There are great films that change the landscape of cinema: your Citizen Kanes and Godfathers and Days of Heavens and such and such. Then you have films that are moving depictions of the human condition and of overcoming adversity to find one’s place in the world: The Color Purple, for example, and another film I’m sure. And then there are films that elevate genres to another level where all films that follow in its footsteps will be inevitably compared to it–preferably one that has an extended fart scene. In this category is Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles.
A comedy classic that in no way, shape, or form could ever be made in contemporary times, Blazing Saddles finds refuge in audacity, with the N-word used liberally and its fair amount of crude humor, sexual and otherwise, it could have only been produced in the anything-goes atmosphere of filmmaking in the early 1970’s. Released in 1974, Blazing Saddles was a gigantic hit in theaters, becoming only the 10th film up to that point to gross more than $100 million. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and has since been placed in the National Film Registry for preservation.
Of course, watching the film now it’s insane to think that it was ever made in the first place, much less have found such critical and commercial success. And maybe this is also why it’s been selected for preservation: it’s a time capsule of an attitude that was once thought of as liberating and subversive but would now be condemned for being racist, sexist, and homophobic. But therein lies just why it’s still a beloved film and what makes it nearly impervious to either modern criticism or censorship.
It’s funny as hell but it also uses its humor to make a point. For every utterance of the N-word (almost exclusively spoken by an ignorant, hateful villain), there’s Gene Wilder wistfully rolling out a line like “Well my name is Jim but most people call me…Jim.” Even though minorities are shown in diminished positions, they are all far smarter than those subjugating them and consistently gain the upper hand, even as they sucker a bunch of rednecks into singing an idiotic rendition of “The Camptown Races.” And while the end of the movie features a chorus line of lispy camp gays the (literal) fourth wall-breaking cast ends up fist-fighting, it shows one of the villains walking out of the scene with his arm around one of the chorus line men, talking about getting out of there together. In short, it’s an often crude film, but it’s crude with a purpose: to make fun of just how stupid and hypocritical the people are that actually believe in their prejudice.
Yes, Blazing Saddles is ultimately a very silly comedy, but in between the ridiculous anachronistic references, absurd one-liners, and overall goofy jokes, Brooks (along with Richard Pryor, who co-wrote the film) was actually making a point about how silly racism really is: after all, Bart (Cleavon Little) is the smartest character in the movie who ultimately saves Rock Ridge while the white townspeople are all small-minded hicks, the villains are all shit-kicking cowboys, and outside of Jim, AKA The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), who becomes a good friend and ally to Bart, nearly everyone else needs to learn a lesson about the ultimate pointlessness of racism. While addressed sometimes with the bluntness of a hammer (which was kind of the style at the time in the 70’s when comedies addressed racial issues), some anvils need to be dropped.
Besides that, it’s a solid movie and a pretty damn good Western. Mel Brooks would go on to make more technically proficient films (such as Young Frankenstein), but he would never make another movie as audacious, hilarious, and socially conscious than Blazing Saddles. Besides being one of the funniest men ever, Mel Brooks ended up making a perfect movie.
Blazing Saddles – A Perfect Movie
Bart (Cleavon Little) starts off the movie as a railway worker alongside a number of black and Asian men who are treated poorly by the racist stooges of Mr. Taggart. When they get news that down the line they’ve hit quicksand, Bart and his friend are sent to investigate, only to find themselves sinking. When Taggart and his crew catch up to them, they opt to save the handcart instead of the men. But Bart has his foot on the rail and saves himself and his friend; when Taggart throws a shovel down at them and tells them to stop laying around, Bart justifiably hits Taggart in the head with the shovel.
Back at the office of Lieutenant Governor Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), Taggart tells Lamarr that they have to redirect the train line due to the quicksand, which makes Hedley incredibly joyous since the line will now go through Rock Ridge, making the land valuable. So he schemes to send a posse out to drive the townspeople away so he can buy the land before the railroad gets there. Taggart and his men race through the town creating havoc, and the townspeople send a letter to the governor demanding he send a Sheriff to protect them. The governor (played by Mel Brooks) tells Hedley to find a sheriff for the town, which is exactly what he doesn’t want to happen. However, outside his office window Bart is about to be hung for hitting Taggart in the head, so Hedley appoints him as Sheriff, thinking that the townspeople will be so repulsed by the idea of a black sheriff they’ll revolt and kill him, thus ending Hedley’s sheriff problem.
Bart rides into town, garnering exactly the type of reaction Hedley expected, but he handily outsmarts the hostile mob and retreats to safety in the sheriff’s office. Once inside, he meets the town drunk Jim (Gene Wilder) and the two tell their backstories to each other and over a game of chess. A townsperson storms into the sheriff’s office complaining that a strong wall of a man named Mongo (who had been sent to the town to cause trouble on Taggart’s behalf) is terrorizing the entire saloon. Bart easily tricks Mongo and defeats him handily. The townspeople are grateful but unwilling to show their thanks in public due to Bart’s race.
The rest of the film includes a fantastic song sung by Lili Von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn), who soon becomes romantically involved with Bart, the escalating evil plans of Hedley to assemble a giant posse of evildoers to take over the town, and Bart bringing in the railroad workers in to help defend the town against this posse, extracting a promise that they can live in Rock Ridge side-by-side with the white residents if they help. All together, they defeat Hedley and his gang, and the film ends up breaking through the fourth wall as a massive fight spills over into other movie sets and eventually the movie lot itself.
Of course, now that Bart and Jim have made Rock Ridge safe and integrated everyone together, they ride off happily into the sunset on horseback–and then stop and get into a limousine.
Those are the bare bones of the plot, but the plot’s not the fun part: it’s everything else that happens within that makes Blazing Saddles one of the funniest movies ever made. More appropriately, it’s the hilarious actors that make the film what it is.
Let’s start with Cleavon Little as Bart: a journeyman actor, Little was doing well on television as the irreverent intern on the now-forgotten medical comedy Temperature Rising. Little got the role as Bart after Richard Pryor was rejected by the studio for the lead role due to his ongoing addiction issues. And he was perhaps a better choice: when he wasn’t on stage doing his comedy, Pryor didn’t have a particularly good screen presence, and Little-as-Bart brought a much-needed polish to the role to further accentuate what a dashing urbanite Bart was compared to the rustic Western townspeople (as Jim describes them to Bart: “These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know: morons.”). Hitting his punchlines with pinpoint accuracy, Little was the cohesive protagonist a crazy comedy like this needed.
As his world-weary sidekick, comedy genius Gene Wilder played Jim (“The Waco Kid”), a has-been gunslinger with a cartoonishly severe drinking problem. Delivering his insane dialogue with a clear-eyed, calm sincerity, Wilder imbued his silly character with a perfect amount of gravity so that when he gets to the ultimate punchline of why he quit gunfighting (“That little bastard shot me right in the ass!”), the audience laughs harder because they had no idea that was where such a serious story was headed. Wilder’s natural warmth also helped convey his and Bart’s friendship, giving Bart one level-headed ally in the racist-as-hell town he’s stuck protecting.
Harvey Korman, comedic stalwart, plays the villain with a scene-chewing fervor, his Hedey (“That’s Hedley!”) Lamarr is a scheming, selfish, and bizarre man. Understanding the kind of comedy Brooks was making, Korman picked up on the fourth wall-breaking, anachronistic stew that was being cooked and complimented it perfectly.
Meanwhile, Brooks–never one to shy away from a cameo in his own films–plays Governor Le Petomane, an incompetent idiot who’s more interested in having an affair with his secretary than the governance of his state. He also shows up as an offensive, frankly perplexing Jewish Indian that Bart’s family encountered on his family’s way out West.
Finally, Madeline Kahn appears as a secret weapon, both literally and figuratively, as Lili von Shtupp, a travelling German cabaret singer who initially is sent by Headley to seduce Bart and then break his heart. However, after experiencing his “gifts,” Shtupp vacillates to Bart’s side. Her show-stopping performance of “I’m Tired,” along with Kahn’s inimitable comedic gifts in playing this loopy German singer, rightfully earned her a Best Supporting nomination that year.
But really everyone in the film is fantastic: Mongo’s a one-note brute who can barely speak in complete sentences but poignantly relates, “Mongo only pawn in game of life.” The assorted townspeople have great moments, from the famous “The sheriff is a ni-” [drowned out by ringing bell] “What’d he say?” “He says the sheriff is near!” exchange to the quiet school marm who has a surprisingly booming public speaking voice, to the various bit parts scattered throughout, the comic timing on everyone is precise and usually unexpected–which makes it even funnier.
“They said you was hung!” “And they was right!”
Brooks isn’t the most polished filmmaker in the world, and Blazing Saddles isn’t a technically proficient movie. But he is one of the funniest people in the world, and accordingly he knew how to direct something to make it funny. Blazing Saddles has a cartoon-like quality to its visuals, which is appropriate considering the film is closer to a cartoon than live-action. It also has a familiar quality to it for the viewer, which makes sense considering he shot it on the backlot of Universal Studios in Hollywood.
If anyone got to take a tour of the studio back lot before they tore down much of it down (including the set of downtown Hill Valley), you would recognize much of the locations of the film. Rock Ridge was the old Western set they had shot countless cheap Western movies and TV shows over the decades. By the 1970’s, American-made Westerns were passe, so using the sets was an affordable solution for Brooks. This sort of visual familiarity makes Rock Ridge seem more like a painted background for an old Warner Brothers cartoon–which is another reference that pops up in the film, as Bart defeats Mongo with an old Bugs Bunny gag and makes a quick escape with the wrap-up Merrie Melodies tune playing on the soundtrack.
Blazing Saddles is also a remarkably postmodern film for its time: a lot of the humor derives from cultural references that would only make sense for someone savvy enough to catch them, and in fact the film’s overall existence as a spoof the Western genre’s conventions necessitates a priori knowledge to find it humorous in a general sense.
“Excuse me while I whip this out.”
Maybe what makes Blazing Saddles a perfect movie is because its approach to comedy is unsparing and uncensored. Considered crude even at the time of its release, it’s surprising the reasons for why it was considered crude then are so different from why it seems inappropriate today. Critics didn’t like its chaotic, anachronistic style and didn’t appreciate the lewder content, including the sexual jokes and the long flatulence scene. However, its liberal use of the n-word and making fun of gay people wasn’t an issue. Of course, the reverse is true today, where crude sexual and body humor is the norm but poking fun at race or sexual orientation is verboten.
But its audacity and now-forbidden content is what makes it, in a way, perfect: it’s unvarnished comedy that exists outside of our time but references the ongoing issues with racism we still experience today. It’s not like racial slurs have disappeared, after all: they’re just not included in films anymore, and never in comedies.
Besides this, it addresses racism in a way that’s completely unacceptable to modern audiences: by using the very language that racists use, it takes away its power. Similarly how Brooks made the musical Springtime for Hitler in The Producers to mock and ridicule Nazis, the way Blazing Saddles wields the N-word is to show that only the stupidest, most ignorant assholes use such derogatory language and hold prejudices against other races. It’s not the use of the word that makes Blazing Saddles funny–it’s to underscore how goddamn awful and wrong the people that use that word are, and makes it all the sweeter when they get their comeuppance at the end.
It’s not Citizen Kane, but it’s not supposed to be. Instead, it’s exactly what it set out to be: a wildly funny, profane, and sly message film. With farts and bad language. But hey, we have those things in real life, too. Besides, it’s a hell of a lot more fun to watch than Citizen Kane. With great performances and a ridiculously hilarious script, Blazing Saddles isn’t just a perfect movie, it’s something even more difficult to attain: it’s a perfect comedy.