The vestal virgins (who took the oath of chastity) in Caeser's Palace in "The Roman Empire" segment were all Playboy playmates. The film's closing credits declare that the "Vestal Virgins were portrayed by Playboy playmates and models". Hugh Hefner (Playboy's patron) appears as the pipe-smoking entrepreneur talking about his invention, the "centerfold".
DIRECTOR TRADEMARK (Mel Brooks): (sequel): At the end of the film, a trailer is shown for "History of the World: Part II". There never has been a movie called this. The "Part I" in this movie's title, is a joke.
Gregory Hines replaced Richard Pryor. Just like in Blazing Saddles (1974), Pryor was originally cast, but had to pull out of the movie. 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 film is responsible for popularizing the catchphrase, "It's good to be the King". The expression is said by Mel Brooks during "The French Revolution" segment. Mel (as Rabbi Tuckman) repeated this line in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993).
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 et cetera. 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 fake caves into a mountaintop, and the Moses bit was born.
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 three hundred years earlier.
Beforehand, it was agreed that Orson Welles would receive five thousand dollars 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 twenty-five thousand dollars up front. But by noon on the first day, Welles had recorded his lines to perfection. "Oh, my god, I could've paid you five thousand dollars," 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.
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.
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 II?" he asked, rhetorically. "No. Maybe a part four, never a part two."
Sir John Hurt did this movie because he had just gotten through doing two dramatic films, and said that he wanted to have some fun and do a comedy. Hurt previously starred 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).
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, "while 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 B.C."
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."
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."
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 modelled after the outfit Cantor wore in Roman Scandals (1933).
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 this movie 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).
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."
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 himself claimed that the film's budget, an estimated eleven million dollars, exceeded that of his previous three films combined. Particularly expensive was the Inquisition scene, in which the set cost one million dollars. By comparison, the entire budget of The Producers (1967) was nine hundred forty-one thousand dollars.
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. Authorization to film there came from, as billed in the film's closing credits, with the permission of England's Duke of Marlborough.
During the Roman Empire segment, Oedipus can be seen begging for money and wearing dark sunglasses as an indicator of being blind. When Josephus passes him, he slaps Oedipus' hand and says, "Hey, motherfucker". Oedipus was a mythical Greek King, who was told in a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. When the prophecy finally came true, Oedipus gouged out his eyes with his mother's hairpins.
During the Spanish Inquisition sequence, the showgirls rising out of the pool with sparklers on their heads is designed to resemble a Jewish Menorah. There are seven girls, because the menorah symbolizes the seven days of the week. The Chanukah Menorah (more correctly called the hanukiah) has eight branches for the eight nights, plus the middle candle used to light the rest.
Mel Brooks performed numerous duties on this movie. 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.
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.
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 was not history-related, is the Jews in Space sketch.
This movie's first two segments are "The Dawn of Man" and "The Stone Age". This was released around the same time as the prehistoric drama Quest for Fire (1981) as well as the prehistoric comedy Caveman (1981).
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".
During the French Revolution segment, the palace guards that meet the Count de Monet's carriage can be seen to be armed with child's cap rifles. These toy rifles, popular at the time with local attractions like Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, used small paper rolls with dots of gunpowder embedded in them to make a shooting sound.