Story of Mankind, The (1957): Irwin Allen’s All-Star Version of Classic Book

Though it was a critical and commercial flop, The Story of Mankind at least deserves credit for trying something different, even if it doesn’t work.

Grade: C (** out of *****)

Loosely based on the 1921 nonfiction book “The Story of Mankind” by Hendrik Willem van Loon, the film was directed and co–produced by Irwin Allen.

The Story of Mankind
The Story of Mankind 1957 Film.jpg

1957 U.S. theatrical poster


Allen, a former publicist, had previously made some documentaries, such as “The Sea Around Us” and “The Animal World.”

When Warner agreed to distribute, studio head Jack Warner announced that 42 nations would be represented.

Scientists have developed a weapon, the “Super H-bomb,” that might wipe out the human race entirely. A “High Tribunal” in “The Great Court of Outer Space” is called upon to decide whether divine intervention should be allowed to stop the bomb’s detonation.

The Devil (Vincent Price), or Mr. Scratch, prosecutes Mankind while the Spirit of Man (Ronald Colman) defends it. The two are allowed to take the tribunal to any period of time to present evidence for Mankind’s salvation or damnation.

And so we embark on historical journey, during which they take the tribunal from prehistory through Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and modern times.

At the end, the high judge, facing Mr. Scratch and the Spirit, with peoples in their native costumes, declares that the good and evil of Mankind is finely balanced–and decision is suspended until they return.

The concept of the all-star cast had just proved popular in the 1956 Oscar winner, Around the World in 80 Days, and the filmmakers were hoping for similar results.

The large ensemble includes Vincent Price, Cedric Hardwicke, Peter Lorre, Ronald Colman, Virginia Mayo (as Cleopatra), and Charles Coburn, Hedy Lamarr (as Joan of Arc).

This was also the last film of Ronald Colman and the last American film of Hedy Lamarr. It was the last picture to feature the three Marx Brothers (their only film in Technicolor), though they are not seen in the same scenes.

Ronald Colman … The Spirit of Man
Vincent Price … Mr. Scratch
Hedy Lamarr … Joan of Arc
Groucho Marx … Peter Minuit
Harpo Marx … Sir Isaac Newton
Chico Marx … Monk
Virginia Mayo … Cleopatra
Agnes Moorehead … Queen Elizabeth I
Peter Lorre … Nero
Charles Coburn … Hippocrates
Sir Cedric Hardwicke … High Judge
Cesar Romero … Spanish Envoy
John Carradine … Khufu
Dennis Hopper … Napoleon Bonaparte
Marie Wilson … Marie Antoinette
Helmut Dantine … Mark Antony
Edward Everett Horton … Sir Walter Raleigh
Reginald Gardiner … William Shakespeare
Marie Windsor … Joséphine de Beauharnais
George E. Stone … Waiter
Cathy O’Donnell … Early Christian Woman
Franklin Pangborn … Marquis de Varennes
Melville Cooper … Major Domo
Henry Daniell … Bishop Cauchon
Francis X. Bushman … Moses
Jim Ameche … Alexander Graham Bell
Austin Green … Abraham Lincoln
Bobby Watson … Adolf Hitler


Directed by Irwin Allen
Produced by Irwin Allen

Screenplay by Irwin Allen, based on The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon
Music by Paul Sawtell
Cinematography Nicholas Musuraca
Edited by Roland Gross

Production company: Cambridge Productions

Distributed by Warner Bros.

Release date: November 8, 1957

Running time: 100 minutes


TCM showed this movie on October 2, 2020.