Perhaps no name is more associated with the disaster film genre of the 1970’s than Irwin Allen. He was the man behind such films as “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno,” but his first films were quite different. His first two directorial efforts were documentaries, one of which won him an Academy Award, but for his third feature he worked with actors for the first time in a strange pseudo-documentary with an all-star cast and lots of footage borrowed from other movies…1957’s “The Story of Mankind.”
The premise is just plain weird. Due to Earth’s scientists having reached the point of developing the “Super H-Bomb,” a whole 12 years earlier than they should have, a heavenly tribunal has been assembled. With mankind doomed to blow themselves up, they must decide whether humanity is worthy of divine intervention to stop the bomb from exploding. The Devil, known as Mr. Scratch (Vincent Price), is on hand to argue against humanity, out to convince the court otherwise is “The Spirit of Man” (Ronald Coleman).
Each side travels throughout history, showing various examples of the crimes or achievements of man. Among the famous figures we see are Khufu (John Carradine), Marc Anthony and Cleopatra (Helmut Dantine & Virginia Mayo), Moses (Francis X Bushman), Joan of Arc (Heddy Lamarr), Nero (Peter Lorre), Napoleon (Dennis Hopper), Abraham Lincoln (Austin Green), and many many others.
The movie is big in scope…well, sort of. There are many big sequences of armies marching, ships battling, etc…problem is, they all come from other movies. The edits between new and old footage are far from seamless. The sequences shot by Allen are filmed in small sets, most likely using props and costuming left over from other films. The entire look of the production actually feels very similar to the educational short films from the 50’s that kids of my generation still watched in school. This isn’t a B picture, so the slice and dice approach to this film is strange.
The whole thing is campy. As you watch the film, you can tell that some of the actors sensed that, while others just embarrass themselves. Peter Lorre, for example, seems to get that the whole thing is just silly as he plays the at times bored/ at times cackling lunatic Nero. Heddy Lamarr’s portrayal of Joan of Arc, however, can only be described as unintentionally comedic.
Of course, in fairness, the script doesn’t really give the actors much to work with. The dialogue is long-winded to say the least (especially for Coleman and Price) and has a general pompous feel to it. I mean, talk about a misstep, you’ve cast Vincent Price as the devil…but all you have him do is talk! What a missed opportunity!
The film does try way too hard to be important. Had the film gone with a more comedic approach, things would’ve fared better. The only sequences that really work in the film are the two that are played for laughs…Groucho Marx buying Manhattan and Harpo Marx playing Sir Isaac Newton. Chico appears in the film as well, but he is given a small part as a monk who chats with Christopher Columbus. This was the last film that the three brothers appeared in together.
I guess because I knew the Marx Brothers were in this film, I was expecting it to be a comedy. Instead it’s got a very negative tone. The ending, in which the judge stares right into the camera and tells the audience that whether we live or destroy ourselves is up to YOU, like Kevin Costner in “JFK,” is a really creepy and unsatisfying way to end things. I guess I might as well say it, “The Story of Mankind” is the king of the disaster movies first disaster!