Director: Irwin Allen
Starring: Ronald Colman, Hedy Lamarr, Groucho Marx
Release Date: 8th November 1957 (US)
History is written by the winners, and spoken aloud by the biggest voice. By 1957, no voice was bigger than that of the USA, with its cultural output designed to confirm and celebrate the idea of the American Century (some films, such as the 1956 classic The Searchers, were co-funded by the CIA expressly for this purpose). This message – the good guys always win, and we are the good guys – was exported around the globe, aside from those parts colored communist red, with the Eastern Bloc’s example held up to US allies as to why they should embrace Western cultural values. America could ask: look at this repressive Soviet regime – why favor an ideology which forbids its people such harmless entertainment? In retrospect, we might view the question as: why swallow the bitter pill of communism when America can sell you a pill that tastes like candy?
In its way, the message America sent around the world was the greatest and most successful propaganda exercise ever seen, offering all the freedom to chose freedom, to join the winning team; to offer no choice was to lose. Yet if it was to win the future, America, a young nation, needed to plant its flag upon the past, and for this, some housekeeping was required.
The Story of Mankind, made in an optimistic country in that most optimistic year of 1957, shows the past as white, Western, and largely masculine, because that’s how the US saw itself and the American Century. In a film purporting to show the history of humanity, entire continents and civilizations are ignored in favor of men from Western Europe and North America, ignoring the inventors and pioneers of Ancient China, Persia, India, Mesopotamia (where civilization began), or of the Babylonians and Aztecs. With the possible exception of Queen Elizabeth I (who even then needs help from a man) the only women shown are on the debit side, with no room even for a Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, or Florence Nightingale. As for the Russians – forget it.
What we get in its place is history as told by Gold Key Comics or Ladybird Books, where George Washington told the truth about a cherry tree, King Harold died with an arrow to the eye, and Marco Polo invented ice-cream. Damn it though, if it isn’t entertaining – or, as Vincent Price comments at one point: “My colleague paints the prettiest pictures; not accurate, but pretty.”
Another Americanism is The Story of Mankind‘s veneer of riches and reliance on celebrity. Director Irwin Allen, later to make his name in cinema through the disaster movie genre of the 1970s, combines stock footage from old big budget films with set-pieces filmed in small studios crammed with big names. Twenty-five of these names blast out of the screen before the title card, and it seems an impressive role call, but by 1957 most of those credited had slipped off the A-list or were reaching the end of their careers, such as with the distinguished Ronald Colman, Oscar winner for Best Actor in 1947, whose first substantial role this was in seven years. Many of the rest were big names – but in name only. The fading stars play various historical figures who, in turn, are reduced to celebrity cameos, jostling for the viewer’s attention.
Based on Hendrik Willem van Loon’s 1921 book in the same way a bag of Doritos is based on a cornfield, TSOM starts with two angels, rendered as animated points of light, discussing Man’s premature discovery of “the Super H-bomb” and fretting over the possible housing shortage this will cause once everyone’s been blown to kingdom come. Reporting this bad news to “the front office” leads to the setting up of the Grand Tribunal of Outer Space, five solemn grey-haired gentlemen led by the High Judge (Cedric Hardwicke).
An indictment is read out in this celestial courtroom to the effect that, having discovered the Super H-bomb sixty years ahead of schedule, Man is incapable of handling such terrible power in a responsible way. Therefore, the tribunal must decide whether to intervene and save Man from himself, or allow the species to destroy itself once and for all. To argue the case for the latter is Mr Scratch (Vincent Price), and his mute assistant (Nick Cravat). As you can imagine, a Vincent Price devil is a devil of the most suave and debonair sort, and Price looks splendid in his red cravat, long-tailed dress jacket, stripey pants, top hat and waistcoat. “Mankind is unworthy, without a shadow of a doubt!” declares Mr Scratch, giving the invention of the Super H-bomb as proving his case in and of itself.
Defending humanity is the Spirit of Man (Ronald Colman, who starred with Price in 1950’s Champagne for Caesar), a dapper if more conservatively dressed fellow, “a wanderer in time” who represents “the great and the good” of all men. The Spirit of Man defends humanity as being “flesh, not spirit; mortal, not immortal,” and describes his many gifts: opposing thumbs, speech, reasoning, standing erect and fruitfulness, the latter two unconnected. The steadfast Spirit is here to talk up our good points and nothing else, so there’s no need to worry about that thing you did in the backyard last week with your neighbor’s hosepipe.
The High Judge gives Mr Scratch and The Spirit of Man permission to visit any part of human history they wish to back up their cases. We begin in prehistoric times with the discovery of fire, an interesting ‘scientific’ choice given some of the later biblical leanings taken by TSOM. A caveman whom I shall name for my own entertainment as Oog (Don Megowan, star of 1962 sci-fi curio Creation of the Humanoids) wins the heart of a cavewoman by chucking a rock at her current beau’s head, knocking him out. Oog drags the future Mrs Oog to a cave, whereupon lightning strikes a tree, setting it alight. All three cavepersons gather around the fire to keep warm. This, according to The Spirit of Man, leads mankind to develop group living, while the struggle to gain control over fire helped to man to strive after answers to other problems, and to develop a social conscience. Convinced?
Mr Scratch isn’t, claiming this “the beginning of the end” for mankind, and calls his first witness, the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu (also known by the name the Ancient Greeks gave him, Cheops). In doing this, Mr Scratch hopes to convince the Tribunal it is impossible for evil to thrive in the world unless Man supports it willingly. Khufu takes the stand, played by the tall, pale and profoundly non-Egyptian John Carradine, and if you think that’s an odd piece of casting then brother, you ain’t seen nothing yet. At least this couldn’t happen nowadays *cough*GodsOfEgypt*cough.*
We travel back to the twenty-sixth century BC, with Khufu returning in triumph from victory over the Nubians. Taking to his throne, Khufu pats his pet lion on the head and asks his attendant Armana (Marvin Miller) to interpret his recurring dream of a mighty yet empty palace. Armana replies this dream indicates Khufu’s final resting place, a temple of immortality. Khufu doesn’t want to wait until he’s dead to enjoy such an extravagance, so commands all Egyptians to devote themselves to the construction of his temple of immortality, or as we now know it, the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The pyramids stand, according to Mr Scratch, as “an individual symbol for all mankind” and his evil, for Khufu has signed a pact with him for the souls of a million men so his great temple can be built. The Spirit of Man takes the opposite view – a good individual always prospers, as he is supported by the goodness of all men. The Spirit takes us forward thirteen hundred years to the time of Moses (played in full-bearded fashion by Francis X Bushman, one of the idols of the silent cinema). Moses is TSOM‘s only biblical character, rather odd considering the often pro-Christian message of 1950s US cinema; you’d think the Spirit of Man would give Jesus Christ a passing mention, though I suppose it’d be like including a NBA-standard ringer in a Little League game.
Moses, appalled by the tyranny and slavery of Egypt, casts himself into the desert to find God (He’s always in the last place you look, isn’t He?), returning to lead his people to freedom. Along the way, Moses stops at Mount Sinai (played by a grassy knoll and a lot of dry ice) to receive the Ten Commandments from God (voice actor uncredited), those tricky little life hacks so many of our world leaders have such difficulty abiding by. “Man in his confusion worshiped many gods,” The Spirit of Man tells us, and the Commandments stopped that sort of nonsense in no uncertain terms. From now on, one God fits all, and no refunds. “Good prevailed.”
“But not for long,” counters Mr Scratch, citing the wars fought between the Trojans and the Greeks over Helen of Troy. The Ancient Greeks also believed in many gods, with the god of war a continual favorite. Looking down from a balcony over stock footage of fiery conflict, Mr Scratch asks The Spirit of Man “are you telling me all of those men down there would have fought and died if they hadn’t wanted to?”
Dodging a loose Trojan arrow, the Spirit also dodges the question. “What of the Golden Age of Greece?” he asks, referencing Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, “the world’s first scientist,” before settling on Hippocrates as his next example of man’s inherent goodness.
There follows one of TSOM‘s better historical set-pieces, helped by its low-key approach and a dignified, warm performance by Charles Coburn (Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor in 1943) as Hippocrates. We watch as the physician, in or around 400 BC, tends to a sick man, whose wife proscribes an ox sacrifice to please the gods. Hippocrates explains the ox is best used to take the ailing man into the hills for clean, fresh air. This baffles the woman, and Hippocrates explains “nature follows certain definite laws, which can be observed…disease has a course which can be predicted.” Hippocrates also details, more for the viewer’s benefit, the fundamentals of what became the Hippocratic oath, the moral code by which all doctors must abide.
The trouble is, TSOM goes along with another abiding Americanism, the ‘Great Man’ theory, whereby many of history’s major advances are the work of a single person operating in isolation against the prevailing notions of the time (in movie terms, think of John Rambo routing whole armies and rescuing people without any sort of back-up). America’s great belief in individualism doesn’t allow for what’s most likely the truth, that Hippocrates is an exemplar of the changing attitudes of his times, a hundred different beliefs and people all rolled up into one, easy to comprehend figure – if he can do it, then so can you. The American Dream is thus overlaid upon history, with even the cavemen living in the “isolation and mistrust” lurking behind so many films of the 1950s.
A golden brassiere, produced by Mr Scratch from his magical bag of tricks, threatens to bring the solemn proceedings to halt. This unorthodox lingerie was the property of Cleopatra, and so we’re off to Egypt, c. 30 BC. The dark-haired, dark-skinned Cleopatra is played by blonde-haired, white-skinned Virginia Mayo, one of the biggest box office stars of the 1940s and early 1950s. Cleopatra poisons her boring brother, picks Julius Caesar’s pocket for jewels, and double-crosses lover Mark Anthony (Helmut Dantine) during the Battle of Actium, leading the “greatest Roman of them all,” to stab himself out of sheer ennui. Cleopatra keeps up with the new fashion by killing herself when the Romans double-cross her shortly afterwards. The abiding impression we get is young Cleo did all of this just for figs and giggles.
130 years later and Mr Scratch introduces us to the Emperor Nero (Peter Lorre), “one of my favorite proteges.” The court of Nero is enjoying a family-friendly orgy, complete with feasting, music, trapeze artists, and a rampant dwarf (Angelo Rossitto). Nero sits amid all this looking like a toad with indigestion, perhaps bored by the fully-clothed cuddling. “There was no limit to his insanity,” says Mr Scratch, and it’s a test of our sanity to believe Nero was a manic depressive with a thick central-European accent and a tendency to chew the scenery. Peter Lorre does at least look the part; as his biographer Stephen D Youngkin puts it, Lorre’s “bloated face and foreshortened figure physically expressed the deformity of the character he played.”
What do we all know about Nero from fourth grade history? ‘He fiddled while Rome burned,’ I hear you chant. TSOM doesn’t make the mistake of the anachronistic fiddle, but Nero is held responsible for the burning of Rome, a contentious accusation likely concocted by ancient historians with an ax to grind. TSOM though is happy to follow journalism’s old adage, ‘given choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend.'”
Mr Scratch tells the court that Nero’s role as Emperor shows man is content to accept evil in whatever perverted form it takes. Not so, according to The Spirit of Man, who shows us a contemporaneous family of early Christians, praying in a catacomb. The husband, holding the couple’s young child, suggests flight from the approaching Roman soldiers. The wife prefers to venerate the words of “the master,” reciting the Sermon from the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer, all the time smiling beatifically. Soldiers enter and drag the family away. “Their holy words didn’t do them much good,” smirks Mr Scratch. On the contrary, says the Spirit, this shows “man was reaching into the light.” Given one of Nero’s reported predilections was to turn Christians into human torches to illuminate his palace, one hopes this is an unintended irony.
Attilla the Hun is next in the rogue’s gallery as we gallop to 440 AD or thereabouts, where the Mongol hoards lay waste to “thousands of years of progress,” mostly by setting fire to thatched roofs and shouting “RAAAAAA!” Science and faith were put to the sword, states Scratch, bringing forward the Dark Ages, with knowledge, faith and science almost left extinct. Granted, concedes The Spirit of Man, yet the Dark Ages, after a measly eight centuries, gave way to the age of chivalry, jousting, and the legend of the Knights of the Round Table. We also hear of “the Judaic God, the Holy Trinity, and the enlightenment preached by Buddha, and Allah, whose prophet was Mohammed,” all for whom man was willing to die by the tens of thousands to keep faith burning bright. How we’ve progressed from those martyred days, eh?
“After years of lawlessness,” the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215 provided the “cornerstone of civil liberties and human rights,” boasts the Spirit, when in reality, the Magna Carta didn’t become statute in England until 1297, has more to do with the rights of barons than the common man, and much of its supposed power as a constitutional document is mythical.
Skipping the fourteenth century, a messy time of all concerned, the trial takes us next to France 1431, and those of you who remained awake, sober, or simply not high during history lessons may recollect this means Joan of Arc. Joan was only 19 at the time of her reputation was staked, so naturally she’s portrayed by 43 year old Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr. Joan hears the voice of St Michael, who takes a personal interest in French politics to command Joan to entreat Prince Charles of France to raise an army and lift the siege of Orleans. For all the action we see, TSOM‘s version of Joan’s story might as well be a community theater production, as she orders four soldiers to attack Orleans, and is later captured by a grand total of two soldiers in Burgundy.
Things pick up in Rouen, as Joan is taken before Bishop Cauchon, who apparently liked to wear Santa suits while interrogating heretics. Playing Cauchon is Henry Daniell, always good value, and his grinding, villainous demeanor brings some much-needed edge to proceedings. Sensing she is doomed, Joan laments “is there no-one to help me?” Certainly not St Michael, who maintains a diplomatic silence during Joan’s new vocation as kindling. Lamarr’s playing of Joan of Arc comes across like some cheap Eastern European knock-off of a modern day ‘manic pixie dream girl’ film and it’s little wonder Lamarr decided to retire from Hollywood soon after, to continue her attempt to marry half of California and invent frequency hopping spy technology, because women can actually do that sort of thing.
Forsaken, “the truth she spoke meant nothing,” pronounces Mr Scratch. “Tragic,” admits The Spirit of Man, who is all heart, “but not an indictment of all the Middle Ages.” And so we reach the Renaissance, an age of “free thought of the individual” and “emancipation of the human will.” In his effusive promoting of such advances, The Spirit of Man reminds me of various English Literature tutors who believe the publication of a Bronte novel or a T S Eliot poem changed the lives of ordinary people overnight, when history is rarely such a clean and inclusive process.
Leonardo Da Vinci is chosen as the symbol of the times, a man “who men followed willingly.” Yet, the man who created Mona Lisa and The Last Supper also, as Mr Scratch demonstrates, designed prototype tanks and machine guns. Da Vinci wasn’t above appealing to patrons to employ such devices, as Mr Scratch reads from a genuine letter Da Vinci sent in 1482 to the Duke of Milan, advertising his services in the offices of war.
Wisely, the Spirit of Man drops Da Vinci from his star line-up for the symbol of man’s “spirit of adventure,” that well-known champion of human rights, Christopher Columbus (Anthony Dexter). Columbus convinces a doubtful monk the world is round by sticking a tiny model ship onto an orange, making his expedition to find a shorter, westward route to the Indies viable, unaware the world is at least twice the size of an orange. The monk in this scene is played by Chico Marx, because, well… why the hell not? Two of his famed brothers will turn up later, and Chico’s brief spot is by far the sanest of the three.
Mr Scratch points out Columbus’ discovery of the New World led the way for Cortez to wipe out the Incas during the middle decades of the sixteenth century. Doubtless the doomed Incas would be much consoled by The Spirit of Man’s commenting “the slaughter wasn’t endless” with other nations disagreeing with Spain’s authoritarian management of the not-so-open seas. Before you know it, we’re at the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1588 and a royal page with a horrendous ‘British’ accent announces the arrival of an Spanish Envoy (Cesar Romero) who visits good Queen Bess to warn her country away from the seas around the Americas, Spanish “by right of conquest.”
Queen Elizabeth, interpreted by Agnes Moorehead as a very shrill version of Dame Edith Evans’ role as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest (1952), points out, quite astutely, that Spain has yet to conquer the fish of the ocean, so England can send her ships where it jolly well likes, sirrah.
The Joker, sorry, I mean the Spanish Envoy, doesn’t much care for QE1’s tone of voice, and nor does anyone else with functioning eardrums. Threatening such an armada as to leave England an island vassal of Spain, the envoy flounces out. Queenie summons a poet to read aloud and help her think. Yes, it’s William Shakespeare (Reginald Gardiner), how did you guess? Shakespeare gets off to a shaky start with her majesty, who takes offence as his proposed reading from his new play The Taming of the Shrew (not written until 1590 at the earliest, according to Andrew Dickson’s book The Rough Guide to Shakespeare), but has better luck by quoting from the concluding lines of King John (for which Dickson suggests a date of 1595):
“This England never did, nor never shall / Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror…Come the three corners of the world in arms / And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue, / if England to itself do rest but true.”
Inspired by these not-yet-written lines by a poet of whom she was unaware, Queen Elizabeth decides England shall fight, the Spanish Armada is defeated, and the oceans are free for the use of all the major powers.
Rather letting humanity down by bringing up the subject of the Anglo-Spanish war, The Spirit of Man tacks due west and we land with the pilgrims on Plymouth Rock in 1607. No cut-throats here we’re told, just peaceful businessmen and farmers seeking a better life, and not at all fleeing religious persecution. Mr Scratch prefers to cast us forward to Jonestown 1626, and a very sharp bit of business: Peter Minuit buying Manhattan Island from the Native Americans for $24. When I tell you Minuit is played by Groucho Marx, you may guess how seriously TSOM takes the plight of the Native Americans.
Although his trademark greasepaint ‘tache and eyebrows are missing, we’re nonetheless presented with the full-on Groucho persona, cigar, glasses, wisecracks and all. “How,” says the Indian Chief. “Three minutes, and leave them in the shell,” quips Groucho in reply. The Chief barters Minuit up to $26 for the island; on learning the Chief doesn’t drink, smoke, or fool around with women, Groucho cries, “what do you need $26 for?!?”
The famed sum of $24 is reached, the Chief accepts payment in the form of worthless merchandise, and it’s another score for Mr Scratch: “What a gip!” While it’s always fun to watch Groucho Marx in full flow, one wonders if a more suitable film vehicle for his talents, and those of his brothers, couldn’t be found elsewhere.
Scratch presses home his advantage, skipping us through the European invasion of the New World (TSOM takes a turn against anyone from the wrong side of the Atlantic at this point), the Salem witch hunts, the 1665 Great Plague of London, and the continuing threat of pirates upon the high seas. “The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries hit a new low,” in misery, he claims.
“But also a new high of discoveries,” counters The Spirit of Man, “though some by accident.” And so we arrive at TSOM‘s most bewildering scene, and that’s up against some pretty strong competition.
I’m no historian, but I’ll take a guess that Sir Isaac Newton, author both of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) and the theory of gravity, wasn’t a Jewish New York-born harp-playing mute given to gesticulating in anger at apples should one (or indeed two) fall upon his head, yet that’s what we get here, courtesy of the grossly miscast Harpo Marx. The ridiculous juxtaposition of his casting in such a role no doubt appealed to Harpo’s comedic nature, though it brings what little is left of TSOM‘s credibility crashing down on his bewigged scalp harder than any Bramley or Cox’s Pippin. The scene ends with Sir Isaac using his harp to slice up an apple, “proving man’s sense of humor,” in that anyone with a sense of humor is soon begging for this sequence to end.
A century on, and the peasants are revolting, with The Spirit of Man name-dropping Revere, Adams, Franklin, and Washington as all “throwing off the yoke of oppression in the spirit of freedom.” Mr Scratch points out that “some revolutions were not so moderate,” and off we go to Marseille, France, 1788, where Marie Antoinette (Marie Wilson) is going through her parlor comedy routine with straight man the Marquis de Varennes (Franklin Pangborn’s last film of a thirty year career). Ms Antoinette, here a bejeweled Oscar Wilde, quips “let them eat cake” to the Marquis’ feed-line (no pun intended) of the peasants having no bread, just one gag in her killer set that led directly, it says here, to the Reign of Terror of 1793-94. In reality, the late Queen was no more likely to have said “let them eat cake” than our friend Oog the Caveman, and days of studious research* indicates the famous line was written by none other by that renowned comic, John-Jacques Rousseau.
One of the few to keep their heads (mon dieu, it’s infectious!) was a soldier and “brilliant tactician” who rose through the ranks to become Commander-in-Chief, Napoleon Bonaparte, essayed by a young Dennis Hopper with the moody, restless air of a teenager concerned he might be asked to wash Dad’s car at any moment. Talking to his beloved Josephine (Marie Windsor), Napoleon admits his ambition, desiring the role of Emperor of a “United States of Europe,” a concept which still causes many right-wing Europeans to wake screaming in the night. Emperor – my my! At Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender, “and once more, the human error was corrected by basic human traits,” claims The Spirit of Man, who’s been at the spirits too long I think.
The Great European Wars of the post-Napoleonic Age (which I like to think included the Albanian Revolt of 1847), and the Anglo-American War of 1812-15 are brought up as further damning evidence by Mr Scratch – “and then came the Red Man,” the genocidal onslaught sweeping west across America conducted by those who demanded “their God-given heritage by the fastest means possible.” We see a brief clip of cowboys and injuns, before a quick dose of the American Civil War (someone’s wagon topples over), followed by an outbreak of Gold Fever, all within a few brief moments.
You have to say, it’s not looking great for The Spirit of Man, whose feeble submission that “something good came of it,” boils down to “the deeds of Abraham Lincoln” and the Emancipation Declaration of January 1st 1863. Despite the composers, the scientists, and the planes-trains-and-automobiles “progress of the last 150 years,” The Spirit of Man has a mountain to climb, especially as there’s only ten minutes of the film left and we’ve barely reached the twentieth century.
“Mankind is worse than ever,” proclaims Old Scratch, “slaves who worship the god of war.” To prove his point, World War One is depicted by newspaper headlines and a man playing a twinkly tune on a piano, and after a cocktail to commemorate the Roaring Twenties (don’t mention The Crash), “one of my most brilliant creations came creeping out of the woodwork.” Playing Adolf Hitler, for it is he, is Bobby Watson, making the seventh of his nine film appearances as the Fuhrer. Adolf is reduced to a cameo role, bellowing that the Rheinland/France/Russia is the last of his territorial demands (frankly, I don’t trust this fellow), and this leads to Pearl Harbor, and “my most spectacular triumph, the A-bomb,” and weren’t there other countries involved in World War Two other than the US and Germany?
The High Judge calls for the final summations. The Spirit of Man brings forward his last witness, “the man of tomorrow,” and we see a child seated off in the dry ice distance. If there is no tomorrow, The Spirit of Man tells the court, then the sacrifices of the past are for nothing. Not the greatest of arguments I’d say, and the contemporary reviewer for Variety agreed: “in the dreary cataloging of man’s crimes against humanity, the Devil makes the better case.”
Grim news reaches the High Judge – the Super H-bomb will detonate at 11 o’clock, though fails to state if this is Pacific Time Zone, or Greenwich Mean Time, or whatever, though the Great Clock of Outer Space does look uncannily like a clock my parents owned back in the 1970s. Mr Scratch decries the child of tomorrow as “a sentimental trick” and draws the tribunal’s attention to the child’s toys – a gun and a sword. The Spirit of Man, starting to look less a Perry Mason and more a Lionel Hutz, points out the ‘gun’ plays music, while the sword is a pencil-box.
The Spirit of Man pulls out his trump card – The Bible. Better late than never, eh? Scratch and his assistant recoil in fear as the Spirit reads from Proverbs Chapter 11, Verse 18: “The wicked worketh a deceitful work: but to him that soweth righteousness shall be a sure reward.” I’ll stick my neck out here, and say The Spirit of Man panicked and picked that rather clunky quote out at random.
The Tribunal cogitate and return their verdict: “man is as evil as he is good…the scales balance much too evenly.” The High Judge turns to the camera and tells us “this court shall soon convene again…whether mankind shall continue or be destroyed…the choice is entirely up to you.” After all that, it’s a draw? And what happened to the 11 o’clock holocaust? What a gip!
Although making it into the Medved brothers’ infamous book The Fifty Worst Movies Of All Time (1978), two things become apparent while reading their review of TSOM: first, their inaccurate synopsis suggests they only saw the film once and wrote about it from memory; second, the Medveds seems comparatively fond of the film, and included TSOM on its reputation as one of the more off-kilter mainstream films produced by Hollywood. The budgetary limitations are obvious (with footage culled from, among other, fellow ‘worst fifty’ entrant King Richard and the Crusaders (1954)), yet it’s easy to get caught up in the giddiness and enjoy the cartoon-like lunacy. Certainly, if you’ve a young (and easily impressed) child, TSOM could be a way into developing an interest in history.
For the rest of us, the interplay between Vincent Price, Ronald Colman, and Cedric Hardwicke is a delight, enhanced by each actors’ distinctive delivery. Price especially was born to play the suave Mr Scratch and it’s a joy to watch him lock horns with the dignified Colman. Viewed by a modern audience, what’s intriguing about Allen’s use of Mr Scratch is some of his views would tie-in with the modern Hollywood liberal conscience, in pointing out the unrelenting wars filling man’s history, and the apparent futility of faith, with The Spirit of Man reduced to espousing conservative homilies upon traditional values and a dubious pride in various ‘patriotic’ achievements; when it’s the Incas who have sympathy from the Devil, where does that leave the modern viewer? Cast to Hell for empathy with an exterminated culture?
As for the rest of TSOM, dip in at a random point, and you’re as likely to pull out a peach as a piece of coal. The bizarre casting does keep you entertained, though some of the billed stars are gone in a blink; Edward Everett Horton as Sir Walter Raleigh for example, is barely on screen for ten seconds, and fine actors such as Peter Lorre are forced to cram a lifetime of a complex figure such as Nero in a matter of minutes.
One can’t condemn TSOM for lacking ambition, but one can deplore its loose, hearsay approach to history, the reliance on shaky mythology, and its woeful bias towards the Western, male view of history. TSOM makes for glib entertainment; just don’t stop to think about the reality of what it hopes to achieve, a whitewashing of the past for the ‘benefit’ of the man of tomorrow.
And that Super H-bomb? In a script written in 1956, the bomb was scheduled to make its appearance in 60 years’ time…
* some days into writing this article, I looked at her Wikipedia page.