The Big Picture
- Historical comedies were popular in the 1970s, but the genre declined in the following decades, with only a few standout films in the 1990s.
- “The Legend” showcases impressive fight choreography and acrobatics, with Jet Li delivering a memorable performance in this martial arts comedy set in ancient China.
- “Life is Beautiful” tells a poignant and heartwarming story set in World War II, with Robert Benigni’s performance earning him an Oscar for his portrayal of a father trying to protect his son in a concentration camp.
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Historical comedies were on a roll in the 1970s. This was the era when Monty Python and Mel Brooks were ascendant. The finest works from this decade, like Life of Brian and Blazing Saddles, go beyond simply mocking the past to draw connections to the present day,
The subgenre has fallen off since then, though there have still been a few gems. While far from the strongest decade for historical comedies, the 1990s nevertheless gave us several movies worth watching, from Topsy-Turvy to Life is Beautiful.
10 ‘The Legend’ (1993)
The Legend is a martial arts comedy set in ancient China during the Qing Dynasty, with Jet Li in the lead role of legendary hero Fong Sai-yuk. When Fong’s father (Paul Chu) is wrongly accused of treason by a corrupt official, Fong must use his kung fu skills to clear his family’s name and restore honor.
The intricate fight choreography and acrobatics were widely acclaimed: Li is on top form here, practically flying across the screen. It’s unsurprising, as The Legend was directed by Corey Yuen, who has since handled action sequences in American films like X-Men and The Expendables.
9 ‘The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything’ (1999)
The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything is a TV special released by the BBC, comprising various comedy sketches set during different historical eras. It pokes fun at a host of periods, from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance, with scenes that take place during the Battle of Hastings, the creation of the Treaty of Westphalia, and more.
The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything features several heavyweights of British comedy, like Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, making for a fun romp across the centuries. In this regard, it’s a spiritual sequel to The Complete and Utter History of Britain, the 1969 sketch comedy show written by Monty Python members Michael Palin and Terry Jones.
8 ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ (1990)
There have been several screen adaptations of the classic play Cyrano de Bergerac, most recently Joe Wright‘s 2021 version starring Peter Dinklage, but this one directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau is arguably the defining interpretation. Set in 17th century France, the film centers around the enigmatic Cyrano (Gérard Depardieu), a masterful – though insecure – poet and swordsman who assists his tongue-tied friend, Christian (Vincent Perez), in wooing the captivating Roxane (Anne Brochet).
However, Cyrano secretly harbors a deep and unrequited love for Roxane himself, leading to all manner of complications. The film is generally considered to be the most faithful take on the play, and one of Depardieu’s very best performances.
7 ‘The Barber of Siberia’ (1998)
The Barber of Siberia is a sweeping historical comedy-drama that weaves together romance, intrigue, and cultural clashes against the backdrop of 19th-century Russia. It’s a true epic, clocking in at three hours long; jam-packed with subplots, epic vistas, and a detailed portrait of the court of the Tsar.
At the heart of it all is Jane Callahan (Julia Ormond), an American woman who travels to Moscow, where she encounters the young cadet Andrei Tolstoi (Oleg Menshikov) and the General Radlov (Aleksei Petrenko). The men become rivals for Jane’s affection, resulting in a showdown and exile to Siberia.
6 ‘May Fools’ (1990)
May Fools, directed by Louis Malle, takes place in France during the tumultuous year 1968, when student protests and social upheavals wracked the country. The story follows a group of disparate characters who come together at a rural estate for a family gathering. As the political landscape outside shifts dramatically, the dynamics within the estate also transform.
The film beautifully captures the clash between generations, as the older family members grapple with their traditional values and the younger ones embrace the spirit of revolution. It’s a tale of unexpected connections and personal liberation, held together by Malle’s sensitive direction and the ensemble cast’s stellar performances.
5 ‘Stiff Upper Lips’ (1997)
This comedy of manners makes fun of the social conventions of the British upper class in Edwardian England. It revolves around matriarch Aunt Agnes’s (Prunella Scales) attempt to force Emily (Georgina Cates) to marry boring Cedric Trilling (Robert Portal) by taking her to Italy and India. However, Emily develops feelings for the family’s handsome servant George (Sean Pertwee).
A series of comical misadventures ensue, involving mistaken identity, eccentric characters, and a quest to find true love. Stiff Upper Lips revels in its wordplay, slapstick humor, and social satire, sure to appeal to fans of a lighthearted farce.
4 ‘Emma’ (1996)
Gwyneth Paltrow stars in this adaptation of Jane Austen‘s beloved novel as Emma Woodhouse, a young woman with a penchant for matchmaking. Emma routinely meddles in the romantic lives of her friends and acquaintances, leading to a series of comedic misunderstandings and romantic entanglements.
Emma is one of the stronger Austen movies, thanks to the lush costume and set design, banter-filled script, and solid performances from Paltrow, Toni Collette, and Ewan McGregor. Alan Cumming is also entertaining as hapless clergyman Mr Elton, who falls in love with Emma.
3 ‘The Madness of King George’ (1994)
The Madness of King George dramatizes the true story of King George III (Nigel Hawthorne), and his struggles with a mysterious mental ailment. As the king’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, political turmoil and personal rivalries threaten the stability of the monarchy.
The royal physician, Dr. Willis (Ian Holm) tries to treat the king’s condition while navigating the tensions within the royal family. Holm and Hawthorne are fantastic, but the real highlight is Helen Mirren as Queen Charlotte. She won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her efforts.
2 ‘Topsy-Turvy’ (1999)
Veteran British director Mike Leigh has made a number of terrific historical movies (most recently Mr. Turner and Peterloo) but the most entertaining of them might be Topsy-Turvy. Set in 19th century London, the story revolves around iconic playwright/composer duo W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) in the months leading up to the premiere of their opera The Mikado.
It’s a detailed portrait of the theater world during the Victorian era, with memorable performances from frequent Leigh collaborators like Lesley Manville and Timothy Spall. Roger Ebert was a big fan, naming it one of the year’s best films.
1 ‘Life is Beautiful’ (1997)
Robert Benigni directed, co-wrote, and starred in this poignant, warmhearted story set during World War II. He plays Guido, a Jewish man who is sent to a concentration camp with his young son, Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini). To shield his son from the horrors of their situation, Guido employs his unbreakable spirit and humor, convincing Giosuè that their time in the camp is a complex game.
Through Guido’s ingenious charades and unwavering love, he manages to infuse hope and laughter into the darkest of circumstances. The film is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, and Benigni’s performance is energetic and committed throughout, rightfully winning him an Oscar.
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