Gregory Hines replaced Richard Pryor. Just like in Mel Brooks' earlier Blazing Saddles (1974), Pryor was originally cast but had to pull out of the picture. Pryor's part eventually was taken by Hines in his screen debut. Just before filming was to begin, Pryor had his infamous drug-related accident, catching fire and getting severely burnt.
The vestal virgins (who took the oath of chastity) in Caeser's palace in "The Roman Empire" segment are all Playboy playmates. The film's closing credits declare that the "Vestal Virgins [were] portrayed by Playboy playmates & models". Hugh M. Hefner (Playboy's patron) appears as the pipe-smoking entrepreneur talking about his invention, the "centerfold".
At the beginning of the French Revolution segment, the sign we see outside of Mademoiselle De Farge's hotel reads "Serving the Scum of Paris for 300 years". The French Revolution takes place in 1789 (according to the Piss Boy ("Garçon de Pisse") posing as King Louis, played by Mel Brooks. The previous segment depicting the Spanish Inquisition takes place in 1489 (according to Orson Welles' introduction), which is exactly 300 years earlier.
When the Court Spokesman is whispering "Remember thou art mortal", that actually happened. When a Roman general entered Rome after a successful campaign, he had a servant riding in his carriage with him, whispering that in his ear.
John Hurt did this movie because he had just gotten through doing two seriously dramatic films, and said that he wanted to have some fun and do a comedy. Hurt previously started in the title role in the Mel Brooks produced The Elephant Man (1980). That movie later became the subject of a comedy itself with "The Elephant Man" musical segments in The Tall Guy (1989).
In The Old Testament segment, the writing on the tablets are the correct two word Hebrew version of the commandments: Don't kill, Don't steal, Don't lie etc'. The five more Don'ts on the third tablet that Moses accidentally drops, are: Don't impregnate, Don't laugh, Don't buy, and the last one: Don't break. the letters of the fourth commandment on that tablet make the sounds of TLRT but that's not a word in Hebrew (could be a production mistake).
According to Mel Brooks, the Moses scene was a last minute addition. "Sometimes, you will get very lucky and the set will give you ideas for jokes," Brooks said in a 2012 interview with the Directors Guild of America. One day, he was gazing out at the scenery that had been built for the caveman segments when the gears in his head started turning. "I immediately thought, 'Well, where do I go from here?'" Brooks recalled. Heading into the shoot, his plan was to "skip the Bible and go to Rome.'" But eventually, he realized that the Stone Age set might enable him to explore another chapter in world history. With a few minor alterations, Brooks converted his faux caves into a mountaintop, and the Moses bit was born.
The movie's title is is a play on "The Historie of the World, Volume 1" by Sir Walter Raleigh. According to Wikipedia, "The History of the World was a book about the ancient history of Greece and Rome, written by Sir Walter Raleigh while prisoner in the Tower of London; he had only managed to complete the first volume before being beheaded". According to the British Explorers website, "whilst in the Bloody Tower he [Raleigh] wrote the "History of the World"...which was first printed in 1614. It was composed of five volumes but only reached as far as the second Macedonian War in 130 BC".
On June 7, 1981-just four days before the movie opened in theaters, Mel Brooks was interviewed by The New York Times and mentioned the possibility of a sequel. "Will there be a History of the World, Part 2?" he asked, rhetorically. "No. Maybe a Part 4, never a Part 2."
Beforehand, it was agreed that Orson Welles would receive $5000 per day in exchange for his services. Figuring that he'd have to spend five eight-hour days recording and re-recording these lines with Welles, Mel Brooks paid him $25,000 up front. But by noon on the first day, Welles had recorded every single one of his lines to perfection. "Oh my god, I could've paid you $5000," Brooks lamented. After kicking himself for a few minutes, the funnyman asked Welles how he planned to spend the bounty. "Cuban cigars and sevruga caviar," Welles replied.
The movie's closing credits were designed like the opening credits of another 20th Century Fox production of a "Star Wars" film, of which at the time the picture was made, there had only been two, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) and Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The credits directly followed the "Jews In Space" segment which is said to have anticipated Mel Brooks later "Star Wars" spoof Spaceballs (1987) which was made and released about six years after this picture.
The French palace in "The French Revolution" segment was not French but actually English. The facility used to double for the gigantic French maison-chalet was historic Blenheim Palace in Oxford, England. Authorisation to film there came from, as billed in the film's closing credits, with the permission of England's Duke of Marlborough.
The film makes quite extensive use of matte paintings for backgrounds. Every segment (except "The Stone Age" and "The Old Testament") features backgrounds that are nothing more than paintings, especially in the segments' establishing shots and in numerous wide shots. Such paintings were used for the harbor and for many of the city shots in "The Roman Empire", the castle in "The Spanish Inquisition" and both the city and the countryside in "The French Revolution."
During the "Jews in Space" sequence, the camera moves through the center of the Star of David-shaped spaceships and some Hebrew letters are visible on the interior wall, just under the guns. The word these letters spell is "Kosher."
As with many of his films, Mel Brooks alludes to his Jewish heritage and lampoons Anti-Semitism by making light of it. One such scene occurs when the Vikings remove their helmets during the Viking funeral but their horns remain. This was a reference to the preposterously libelous and Anti-Semitic myth that Jews had horns.
Mel Brooks performed a number of duties on this picture. Brooks acted in five roles, was writer, producer and director, as well as composer and lyrics writer for the songs "Jews In Space" and "The Inquisition", being also the performer of the latter.
When Mel Brooks cast himself as Comicus, he proceeded to copy some of his idol's manic facial expressions. "I made my eyes pop out in reactions, like he did," Brooks says. "My Comicus was a tribute to Eddie Cantor. He was my timing, my excitement." Even the character's wardrobe, a "short little toga," was modeled after the outfit Cantor wore in Roman Scandals (1933).
In an interview with Gene Siskel, Mel Brooks revealed that he'd filmed a brief scene that made light of the notorious Three Mile Island incident. "I had a father and a mother made up to look like half a dog and half a cat as a result of a nuclear meltdown," Brooks told Siskel. When test audiences reacted poorly, this bit was removed. However, at least one journalist managed to see an extended cut which contained the footage.
Mel Brooks had doubts about the Inquisition number. "I don't know how audiences are going to react to the Spanish Inquisition sequence," Brooks told Mademoiselle. As he put it, trying to get a laugh out of any scene that involved "Jews on racks" could be "very dangerous". Brooks admitted, "I got a lot of write-ins from rabbis".
During the Spanish Inquisition sequence, the showgirls rising out of the pool with sparklers on their heads is designed to resemble a menorah. There are 7 girls, because the menorah symbolizes the 7 days of the week. The Chanukah menorah (more correctly called the hanukiah) has 8 branches for the 8 nights, plus the middle candle used to light the rest.
This movie's first two segments are The Dawn of Man and The Stone Age. This picture was released around the same time as the serious prehistoric drama Quest for Fire (1981) as well as the prehistoric comedy Caveman (1981).
Parts of history that are spoofed and parodied in this movie include The Dawn of Man; The Stone Age; Moses and the Ten Commandments; The Roman Empire; The Vikings; The Spanish Inquisition; World War II and The French Revolution. The only segment in this film which is not history-related is the Jews in Space sketch.
Mel Brooks himself claimed that the film's budget-an estimated $11 million-exceeded that of his previous three films combined. Particularly expensive was the Inquisition scene, in which the set alone cost $1 million. By comparison, the entire budget of The Producers (1967) was a paltry $941,000.
The movie is an "episodic comedy in the spirit of Monty Python" according to Paul Brenner at Allmovie stating also that "the French revolution section is a broad parody of The Man in the Iron Mask story".