“He conquered fear, and he conquered hate, / He turned dark night into day, / He made his blazing saddle / A torch to light the way… “
Blazing Saddles is regularly highlighted as a film amongst the very best of feature film comedy. Indeed, ‘Comedy’ as a genre (is it a genre?) is rarely considered at awards ceremonies. Maybe a token gesture of a screenplay nomination (recently for Little Miss Sunshine and Bridesmaids), but rarely could it win – the last one was Annie Hall in 1977. The very best comedic achievements, I believe, is rooted in the controversy that surrounds the film. In that regard, Blazing Saddles sits alongside the great pieces of comedic film-making such as Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ and Dr Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Love The Bomb. Rather than tackling the Christian faith or the fear of atomic-energy, Mel Brooks created a comedy that destroys the assumption that Westerns represent America. Any assumption that Blazing Saddles represents America would be met with narrowed-eyes and offence – and rightly so. The film was controversial as it satirizes the racism within a Western – instead, placing a black man at the center of the story as he takes the role of a new Sheriff in a town of white folk. Even now, with its direct and blunt attitude towards racism – happily using the ‘N’ word – it can feel a little awkward on the first watch. Like the best comedies, it makes you think about the bigger ideas – in this case, racism in the US and the reality of the situation in the 1970’s.
From the Start
From the minute we arrive on the railroad track, we see the minority groups working as despicable white-men order them to sing. In a brilliant change of mood, the African-American’s sing “I Get A Kick Out of You” (Though replacing the word “kick” with belt…) as Lyle (Burton Gilliam) then makes a mockery of himself as he provides an example as to what the African-American’s “should” be singing. Within minutes, the joke is clearly set on the ignorant white men – whilst the black men clearly see the racist attitudes as laughable and ludicrous. There is a clear intelligence behind the workers – and rather than act in anger and frustration, they act in sarcasm and comedic-shock. Within the same sequence, our lead character Bart (Cleavon Little) and a friend become stuck in quicksand – the white bosses ignore the men and happily let them die. They do not react in anger – they are simply mock-shocked at the lack of value placed on their lives (“nearly lost a $400 hand cart”) before, calmly, banging their employers over the head with a shovel.
Throughout the film, this type of comedy is portrayed – a combination of slapstick humour and mockery of the prejudices people hold. Nothing manages to get away from the script, penned by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Alan Uger and Richard Pryor. Ethnicity, Sexuality, Disability – you name it; in some way a joke is mentioned to laugh at. In this manner, it is clear that the film is made purely for comedy rather than a personal attack on any one group of people – the most offended are those who are prejudiced themselves.
A.O. Scott writes how he doesn’t believe Blazing Saddles is racist; instead he says that it is “a bold and provocative critique of racism”. By opening in the manner described, it will already divide opinion as to whether the use of such terms – even as comedy – is acceptable. But the finale breaks the film, literally, out of the studio and into our lives. It goes as far as to say how the issue presented is about our own prejudices. It is about our treatment of others and the struggles those in a minority have to face daily. Brooks is telling us that this is not limited to the screen and the film – it is outside and in the streets and we should change our own attitudes to stop this ridiculous segregation in society. These are issues which, 18 years later, remain relevant. Having said that, Karen Krizanovich writes superbly about the film, and notes how it isn’t political about the issues of racism but instead “makes the whole concept of racism absurd” – as indeed it is.
The complaints about the release of Scary Movie 5 is not without reason, but suffice to say, that very type of film-making owes a debt to Blazing Saddles. The writing in Blazing Saddles ensures that the film remains within the most influential comedy-film category too as, rather than merely making jokes, it becomes almost a sketch show as scenes have jokes that completely stand alone – the Nazi’s and KKK members amongst the lynch mob; the iconic [first time on cinema screen] farts around the campfire. Even Gene Wilder’s ‘Waco Kid’ shooting so fast, you can’t see the bullet (aka. the filmmakers don’t need to show the bullet), could be a single sketch about westerns on its own. This type of back-to-back jcomedy – a relentless onslaught of jokes that ignore context, characters and necessity – simply using any joke that will make a laugh leads directly to Airplane! and Spaceballs. And consequently, to spoof-cinema – including the Scary Movie series.
The crucial difference between Scary Movie 5 and Blazing Saddles is how the latter remains funny (whilst the former, I expect, will fail to make me laugh at all). Gene Wilder is a brilliant drunk-Deputy to Bart and, ultimately, turns out to be the only semi-intelligent white character. The range of characters within the town are equally hilarious – especially the older-lady who takes her time to, shall we say, “warm” to Sheriff Bart.
The film set a precedent that managed to provoke discussion whilst, at the same time, happily played the comedy to a wide-audience, garnering a huge box-office and becoming one of the first films to top $100m at the time. Richard Pryor was originally expected to take the lead role, but was refused as the producers believed he was (a) too controversial in his stand-up routines and (b) took too many drugs. In either case, the outcome of the film became more about the writing and the openness of the themes rather than a controversial actor in a lead role – and so, Pryor is remembered for his part in writing the film rather than becoming the ‘face’ of Blazing Saddles. And it truly should be the writing that we should take away from it – then again, since 1974, hasn’t every film taken this away from it?