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.
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:
Played by John Carradine, he happily sacrifices the souls of thousands of his people for immortality.
Was a total bimbo.
Played by Peter Lorre, he was depraved and really did enjoy watching Rome burn.
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.
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.
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.
Owned a suspiciously modern map.
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?
Inspired QEI to fight the Spanish armada by conveniently reading the St. Crispin’s day speech from Henry V.
The Belgian director of the Dutch colon of New Netherlands (played by Groucho Marx) did indeed rip off the Native American tribes.
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.)
He (Dennis Hopper) wants to conquer the world, she is semi-aghast.
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?