are set – with both Colman and Price allowed to “visit” Earth at any time or place to present evidence to the interstellar court. And thus the sweeping rush through time begins!
After a brief stop in the caveman era where the quest for fire is quickly re-enacted, Scratch calls Egyptian pharaoh Khufu (John Carradine) as his first witness—since the ruler apparently made a deal with Scratch to facilitate the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. We’re whisked into the world of ancient Egypt—which is to say that we’re treated to a clumsy blend of grainy stock footage mixed with inserts that include somnambulist extras walking in and out of frame as the stars stare offscreen.
At this point in the proceedings, friends, we’re about a half hour into the movie. And we’re only at the time of the pyramids. Here’s where viewers might start thinking, “My God. This is going to be a long, painful slog.”
But then, we get Peter Lorre as Nero, in maybe the most wrongfully enjoyable screaming fit ever filmed, left unequaled until Gene Kelly took to the screen in Viva Knievel! We get Christopher Columbus (Anthony Dexter) counseled by Chico Marx. We get Harpo Marx as (the harp-playing) Sir Isaac Newton. And, we finally get to Groucho, who portrays Peter Minuit, the man who reportedly swindled Native Americans out of Manhattan for what amounted to $24.
It’s hard not to notice Groucho looking deeply uncomfortable onscreen even as he gamely makes his way through some Marx-style banter that’s a pale shadow of the anarchic wit he and his brothers perfected in their best comedies:
“So you think you’re being robbed, eh? Be glad it’s not 300 years later. You might have been wiped out in the stock market.”
Yes, it’s a train wreck kind of pleasure you get when Lamarr’s Joan of Arc goes up against Daniell’s Bishop Cauchon in a perversely odd sequence that plays like an unholy collision between Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Victor Fleming’s tussle with La Pucelle starring Ingrid Bergman.
I haven’t even scratched the surface involving the scenes depicting Moses (Francis X. Bushman), Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare (Moorehead and Reginald Gardner), Abraham Lincoln (Austin Green) and Adolf Hitler (Bobby Watson). The highlight of the whole enterprise, however, is decidedly the sequence involving Napoleon (the very, very young Dennis Hopper). When Josephine casually remarks to him that modesty isn’t one of his virtues, you can really see that Frank Booth look come into his eyes, decades before David Lynch cast him as everyone’s favorite gas-huffing madman.
The trial finds Colman and Price continually countering one another, examples of mankind’s transgressions met with stories about humanity’s continuing moral progress. The burning of Joan was an outrage? Sure, but there was the Renaissance! It doesn’t make a whole lot of narrative sense to have Mr. Scratch’s panties in a bunch over Joan’s martyrdom–after all, if the event really represented one of man’s most egregious moral failures, you’d think he’d be thrilled and not indignant, as he is.
“Love and Hate are really the same.” Logic weeps.
The Story of Mankind offers a truly kaleidoscopic experience of mad wonderments. The film is a colossal aggravation and hypnotic in its appeal. The picture’s most bizarre charm, however, rests in how the film manages to burrow its way into your head and, yes, for a few moments here and there, actually forces you to think about the onerous issues concerning our lives and behavior here on the Big Blue Marble.
The film audaciously promises a sequel after a climax that actually took me by surprise. The producer of When Time Ran Out is long gone, but I say it’s up to someone to bravely take up this mantle and assemble a cast to rival this one. There’s a lot of historical pageantry to add to this film’s material, since Mankind has a lot to crow about—and answer for—since the dropping of the atomic bomb.
Spirit of Man? Morgan Freeman. Mr. Scratch? Penn Jillette, with Teller alongside him (just as Price comes with a sidekick).
The High Judge? Why not Betty White? She’s up for everything now, isn’t she?
And since Mel Gibson’s The Birth of a Nation remake has probably been stuffed promptly into turnaround (just kidding, kids—as in, he’s not planning one), maybe this would be the perfect new epic project for him.
Don’t miss this movie. Cult fans of a younger generation won’t recognize some of the once-world-famous faces (as I certainly did not), but there’s so much to devour here. You can see it, and be dazzled, or not.
“THIS CHOICE IS ENTIRELY UP TO YOU.”