TBT: The Story of Mankind (1957)

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The Story of Mankind (1957) is one of those movies I come across when I’m searching for filmed portrayals of various historical figures, and given how many big hitters show up in this film — Queen Elizabeth I! Marie Antoinette! So many more! I figured I should track it down. Plus, I’m kind of a fan of ridiculous movies that take a whole bunch of historical characters and throw them into a blender.

Welp, there’s a reason you’ve never heard of this film: it’s BOR-ING. Basically, “mankind” is put on trial by “council of elders of outer space” to determine whether it should be allowed to end itself by using the H-bomb. Representing the “yes please!” vote is “Mr. Scratch,” aka Satan, played by Vincent Price. Representing the “no thank you!” side is “Adam, the spirit of mankind.” The movie intercuts between the two arguing in the “court” (sorry, so many air quotes here) and then going to watch various scenes in history as evidence.

1957 The Story of Mankind

The trial before the “council of elders of outer space.”

1957 The Story of Mankind

Vincent Price as Satan (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

I will say, it was kind of interesting to see a film questioning so many of humanity’s decisions, especially one made this early. And I was impressed that while they didn’t really dwell on it, Scratch does point out not only the horrors of war but also how awful it was that Europeans actively tried to wipe out Native Americans and similar situations — I would have thought in this period they would have doubled down on manifest destiny — although there was no discussion of slavery, which, what?

That being said, it’s hard to emotionally invest when it’s just blips through history, and worst of all, it’s the most stereotypically bad history ever. Cleopatra was a murdering, scheming whore. Yes Columbus and the Spanish massacred Native Americans, but then a “better” country got involved in the new world – England! No mention of England’s massive role in the slave trade! Queen Elizabeth I spars with the Spanish ambassador; who does she call to advise her? Shakespeare, randomly! Manhattan Indians are costumed in stereotypical Plains Indian Halloween costumes, oh and they say “how” (insert pissed off emoji). And, of course, Marie-Antoinette really DID say “Let them eat cake!” (shudder)

Nonetheless, I did watch this sucker (okay, while multi-tasking) and I DO love seeing dated portrayals of historical figures, so let’s hit the highlights.

The costumes were designed by Marjorie Best, who also designed The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938), Adventures of Don Juan (1948 – Oscar winner, Best Costume Design, Color), King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), Giant (1956 – Oscar nominee, Best Costume Design, Color), Sunrise at Campobello (1960 – Oscar nominee, Best Costume Design, Color), State Fair (1962), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965 – Oscar nominee, Best Costume Design, Color), among others.

Here’s a rundown of the more interesting historical characters:

Pharaoh Khufu

Played by John Carradine, he happily sacrifices the souls of thousands of his people for immortality.

1957 The Story of Mankind

He’s also a fan of gold lamé.

Helen of Troy

Was a total bimbo.

1957 The Story of Mankind

Emperor Nero

Played by Peter Lorre, he was depraved and really did enjoy watching Rome burn.

1957 The Story of Mankind

He also liked his ladies to tease that bouffant.

Cleopatra

Played by the usually blonde Virginia Mayo, she poisoned her brother, shagged Caesar just because he gave her jewels, lured Marc Antony to his demise, and then killed herself.

1957 The Story of Mankind

Okay I like the green and gold pants!

1957 The Story of Mankind 1957 The Story of Mankind 1957 The Story of Mankind 1957 The Story of Mankind

Joan of Arc

Played by Hedy Lamarr, she heard voices, told the troops to attack Orléans and then stood there watching as they all ran off to attack, then was put on trial in a suspiciously knit turtleneck ensemble.

1957 The Story of Mankind

Peasant costume by Disneyland.

1957 The Story of Mankind

She hears a voice, tells these guys “The way to win is to attack!”, then stands there beaming as they all run off.

1957 The Story of Mankind

I mean, I’m team leggings myself, but…

1957 The Story of Mankind

Did they really bother to sign their burnings-at-the-stake?

Leonardo da Vinci

Doesn’t even get a screen credit, looks like he was played by comedian David Mitchell in a lot of fake hair/beard, and was a genius who invented lots of cool shit/was a baddie who also invented weapons.

1957 The Story of Mankind

Christopher Columbus

Owned a suspiciously modern map.

1957 The Story of Mankind

That’s Chico Marx on the right as a monk.

Queen Elizabeth I

Played by Agnes Moorehead (Bewitched), she was fiesty as all get out, and when the Spanish ambassador threatened war, she called on Shakespeare for advice?

1957 The Story of Mankind

This doesn’t seem to be referencing any specific portrait of QEI…

1957 The Story of Mankind

I was amused by the ambassador’s (Cesar Romero) barely-there pants.

1957 The Story of Mankind

Editor’s note: This costume is recycled from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) & was designed by Orry-Kelly.

1957 The Story of Mankind

Shakespeare

Inspired QEI to fight the Spanish armada by conveniently reading the St. Crispin’s day speech from Henry V.

1957 The Story of Mankind

Also, had oily hair.

Peter Minuit

The Belgian director of the Dutch colon of New Netherlands (played by Groucho Marx) did indeed rip off the Native American tribes.

1957 The Story of Mankind

In his best Puritan costume?

1957 The Story of Mankind

He runs off with the chief’s daughter, who looks straight out of the animated Disney Peter Pan (1953).

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Oh yes they went there.

Marie-Antoinette

Had cutely pink hair (okay the style is terrible as is the shine), loved poly baroque satin, and really didn’t give a shit about the French populace — and really did say “Let them eat cake.” (Note: I am being sarcastic up the wazoo here. She didn’t say that.)

1957 The Story of Mankind

All the sparkles!

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The Story of Mankind (1957)

That neckline terrifies me.

1957 The Story of Mankind

THE STORY OF MANKIND, Marie Wilson, 1957

Napoléon and Josephine

He (Dennis Hopper) wants to conquer the world, she is semi-aghast.

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Dennis Hopper in The Story of Mankind (1957)

One of these days I will write a post about why satin isn’t your friend.

1957 Story of Mankind

I skipped a lot of the less interesting/shiny stuff, like Genghis Khan; after Napoléon, it’s all Hitler, all the time.

 

Do you watch bad movies even though they are bad?

15 Responses

  1. India Edghill

    I love, love, LOVE bad movies. But they have to have been filmed as a “real movie” — and that was MEANT to be good, or at least normal, but somehow is AWFUL. anachronisms abound, costumes clash with correctness, and the dialogue drives one to despair.

    For some reason, movies about biblical characters frequently fall into the Bad Movie category. ( ie, Mary-Mother-of-Jesus gazing reverently at the camera and announcing in an excited murmur, “I… could… INTERECEDE…”)

    I’m not ashamed to admit that Bad Movies are my jam.

    Reply
    • Roxana

      Strange isn’t it? The bible is full of sex and violence and intense character conflict but somehow none of that makes it onto the screen.

      Reply
    • Saraquill

      One of my favorite movies is so bad, it uses a pickled onion in place of an eyeball. “Stacy” is not remotely a frock flick, but I can’t recommend it enough if you’re into zombie B movies.

      Reply
  2. Boxermom

    If I want to watch a bunch of historical characters together in one movie, I’ll watch Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (or Time Bandits). :)

    Reply
  3. Al Don

    See, I dragged my feet on seeing this. I thank you for your sacrifice so I didn’t have to.

    They did give these costumes the good community threatre once-over. But, I will actually say one nice thing about a costume here(!) They did make Napoléon’s coat blue (though it should be a darker blue) instead of some interpretations of it as black… so that’s nice.

    Reply
  4. hsc

    This is such a weird project.

    Irwin Allen– who would later go on to be famous for ’70s “disaster movies”– was given a chance to work with actors, following up on successful nature documentary features THE SEA AROUND US and THE ANIMAL WORLD.

    Allen picked a classic 1921 children’s book, Hendrik Willem van Loon’s “The Story of Mankind” (which was the first book to win the Newbery Medal) to adapt as a feature. Originally, the plan was to focus on only two actors– a man and woman representing all of mankind throughout the ages in various roles.

    However, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS was a huge success and a Best Picture Oscar-winner, featuring an “all-star cast” basically doing bit parts. (Mike Todd sold the cast on appearing by describing how the audience would suddenly see them on screen like a face in a cameo– selling it as “cameo” roles.)

    Allen decided to sell the film by milking that idea again, hence the hodgepodge of actors filling unlikely roles (Dennis Hopper and Marie Windsor as a couple of any sort– never mind as Napoleon and Josephine).

    It’s a film that’s been a staple of “bad film” lists like the book THE FIFTY WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME.

    And Irwin Allen spent the rest of his career living down to this start, with all-star casts in “who will make it out alive” dreck like THE SWARM.

    Reply
  5. Al Don

    “Did they really bother to sign their burnings-at-the-stake?”

    Ah, meant to comment on this. They did not have a sign above the condemned, but they did make the prisoner wear a paper mitre, on which was written their crimes. In Latin, not the local vernacular – and certainly not modern English. Joan of Arc was made to wear one such mitre. Most movies and modern images skip this detail, but the 1994 Jeanne la Pucelle II – Les prisons gets this right. There’s also a good modern medieval artist who captured this.

    Reply
  6. Gill

    Roman women – slaves? Nero’s family? – in CONICAL BRAS.

    No more. Please.

    Reply
  7. Lily Lotus Rose

    Yes, I do, on occasion, watch bad movies. And now… this one is on my list! This is the second Vincent Price film I’ve learned of in the past year that inspired other works made in the 80’s. The History of Mankind seems to have inspired the pilot for Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Encounter at Farpoint” (1987). Vincent Price’s The House on Haunted Hill (1959) seems to have inspired the 80’s classic movie Clue (1985).

    Reply
  8. Jose

    https://youtu.be/NYufkpWLEqM a little out of place but this telenovela from Brazil is period and very beautiful this clip is dubbed in English so you can understand the dialogue I would be glad one of the FrockFlickers gave it a chance for a review please let me know your opinion

    Reply

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