Starring: Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, Phil Silvers
Director: Richard Lester
Running Time: 99 mins
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is an American/British film about a Roman slave who attempts to win his freedom by helping his young master woo the girl next door.
Parody movies have taken many guises over the years, with later-20th Century equivalents seeming light years away from their older counterparts. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is an interesting watch, then, as it showcases a moment of change in the parody genre, all the while providing enjoyably silly laughs and a bunch of zany performances to entertain too.
Let’s quickly touch on that point, because the comedy is obviously what you’ll be watching this film for. While it’s not quite on the level of some later genre films – a point that I’ll talk more about in a moment – the main thing about this movie is that it’s a totally ridiculous farce entirely geared towards the most preposterous and hilarious situations possible.
Based on a stage musical starring a number of the leads from the film, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum inevitably has more theatrical, hyperbolic elements to it, but it works well in the context of its strange parodic take on Roman tales and culture. It’s not quite a pointed parody to the stories themselves – something that you may be used to from more modern parodies – but it takes on the tales with a deliberately zany and farcical eye, leading you down the rabbithole when it comes to preposterous and awkward comedic setpieces.
For the most part, the comedy is silly and strange enough to make you giggle – no matter how simplistic it is. It’s far from the finest work of parody humour ever put to screen, but it does have the odd big laugh interspersed with a general atmosphere of craziness, which was more than enough for me.
What’s more interesting about the film, however, is the way in which it takes on the parody genre, sitting at somewhat of a turning point in the genre’s development. Parodies have of course been around for ever, with classics like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and many before leading into the mass production of the genre with series like Carry On in the 1960s.
Carry On’s humour is bawdy, easy-going and revolves around a simple setup-punchline structure, which is mostly what we see with A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. However, this film also has early trademarks of the style of parody that became dominant through the following two decades, with a slightly more nuanced, homage-like brand of parody that’s mixed in with sheerly idiotic humour.
I can’t say that this movie delivers it perfectly, and that’s part of the reason why it isn’t up there with some of the best-remembered of the genre, but it has elements of the genre that were then popularised by the likes of Mel Brooks with The Producers, Blazing Saddles and more, and further pushed later on by films like Airplane! and The Naked Gun.
So, in comparison to some of those later classics, this film does feel a little less impressive, and perhaps a little more reminiscent of the simpler style of parody that we see with the likes of Carry On. However, as far as localising a change in form for the genre goes, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is a surprisingly interesting watch, and with a good few laughs and some great performances from an A-list cast to boot, what’s not to like about it? Overall, then, I’m giving it a 7.0.