Hendrik Willem van Loon wrote and illustrated The Story of Mankind in 1921, telling brief chapters of the history of Western civilization, always asking “Did the person or event in question perform an act without which the entire history of civilization would have been different?”
Thirty years later, former publicist Irwin Allen chose the book as his first non-documentary film, directing, writing and producing the film with the goal of only having an actor and actress appear in the film before changing up his strategy and taking a page out of the recent box office hit Around the World In 80 Days and having a cast of nearly fifty stars tell the story. Oh yeah and lots and lots of repurposed b-roll from other movies and stock footage.
Ronald Colman is The Spirit of Man and Vincent Price is Mr. Scratch. They’re testifying in front of a tribunal that will decide the fate of mankind, who has created a Super H-Bomb, and the powers that run the universe will determine whether they stop the bomb or allow it to destroy the human race. That leads to a cavalcade of stardom, with Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc, Virginia Mayo as Cleopatra, Agnes Moorehead as Queen Elizabeth I, Peter Lorre as Nero, Charles Coburn as Hippocrates, along with all three Marx Brothers in their last film together.
But wait — there’s more. Cesar Romero! John Carradine! Dennis Hopper as Napoleon! Francis X. Bushman as Moses! Jim Ameche, taking over the role his brother made famous, Alexander Graham Bell!
All on sets that seem made for TV with dialogue made for the grade school stage. Yes, The Story of Mankind certainly is something else. Everyone in this showed up for one day to film their part and were all paid pretty well. So who cares if the movie is so strange, kind of like a religious epic with no religion.
When asked if the film was based on a book, Colman replied, “Yes. But they are using only the notes on the dust jacket.”
There was a comic book though. Dell released an adaption written by Gaylord Du Bois with art by Bob Jenney.