Broader in scope than the average genre spoof and far more impolite, Blazing Saddles takes the conventions of the Western and refashions them into an uproarious indictment of American race relations, skewering intolerance by confronting it head-on and making it the brunt of the joke. The plain-spoken dialogue, often trading in the taboo, crude and bluntly pejorative, toes the line between wisecrack and insult, zeroing in on a certain term that made the film controversial in 1974 and makes it absolutely incendiary now. Yet, it’s this candor and eagerness to offend that generates the most profound insights, transposing the social issues on screen into a modern setting through the shock of laughter, allowing the viewer to directly address intolerance by unmasking its ignorance.
We open on a vista of golden desert sand, the vastness of the landscape broken only by a string of railroad workers, hammering away at the blunt side of rail spikes. It’s an inconspicuous opening shot, differing very little from the “oaters” that Mel Brooks saw as a child, barring the bevy of whip cracks that diminish the sincerity of Frankie Laine’s themesong. Thankfully, the similarities end there, as the sheer stupidity of the denizens of Brooks’ American West makes its way onto the screen, parading on horseback and belaboring the exhausted, multi-racial “gandy dancers” into singing a minstrel song, despite the brutal 104-degree heat.
Always keen to make his intellectual inferiors look even sillier, the mischievous “Black” Bart, played with impeccable comic timing by Cleavon Little, gives his superiors an anachronistic taste of Cole Porter instead of “Camptown Races,” confusing the shitkickers into performing their own rendition of the racist tune in response. It’s a trivial bit in comparison to the bigger laughs en route, but it sets a precedent early on, defining racists as buffoons worthy of our derision, even if they’re too dull-witted to pick up on the joke.
Speaking of buffoons, corrupt Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (not Hedy Lamarr) bankrolls the expansion of the railroad and sees dollar signs in the property lying just beyond the tracks, despite its current occupation. His primary focus is Rock Ridge, an unsophisticated village settled by one incestuous family and fostering a dialect primarily consisting of “authentic frontier gibberish,” which remains steadfast in its residency despite the violent siege Lamarr and his gang of convicts has waged against the townspeople. Try not to snicker during the mayhem, particularly when an old maid pouts into the camera, “Have you ever seen such cruelty?” as a gang of ruffians punches her in the gut.
In a stroke of genius or sheer insanity, Lamarr joins forces with a brain-dead, cross-eyed hornball of a governor (played by Brooks) and constructs a plan to “so offend” the citizens of Rock Ridge that they’ll run for the hills and leave their land free for the pilfering. Pulling Bart from the lengthy queue of the local executioner, Hedley assigns him the role of town sheriff, despite his “crimes” against his white foreman, predicting the reaction of the townspeople to a black lawman to result in abandonment or murder by committee.
Spinning a genre cliché on its ear, the new sheriff trots into town to save the day, but isn’t met with a ticker-tape parade or hero’s welcome. “The sheriff’s a ni----!” shouts the town cryer as Bart rolls into city center, a moment that leaves the jaws of the citizens and moviegoers hanging wide open, for very different reasons. While the slur is obviously meant to illicit laughter, it’s not a joke made at Bart’s expense, since he always has the upper-hand and relishes playing right into white prejudice. In one of the funniest line deliveries in film history, Bart smirkingly declares “‘Scuse me while I whip this out” as he reaches for his induction speech, having a laugh at stereotypes of black male sexual potency and the people who cling to such preconceived notions.
Mel Brooks also wants to demolish audience presumption, particularly in relation to the three-act structure and boundaries of fiction storytelling. Bucking narrative “law” in favor of anachronism and an ill-defined fourth wall, Brooks allows his characters to directly address the audience and is more than willing to step outside of reality to tell a joke, even at the expense of confusing the viewer. The disorientation of the final reel, which pans back from the predesignated melee between citizens and convicts to reveal a soundstage, destroys the fantasy of moviemaking, both adding an infectious frivolity to the affair and alternately injecting some gravity into its focus on real-world bigotry.
The anarchy on display is invigorating and for all its transgressions, ranging from racism to homophobia and sexism, Blazing Saddles is never anything less than hysterical, wearing down our better judgment through an equal opportunity willingness to offend and an endless stream of irresistible gags. In a world obsessed with progress and exposing injustice, could Blazing Saddles be American cinema at its most progressive, wholly righteous in its refusal to shy away from the root of the problem?
Blazing Saddles (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1974)
Directed by Mel Brooks
Written by Andrew Bergman (story/screenplay), Mel Brooks (screenplay), Norman Steinberg (screenplay), Richard Pryor (screenplay) and Alan Uger (screenplay)
Photographed by Joseph Biroc