Irwin Allen, the so-called “master of disaster” behind The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), was responsible for an altogether different sort of cinematic calamity when he roped an astounding array of big name stars into his adaptation of Hendrik Van Loon’s children’s novel, The Story of Mankind. Van Loon’s book was the first winner of the prestigious Newberry Award for outstanding children’s literature and follows the history of Western Civilisation, from primitive man to the mid-twentieth century, charting key moments in the development of art, science, architecture and religion. Through it all he asks the question: did each person or event perform an act without which the entire history of civilisation would be different?
Allen latched onto Van Loon’s novel for his first attempt at directing live actors, following two successful wildlife documentaries, The Sea Around Us (1952) - based on the work of environmentalist Rachel Carson, who was so appalled by the film she denied Allen rights to her other books - and The Animal World (1956), turning it into a gimmicky and pompous bit of sermonising, best appreciated as camp.
In a framing device concocted by Allen and absent from Van Loon’s book, two angels are appalled to discover mankind has invented a Super H-bomb able to blow the Earth sky-high (“My, my, the housing shortage up here would be terrible… what’ll we do?”). A high tribunal convenes in Heaven, presided by judge Cedric Hardwicke, wherein Mr. Scratch a.k.a. the Devil (Vincent Price - who else?) and the Spirit of Man (that old smoothy Ronald Colman in his final role) argue the case for and against the extinction of man.
Thereafter the Spirit and the Devil wander invisibly through prehistoric times - where cavemen clunk each other over the head to grab their bit of cave-totty; summon unrepentant Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu (John Carradine) to the witness stand (Scratch writes him a receipt for all the souls he sacrificed); then journey through the ages while the film parades its incredible cast: Charles Coburn plays the founding father of medicine Hippocrates; Virginia Mayo makes a ravishing Cleopatra, although the script envisions her as a gold-digging harlot who fleeced supposedly “honourable” men like Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony of their wealth; Peter Lorre is a strangely glum Emperor Nero who cheers up a bit when Rome starts to burn (lookout for Angelo Rossitto as the obligatory dwarf at a Roman orgy); the world’s most glamorous physicist Hedy Lamarr is an unorthodox but impassioned Joan of Arc; Chico Marx is a sceptical monk who pours scorn on Christopher Columbus’ plans to circumnavigate the globe (sadly without his trademark Italian accent: “The world she is a’ flat a’ stupido!”); Cesar Romero is the suave Spanish envoy who jousts verbally with Agnes Moorehead as Queen Elizabeth I, who is less than impressed when William Shakespeare (Reginald Gardiner) mentions his new comedy is called The Taming of the Shrew (“Am I the shrew?!!”); Marie Wilson brings back memories of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) in her role as ditzy Marie Antoinette; Harpo Marx plays a harp-fondling Sir Isaac Newton (yes, you read that correctly); Dennis Hopper is Napoleon Bonaparte (what the f***?!) whose visions of grandeur reach their end at Waterloo; and Groucho Marx is Peter Minuit, the American settler who bamboozled the Indians out of New York for just $24 and wound up with a sexy Indian princess (played by Eden Hartford, Groucho’s spouse in the Fifties and Sixties) to boot.
Those few critics who don’t dismiss The Story of Mankind outright as one of the worst movies ever made, noticed a few parallels shared with the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), given that both films cite the atomic bomb as a symptom of mankind’s inherent evil and argue the human race is too immature to be trusted with nuclear power. While the religious angle makes this sound like a reactionary conservative flipside to the seemingly liberal humanism of The Day the Earth Stood Still, it is worth noting this is a rare Fifties movie that acknowledges the mass slaughter and mistreatment of Native Americans was a bad thing.
However, the decision to play several key moments for campy comedy undermines the argument for humanity’s goodness and highlights a major problem: namely that the Devil makes a better case. You couldn’t ask for a better advocate than Ronald Colman, a long way away from Random Harvest (1942) and his Oscar-winning A Double Life (1947) admittedly, but his silky smooth delivery merely talks up mankind’s accomplishments where Price’s satanic prosecutor goes all-out to illustrate his point. He even cites Joan of Arc as a case for the prosecution! We have Irwin Allen to blame for this since even at this stage he is far more drawn to disaster and spectacle than in weaving a coherent ideology, although co-scriptwriter Charles Bennett (known for his early Alfred Hitchcock collaborations and horror classic Night of the Demon (1957), he wrote several of Allen’s early films) gives it a valiant try.
American producer and occasional director who became known for his starry, trashy epics. Coming to the movies from a career in publishing and radio, he won an Oscar for the documentary The Sea Around Us, and The Big Circus, the campy Story of Mankind and The Lost World followed.