“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
This famous quote by George Santayana highlights the problem society often suffers: long term memory loss. If something didn’t happen recently, we forget the conditions which led to it. Perhaps the reason for this is because history can be bogged down in details. History can be boring. However, as I’ve written before, history can be tolerable if it’s entertaining. The best times we can learn from our history are if we are open enough to laugh about it. Granted, history can be very brutal and unforgiving at times, but if we allow some of the accuracy to be tainted, these tragedies could be turned into comedies. Although sometimes it’s just fun to see that, as much as things change, some things remain the same. This week’s two films feature some comedic history lessons.
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 63 minutes / 1.05 hours
The more things change, the more things stay the same. There are certain elements of the human condition that tend to reappear, time and time again, regardless of the historical period. This theme can be seen in a number of films, including Cloud Atlas (2012), which even goes so far to show the parallels and connections of history well into the future. However, one of the most famous instances of the historical parallelism plot is that of Intolerance (1916). In this film, we see four different historical eras: Babylonian, Judean, French, and Modern. Each of these eras highlights the intolerance that has caused so many problems throughout history. In doing so, director D.W. Griffith tries to show us that our bigotry is not a new concept, as it has been around since time began. That being said, another human emotion which has been around forever is love.
Buster Keaton took a more upbeat approach to Griffith’s story with Three Ages (1923). Both share the multiple, historical periods, but Three Ages tries to highlight the struggle of man to win the heart of a woman. As such, Three Ages also mimics Intolerance by only using three archetypes: the boy (Buster Keaton), the girl (Margaret Leahy), and the rival (Wallace Beery). In the Prehistoric Age, the rival wins the girl by knocking her over the head and dragging her away. In the Roman Age, the rival wins the girl by beating the boy in a chariot race. Finally, the Modern Age (i.e., 1920s America) has the rival winning the girl over with massive amounts of wealth. Fortunately, it is in this final age when the boy finally gets the girl by stepping up and showing some confidence. Despite his monetary lack, the boy and girl have one thing in common: love.
History of the World, Part 1
Length: 92 minutes / 1.53 hours
Sometimes, the best way to learn history is to see an incorrect version of it. For instance, the comedy album Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Volume One: The Early Years takes the stories we’ve all heard in school and puts a humorous and musical twist on them. From Christopher Columbus sailing to Miami Beach to open an Italian Restaurant to the accidental serving of turkey instead of an eagle for Thanksgiving to a very indecisive George Washington as he chooses his boat to cross the Delaware River, each segment is meant to twist history into comedy only because we know what actually happened. Or do we? At any rate, much of the comedy of these historical pieces comes from the use of anachronisms, which are modern items and ideas placed in a historical period before their time.
Mel Brooks’ slightly askew history lesson comes in the form of History of the World, Part 1 (1981). Instead of showing all the different historical eras together in a parallel format, like in Three Ages, Brooks takes the very standard, chronological approach. Starting with the Stone Age, we see a world filled with firsts, which inevitably creates the first critics. Next, the Old Testament is parodied with Moses (Mel Brooks) bringing down the Fifteen, scratch that, Ten Commandments. Continuing on to the New Testament, the Roman Empire is shown to be filled with excess as Comicus (Mel Brooks) escapes certain death. Bet you didn’t know the Spanish Inquisition was a musical. Nobody expects that. Finally, in a case of mistaken identity, we see the French Revolution where “it’s good to be the king.” If only the sequel was real, we’d also get to see Hitler on ice.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 hilarious history lessons