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The council of elders of outer space is deliberating on a very important subject: Must mankind be allowed to survive, or is it so esentially evil that it must be destroyed? A devil and an angel act as prosecutor and defense for the human race, and the movie presents in a very interesting way a series of episodes of the human history. What will be the final veredict? Innocent, or Guilty?Written by
Jose Beltran-Escavy <email@example.com>
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Misguided "epic" perked up by subversive ideas, stock footage and gimmick casting
THE STORY OF MANKIND (1957) is not a good movie, but it's a fascinating one on several levels. I'm most intrigued by the central event of the film, a debate over the fate of mankind undertaken, in a heavenly tribunal, between the "Spirit of Man," played by stately English actor Ronald Colman (in his final film), and a rather more sinuous type, Mr. Scratch (aka the Devil), played by Vincent Price on the cusp of his emergence as a major horror star. Colman speaks in defense of mankind, while Price argues for allowing the species' impending self-engineered demise. (This was the Atomic Age, after all.) Price offers concrete examples of man's inhumanity to man (and nature) and the various atrocities the race has committed, establishing a whole pattern of misconduct—theft, exploitation, slavery, mass murder, rape, pillage, plunder, perversion--that extends from Ancient Egypt right up to the present day. Colman glosses over these things, preferring to expound rather vaguely on man's lofty ideals and dreams of progress, exploration, and artistic achievement. When Colman brings up Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, Price points to da Vinci's detailed plans for highly destructive weapons of war. Price seems much more outraged by the crimes of mankind than Colman is, which marks his character as the true moralist in the film.
(In real life, Colman and Price were good friends and one exchange of dialogue in the da Vinci scene, where Colman insists that Price "knows nothing about painting," while Price responds that he "never pretended to be an art expert," is an in-joke reference to Price's already considerable reputation by that point as a connoisseur, collector and historian of art.)
On a more mundane note of cinephilic appreciation, I tried tallying up all the footage taken from earlier movies with historical themes. (Any time you see a shot with multiple extras and lavish sets, you know it's from a different movie.) Early on, for instance, we see John Carradine as the pharaoh, Khufu, sharing a scene with Price and Cedric Hardwicke (as the celestial judge). All three were in Cecil B. DeMille's spectacle from the previous year, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), which took place in Ancient Egypt. Yet when this scene transitions to shots of pyramid building, they don't use clips from DeMille's film, but instead rely on clips from another film set in that period—LAND OF THE PHARAOHS (1955). Why? Because THE STORY OF MANKIND is a Warner Bros. production and the only color film clips they could use without having to pay exorbitant fees would have to come from Warner Bros. films. So when they go to the Trojan War, we see clips from HELEN OF TROY (1955). And when they go to the Crusades and other scenes from the Middle Ages, we see clips from KING RICHARD AND THE CRUSADERS (1954). Piracy and ship battles between England and Spain for supremacy of the seas? CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER (1951). Elizabethan England? THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (1939). Western scenes? DODGE CITY (1939). There were some clips I didn't recognize, though, such as the shot of Rome burning. (QUO VADIS?, 1951, was an MGM production.) Producer-director Irwin Allen would expand on this practice of mixing cheaply shot studio scenes with more lavishly filmed clips in his TV series, "Time Tunnel," some nine years later. (By then, of course, Allen would be at a different studio and have to rely on clips solely from 20th Century Fox.)
The recent cablecast of this film on Turner Classic Movies (on March 14, 2011) was beset by technical problems. The film often froze up and went black. This happened most egregiously during two sequences, one with Cleopatra (Virginia Mayo) and one with Peter Minuit (Groucho Marx), so I missed several seconds from each. I must say I didn't recognize Ms. Mayo in the dark wig. In another sequence, 45-year-old Hedy Lamarr turns up as the teenaged Joan of Arc(!). Marie Windsor plays a much taller and older Josephine to Dennis Hopper's Napoleon. (Josephine actually WAS taller and older than Napoleon, but not by that much.) Shakespeare is described by Queen Elizabeth (Agnes Moorehead) as a "young actor-poet," but is played by veteran character actor Reginald Gardiner, who'd been in films for 25 years at this point. Why couldn't they recruit bigger names to play Shakespeare and such other key historical figures as Columbus (Anthony Dexter) and Lincoln (Austin Green)?
Silent star Francis X. Bushman (Messala in the silent BEN-HUR) plays da Vinci—and has no dialogue. Cathy O'Donnell plays an early Christian in Rome some two years before appearing in a vaguely similar role in the BEN-HUR remake. In one piece of gimmick casting, Jim Ameche appears as Alexander Graham Bell, a role closely identified with his more famous brother, Don Ameche. (I'm guessing they tried to get Don to recreate it, but were turned down.) Seven actors in this cast went on to guest star on TV's "Batman": Vincent Price, Cesar Romero, Reginald Gardiner, Edward Everett Horton, Francis X. Bushman, Marie Windsor and Ziva Rodann.
For years I only knew this film as the last to feature all three Marx Brothers. On that basis, I'd always thought it was a comedy. It isn't. Still, it struck me as pretty funny to see an opening credits sequence where Francis X. Bushman, Franklin Pangborn and Dennis Hopper are among the many listed together ABOVE the title.
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