Future disaster-movie king Irwin Allen, whose blockbusters include The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), made this portentous rubbish in which the question of whether or not the human race should be allowed to survive is debated in front of a heavenly high tribunal.
The invention of nuclear weapons prompts the heavenly trial to determine if the human race is too dangerous to continue existing.
The Devil (Vincent Price) – aka Mr Scratch – handles the prosecution, providing examples of evil behaviour throughout history, but representing the human race, the Spirit of Man (Ronald Colman giving a convincing performance in what was, sadly, his last and most unworthy film) demonstrates its capacity for good.
Thereafter the Spirit and the Devil wander invisibly through prehistoric times – where cavemen clunk each other over the head to grab their bit of cave-totty; summon unrepentant Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu (John Carradine) to the witness stand (Scratch writes him a receipt for all the souls he sacrificed); then journey through the ages while the film parades its incredible cast: Charles Coburn plays the founding father of medicine Hippocrates; Virginia Mayo makes a ravishing Cleopatra, although the script envisions her as a gold-digging harlot who fleeced supposedly “honourable” men like Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony of their wealth; Peter Lorre is a strangely glum Emperor Nero who cheers up a bit when Rome starts to burn (lookout for Angelo Rossitto as the obligatory dwarf at a Roman orgy); the world’s most glamorous physicist Hedy Lamarr is an unorthodox but impassioned Joan of Arc; Chico Marx is a sceptical monk who pours scorn on Christopher Columbus’ plans to circumnavigate the globe; Cesar Romero is the suave Spanish envoy who jousts verbally with Agnes Moorehead as Queen Elizabeth I, who is less than impressed when William Shakespeare (Reginald Gardiner) mentions his new comedy is called The Taming of the Shrew (“Am I the shrew?!!”); Marie Wilson brings back memories of Singing in the Rain (1952) in her role as ditzy Marie Antoinette; Harpo Marx plays a harp-fondling Sir Isaac Newton; Dennis Hopper is Napoleon Bonaparte (?!!) whose visions of grandeur reach their end at Waterloo; and Groucho Marx is Peter Minuit, the American settler who bamboozled the Indians out of New York for just $24 and wound up with a sexy Indian princess (played by Eden Hartford, Groucho’s spouse in the Fifties and Sixties) to boot.
The majority of historical footage was culled from an astonishing array of Warner Bros. productions, including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), King Richard and His Crusaders (1954), Joan of Arc (1950), Forever Amber (1947), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), Helen of Troy (1956), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951), Dodge City (1939), San Antonio (1945), The Command (1955) and Gold Is Where You Find It (1938), with documentary footage of the Pearl Harbour attacks.
Based on Hendrik Van Loon’s bestseller, this is generally, and rightly, acknowledged as one of the worst films ever made, but for those who can tolerate it, it is absolutely hilarious.
Spirit of Man
Devil (Mr Scratch)
Joan of Arc
Edward Everett Horton
Marquis de Varennes
Francis X. Bushman