10 great comedies about history

Tudor England gets a ribbing in the new film from the team behind TV’s Horrible Histories. The story of Shakespeare’s lost years, Bill joins a sparkling tradition of historical farces in which the past is a funny country.

Leigh Singer
Updated:

Bill (2015)

Bill (2015)

It was in his 1852 essay on Napoleon and Napoleon’s nephew Louis (Napoleon III) that Marx – Karl, not Groucho – made his oft-quoted statement about history repeating itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Marx was outlining the grimly ludicrous problem of sustained dictatorships; yet, in keeping with his statement, one might argue that he’s inadvertently identified a way to document the past that refracts sober historical events through a more humorous lens.

A good historical comedy doesn’t just show how funny-ha-ha or funny-peculiar things were in ‘the olden days’, it makes the connections to where we are now. Sure the outfits, surroundings or laws and customs may have changed, but really, how different are we as a species?

Wholly fictional tales set in the past have carte blanche. But even those dealing with real events often indulge in a little revisionist history. Take Bill, the new film comedy from the team behind acclaimed kids TV show Horrible Histories. As with the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love (1998), it uses a largely undocumented period in the life of a real person – William Shakespeare – to send up some of the important issues of the Elizabethan period, like war between European nations, artistic struggles and, er, whether Croydon had an Earl.

To whittle down our selection, a few self-imposed guidelines have been followed. We delineated a 25-year-minimum time span between film and the period it deals in, reckoning that a quarter-century allows a sufficient generation gap for reflection. And we opted to rule out time-travel comedies – Time Bandits (1981), Back to the Future (1985), etc – for effectively having one foot in the present. As for the legacy of either the historical eras or films in question, let’s finish with another Marx quote: “Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?” Groucho this time, not Karl.

The Gold Rush (1925)

Director Charles Chaplin

The Gold Rush (1925)

The Gold Rush (1925)

Period in question: The Klondike Gold Rush 1898

The late-19th-century Klondike Gold Rush, which caused a mass stampede of around 100,000 potential prospectors to Canada’s snowbound north-western Yukon and Alaska, was desperate fortune hunting in unforgiving territory. What’s perhaps surprising when watching the whole of this celebrated Charlie Chaplin comedy – and not merely the highlights reel of the dancing bread rolls and seesawing cabin on the cliff edge – is just how much Chaplin emphasises the misery of it all: poverty, starvation, exploitation and the bitter, bitter cold.

To wit: that bread rolls sequence is but his Little Tramp / Lone Prospector’s dream; the similarly famous scene of Chaplin dining on his own boiled shoe, the reality. It’s funny, sure, but for a contemporary audience, also a powerful reminder of just how bleak conditions were. Yet as ever, while acknowledging such hardships (as Chaplin habitually did for his onscreen alter ego), he still manages to wring spry physical comedy from the pathos. The film was a huge hit and Chaplin himself named it as “the picture I want to be remembered by”; presumably twice-over, given the two available versions – the original 1925 release or a reworked 1942 version with reduced running time and added music score.

The General (1926)

Director Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman

The General (1926)

The General (1926)

Period in question: American civil war, 1862 

Buster Keaton’s most ambitious production and widely considered his greatest masterpiece was, on release, his biggest flop. This possibly reflected public unease that a true, tragic US civil war episode was reworked as a comedy (the Union soldiers who stole the eponymous Confederate locomotive to disrupt railway supply lines and communications were eventually caught and hanged). Keaton himself was initially given permission to use the real General, but this was withdrawn when the railroad realised Keaton’s comic intentions.

Of course, Keaton never planned to dwell on the more harrowing aspects of history, instead deliberately switching the focus to his southern engineer Johnny Gray’s resolve in recapturing his train and his ladylove. His ingenuity with fluid cutting and the daring framing and staging of his dexterous slapstick resulted in some of his most celebrated scenes – the revolving cannon, the epic crash into the ravine, and the beautiful sight gag of a distracted, lovestruck Gray rising and falling on the coupling rod across the train’s rotating wheels. It’s not that Keaton defangs violent history, it’s that he re-imagines it as a time to acknowledge those virtues worth fighting for: romantic adventure, stoic physical courage and heartfelt humour.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Director Robert Hamer

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Period in question: Edwardian Britain (1901-10)

The only period piece from the golden age of Ealing comedies is entirely in keeping with the studio’s daring premises, delicious wit, and pointed social commentary. In fact, despite its turn-of-the-century Edwardian setting, the changes to Britain’s entrenched postwar class system are purely cosmetic, giving the film a bracing contemporaneity. The rejection of Louis Mazzini’s deceased mother, a daughter disowned by the aristocratic D’Ascoyne family for her love affair with an Italian tenor, leads him to seek revenge and reclaim his dukedom by eliminating the eight D’Ascoynes between him and the title. Yet despite his murderous intent, we’re firmly aligned, through Louis’s coolly aggrieved dictation of events, with a commoner / foreigner against the callous ruling classes.

Dennis Price’s Louis is a sinuous delight but while we’re thematically on his side, theatrically we’re with Alec Guinness’s spectacular eight-for-one, playing every member of the D’Ascoyne clan, young and old, male and female, with aplomb. Guinness’s multi-tasking is the most obvious of Kind Hearts and Coronets’ many selling points, but, as with all Ealing’s finest work, surface pleasures only make up part of their oh-so English (hi)story.

The Court Jester (1955)

Director Melvin Frank and Norman Panama

The Court Jester (1955)

The Court Jester (1955)

Period in question: Medieval England

Danny Kaye gets largely overlooked nowadays but at his mid-20th-century peak – and medieval musical-comedy The Court Jester is that peak – he was the consummate family entertainer. This joyously daft homage to Robin Hood/Ivanhoe-style adventures smartly keeps all the trappings of Hollywood’s studio lot Ye Olde England. It then lets the fabulous expat supporting cast – including Cedric Hardwicke, young ingénue Angela Lansbury and the incomparable Basil Rathbone, reprising his Adventures of Robin Hood villainy – play largely straight, while unleashing Kaye’s physical, linguistic and musical japery, to turn the film into its own glorious send-up. A case in point: Rathbone’s climactic duel with Kaye is both rapier-sharp spoof and genuinely dazzling swordplay bout.

In addition, you get a surprisingly complex plot, with Kaye’s mild-mannered circus clown forced to impersonate a jester/assassin in a plot to overthrow a despotic king; multiple memorable one-liners, culminating in the celebrated “vessel with the pestle / chalice from the palace” poison routine; and zinging tunes from legendary songwriter Sammy Cahn and Sylvia Fine (Kaye’s wife). Part-Errol Flynn, part-Laurel and Hardy, Kaye never topped this classic, which is long overdue critical reappraisal. Get it? Got it. Good.

Carry On Cleo (1964)

Director Gerald Thomas

Carry On Cleo (1964)

Carry On Cleo (1964)

Period in question: Ancient Egypt, 54BC

If several of the much-loved British film series of saucy seaside-postcard puns and innuendo look rather (nudge-nudge) limp today, others do still (wink-wink) stand proud. And while Camping – how appropriate a title – was voted the UK’s favourite Carry On, it’s run close by two of their historical ventures: Carry On… Up the Khyber’s colonial satire and this, their send-up of Ancient Rome and Egypt, plus the era’s Hollywood epics Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960) and, naturally, budget-busting Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton soap opera Cleopatra (1963), which they liberally pilfered for not just gags but abandoned Pinewood sets and costumes.

Such relatively high production values (even roping in regular Gaumont newsreel voice E.V.H. Emmett to provide narration) seemed to raise the game of all involved, with Sid James’s randy Mark Anthony and Kenneth Williams’s hysterical Caesar making a mind-boggling love triangle with saucer-eyed Amanda Barrie’s ditzy Cleo. Despite the English gladiator subplot, best forget any real social critique. Instead, switch off and enjoy the inspired cod-Latin, smart word-play (slave merchants Marcus et Spencius) and the single greatest line in any Carry On film, Caesar’s death cry. Altogether now: “Infamy, infamy… they’ve all got it in for me!” 

La Grande Vadrouille (1966)

Director Gérard Oury

La Grande Vadrouille (1966)

La Grande Vadrouille (1966)

Period in question: Second World War Paris, 1941

Adopting the great 1960s tradition for epic comedy capers – It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), The Great Race (1965) – French filmmaker Gérard Oury came up with a lavish homegrown romp that held the record for France’s biggest-ever box-office hit until Titanic in 1997. Never stinting on elaborate stunts, shootouts and chases on motorbike and even hang glider, La Grande Vadrouille (aka Don’t Look Now… We’re Being Shot At!) could measure up as a straight action-adventure, even without the laughs.

Yet a comedy this most certainly is. Set in Nazi-occupied Paris, 1941, it follows a bemused house painter (Bourvil) and splenetic opera conductor (Louis de Funes) who inadvertently get embroiled in an escape attempt by three downed RAF pilots (led by Terry-Thomas). Founded on broad farce, the film may lack the sophisticated panache of Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be (1942), but tackling such material a mere two decades on from occupation, and poking fun at jackbooted Nazis and dimwitted natives alike, was truly bold. Anyone truly doubting the film’s national pride can point to the relative sidelining of Terry-Thomas at the expense of Bourvil and de Funes’s fine double act as an expression of true patriotism.

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Director Mel Brooks

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Period in question: American Wild West, 1874

A spoof of every cowboy film you’ve ever seen, Mel Brooks’s comedy western, in his own words, “rises below vulgarity” with some of his most anarchic, iconic work: the campfire beans farting scene, Madeline Kahn’s glorious Marlene Dietrich vamping as Lili Von Shtupp, the climactic demolishing of the fourth wall, with the leads watching their own movie in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre… anything goes and such grab-bag lunacy is inspired.

Yet whereas other Brooks period comedies – The Twelve Chairs (1970), Young Frankenstein (1974) – are more loving homages, Blazing Saddles stokes its outrageous laughs with a righteous ire: namely its unrelenting mission to expose and ridicule bigotry. When Black Bart (Cleavon Little) rides into Rock Ridge as sheriff, exposing the simple townsfolk as racist “morons”, Brooks and his co-writers’ – including Richard Pryor – all-out comic assault on such ‘old-fashioned’ prejudice also condemns the then-prevailing attitudes. Its ‘1874 in 1974’ premise and unrepentant repetition of the ‘n-word’ forces us to see through the period trappings as much as any metafiction gambit and holds up brilliantly today – the definition of a thoroughly modern comedy classic.

Love and Death (1975)

Director Woody Allen

Love and Death (1975)

Love and Death (1975)

Period in question: Russia, 1812

When the aliens in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) cite a preference for his (thinly disguised alter ego’s) “early, funny” movies, they’re certainly talking about Love and Death. Riffing on heavyweight Russian literature (Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment), Allen doesn’t just mercilessly mock these hefty tomes, but cheerfully takes down Russian filmmakers (Eisenstein), philosophers (Gurdjieff) and any other international figures – Ingmar Bergman, T.S. Eliot – who takes his fancy.

An assassination plot in Tsarist Russia might seem a bleak backdrop but on a gag-per-minute ratio, this (closely followed by sci-fi spoof Sleeper) is probably Allen’s most densely packed comedy. Not that Allen is content to stay in period, regularly free-associating and directly addressing the audience. Diane Keaton’s spacey naturalism again makes the perfect comic foil and, while he and Keaton would next move into the more melancholy rhythms of Annie Hall (1977), the pure, frenetic laughs of Love and Death is a fond valedictory to the first Allen films that those aliens – and no small number of humans – so enjoy. 

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

Director Terry Jones

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Period in question: Judea, Roman Empire, AD33

“What have the Romans ever done for us?” “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” “Always look on the bright side of life.” One of the most quotable comedies of all time, the Pythons’ crucifixion of the New Testament looks as fresh and inventive as it did on its release, when its religious satire provoked widespread outrage. With the Christian-persecution hysteria du jour long subsided, it’s clearer than ever that Cleese, Palin, Jones, Idle, Gilliam and Chapman were really hell-bent on attacking fundamentalism and blind devotion to dogmas of any creed. A message that, sadly, seems to need repeating today more than in 1979.

For all the radical brilliance of their first feature film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974), Life of Brian and its inherent seriousness amid the silliness, seemed to energise the six Pythons more than ever. It’s the sort of film where 10 people will identify 10 separate scenes (women at the stoning, Roman graffiti, “Biggus Dickus”) as the best – and they’d all be right. For anyone who ever lost their faith that comedy could have a higher purpose, the Pythons aren’t just naughty boys, they’re pretty much comic messiahs.

Together (2000)

Director Lukas Moodysson

Together (2000)

Together (2000)

Period in question: Sweden, 1975

It’s 1975 and in Stockholm hippie commune ‘Tillsammans’ (meaning ‘together’) all is not as harmonious as its counterculture denizens would expect. Pacifism seems not to extend to dishwashing rotas, conformism is very much in evidence in banning meat (giving the kids something to rebel against) and free love comes at a cost, particularly for mild-mannered commune leader Goran, whose partner Lena is intent on open relationships. Meanwhile the somewhat neglected youngsters amuse themselves with simulated torture games involving Chilean dictator General Pinochet.

Conventional wisdom often cites the materialistic 1980s – Reagan, Thatcher and rampant capitalism – as the death of the peace and love generation, but Lukas Moodysson nimbly illuminates the movement’s inherent fissures and foibles. His free-ranging vignettes (played by a superb ensemble cast) shift effortlessly from bawdy humour to the raw anguish of family separation with understated acuity. And long before ABBA’s shimmering anthem ‘SOS’ triumphantly rings out at the end (did I mention this is mid-70s Sweden?) of this warmly humanist gem, Moodysson makes it clear that whatever our various political, cultural and emotional needs, ultimately, we’re all in it “tillsammans”. 

 

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