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The Story of Mankind

(6/10)

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Current Rating 6.4/10 | 5 Votes

     Sometimes movies succeed in spite of themselves in ways never intended, and The Story Of Mankind is one of those movies. The incompetent directorial debut of Irwin Allen, who went on to be an incompetent (but highly successful) director (his real strength was as a producer; it was he who stoked the flames of the disaster movie cycle of the 70s), is a ridiculous, pretentious, overwrought and (though this hardly matter in the big, broad, general picture) frequently innacurate picture. What's really at stake is an unintentional encapsulation of everything wrong, phony, stupid, lazy and just plain bad about Hollywood historical epics of the first half of the first half of the century. Things like overwrought acting, anachronism, extreme self-righteousness, and bizarre celebrity turns. Thankfully, all these negative traits are made bizarrely entertaining in this film for all the wrong reasons - the film certainly isn't bad as it's legendarily reputed to be, what with it never having been released to video at all (Michael Medved's Golden Turkey Awards are to blame).

Humanity has discovered the Super-H-Bomb 60 years ahead of schedule, and a worried Council of Outer Space is called together to decide whether man should be destroyed or not. Arguing for it is Satan, played by the man born to play this role - Vincent Price, at his suavest. Arguing for us is The Spirit of Mankind, embodied by Ronald Colman, which would normally be a good thing, except for the fact that he's weighed down by a number of stupid, over-generalizing speeches. Traveling through history, they're allowed to use anything and anyone as examples for their cause, and so we do indeed see the story of mankind, or rather, a cursory inspection of the history of Europe and North America.

Allen's main weapons of choice are stock footage and celebrity cameos. Coming out of Warner Brothers' copious selection of footage of extras building pyramids, rioting and the like, these extremely obvious pieces of stock (conspicuous for their opulence, in contrast to the rest of the film's cheapness) are contrasted with Price and Colman standing against a threadbare, empty of extras set. The cameos are uniformly bizarre - notable offenders include Peter Lorre as Nero looking flabby and tired; Dennis Hopper as an oddly subdued and pensive Napoleon; Hedy Lamarr as a very overaged and overwrought Joan of Arc (the voice says "Joan! Listen to me!" and proceeds to outline all of her battles); Harpo Marx as Sir Isaac Newton (enough said; and Agnes Moorehead as an excessively bitchy and very jumpy Elizabeth I (overacting to high hell, and receiving policy advice from Shakespeare no less).

Despite these faults (and one notably tired and old lion in an Egypt sequence), The Story of Mankind has an odd but undeniable charm, both for its moments of unintentional humor and for its general stupidity. The movie is clueless, which is kind of endearing, and its worth catching in one of its rare airings. It's one of the last of a breed, and perhaps the definitive summation of why that breed mostly sucked.

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