Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s monumental Story of Mankind has been brought to the screen in a name-dropping production that provides a kaleidoscope of history from Pleistocene man to Plutonium man. In the process, however, producer-director Irwin Allen seems unable to decide whether to do a faithful history of man’s development into a thinking being, a debate on whether man’s good outweighs his evil, or a compilation of historical sagas with some humor dragged in for relief.
As a peg on which to hang the panorama, screenplay convokes the ‘High Tribunal of Outer Space’ upon news that man has discovered the Super-H bomb 60 years too soon. The problem is whether to halt the scheduled explosion and thereby save mankind or let it go off and exterminate the human race. To reach a decision, the tribunal permits both the Devil and the Spirit of Man to give evidence as to man’s fitness to continue.
In the dreary cataloguing of man’s crimes against humanity, the Devil makes a much better case.
Best of the portrayals is Agnes Moorehead’s Queen Elizabeth and Cedric Hardwicke turns in a good performance as the High Judge. Ronald Colman is a dignified personification of the Spirit of Man and Vincent Price is the sophisticated, sneering embodiment of Old Scratch.
Peter Lorre brings some conviction to the role of Nero, Dennis Hopper is moodily appropriate as Napoleon and Virginia Mayo looks the part of Cleopatra. Hedy Lamarr is miscast as Joan (yes, of Arc) in one of the few other key parts, some of the ‘stars’ being on and off the screen so rapidly as to go unrecognized.