There are movies that are so good as to be recognized among the greats by the American Film Institute (AFI), and yet seem to get little attention today. One of these is Blazing Saddles (1974). I suppose there are reasons why many do not think about it. In our hyper-sensitive society (which, by the way, is not all bad), the racial stereotypes found in the film can seem backwards to our modern sensibilities. What has to be understood about this film in order to appreciate it better is the historical context. Coming on the heels of the 1960s, a decade that saw gains made by the Civil Rights movement while also having many of its leaders assassinated, the film sought to poke fun at many of the tropes that had been used to keep African Americans in their so-called place. Indeed, the whole social structure is turned upside down by having the town of Rock Ridge, the fictional Old West setting, be policed by a black sheriff named Bart (Cleavon Little). And already, I am making the movie sound much more serious than it is intended to be. Anyway, on with the review.
Blazing Saddles starts with a railroad company attempting to overcome quicksand they find along their proposed path. One of the backers of the railroad, state attorney general Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) realizes that the diversion will take the tracks through the nearby town of Rock Ridge, making the folk there rich from the freight. Not wanting to share the wealth, Hedley turns to his friend, Governor William J. Le Petomane (Mel Brooks), to appoint a new sheriff of Rock Ridge when its citizens do not appear ready to leave. They even resist the terrorizing carried out by Hedley’s main henchman Taggart (Slim Pickens) and his band of ruffians. The town, too, wants a new sheriff, one that will help them stand up to the railroad. Hedley plucks a railroad worker from the hangman’s noose, despite having had a run-in with Taggart, and it is the aforementioned Bart. Hedley believes that this will scare the townsfolk away. To be sure, they are surprised when a man of darker complexion rides into to their welcoming celebration for their new lawman. Sensing the tension, Bart has to pretend that he is being threatened by an unseen gunman, even though it is really himself, in order to win their sympathy and make it into the local jailhouse. Once there, he meets the fastest gun in town, but also the drunkest, Jim (Gene Wilder), who is behind bars for public intoxication. He, too, is confused by Bart’s presence, but they quickly become friends. Meanwhile, Hedley is frustrated by the lack of progress in Rock Ridge. His first move is to send the immensely strong Mongo (Alex Karras) to kill Bart, but Mongo is defeated by Bart who uses a Bugs Bunny-style wit to overcome the challenge. The next sent to beguile Bart is the German seductress Lili von Shtüpp (Madeleine Kahn). This seemingly goes to plan until Bart’s, er, charms prove too powerful for her and she falls in love. With each of these backfiring, Taggart convinces Hedley to led the old desperado do things the old-fashioned way, with lots of shooting. This is where Jim comes in handy, whose pistol work is so fast that he is able to out shoot them all in the blink of an eye, forcing their retreat. In desperation, Hedley decides to recruit an army to invade Rock Ride, which includes the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, and Methodists. Realizing that he needs to bolster his own side, Bart appeals to the Asian, African American, and Irish railroad workers to assist them. Their first move is to construct a replica of their town for Hedley’s men to attack in order to buy them time. The resulting brawl hilariously bleeds over into other sets that are currently being worked on in the confines of the Warner Brothers Studio lot. A confused Hedley looks on as the fighting spills into the studio commissary where he is getting lunch. His solution is to head to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to view the premier of the movie and find out what is happening. In doing so, he sees Bart arrive outside on horseback. With nowhere to escape, Bart shoots Hedley and the day is saved. Bart and Jim then settle in for the rest of the movie, popcorn in hand, to see Bart tell the town that his work is done and that he is leaving. He is joined by Jim, and they travel a short distance out of town where they stop at a waiting limousine, get in, and ride off into the sunset in style.
I think I successfully made Blazing Saddles sound funnier than I usually do with comedies. As I said in the introduction, it relies a lot on racial stereotypes for its humor, which is something you do not see a lot of these days, for good reason. The white characters, except for Jim, make the assumption that Bart is ignorant due to his race, and yet he turns these supposed conventions on their heads by outsmarting them every time. The stereotypes do not end with African Americans, however. They extend to the way the Asian and Irish railroad workers are portrayed. The Native Americans are an interesting one as their leader is portrayed by Mel Brooks, which is a form of “red face” and not ideal, but it is lessened somewhat by the fact he has the native peoples speaking Yiddish. In a sense, he is uniting the plight of Native Americans with Jews, which actually makes some sense, historically speaking. Since this is a Catholic blog, though, I am sure you will pardon me for talking more about the Irish. Though there is no reference made to their Faith, but outside of the film, for a long time there were bad and good Irish. The bad were working class laborers (as seen in the movie) and Catholic. The good were middle to upper class and protestant. I will credit Mel Brooks, the film’s director, for putting the Irish on the side of the good guys, and the protestant Methodists on the bad. This is not meant to be a criticism of my protestant brethren, but rather me noting a sort of historical payback, if you will. Catholic peoples have not received a lot of respect in American culture, so it was good to see something different.
If you have not seen Blazing Saddles, then you should. Aside from the negative aspects already mentioned, there is a bit of sexual innuendo in it. Luckily, this last part does not overwhelm the movie, and neither do the stereotypes. As such, you are left with a movie that is still chuckle-worthy today.