US (1974) Dir. Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks turned 95 the other day and to celebrate the BBC showed two of his classic films which I first saw many moons ago. This gave me the chance to watch them again and re-evaluate them through a more mature and critical eye as opposed to just having a laugh for 90 minutes.
1874 and a railroad is being constructed along the American frontier overseen by corrupt attorney general Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman). Learning the track will pass through quicksand, the alternative is to go through a town called Rock Ridge which will make it rocket in value. To capitalise on this, Lamarr sends his lackey Taggart (Slim Pickens) and his thugs to shoot the sheriff and wreck the town to scare the people into leaving.
However, the townsfolk are more resilient and they demand a new sheriff be instated to protect them, petitioning Governor William J. Le Petomane (Mel Brooks). Lamarr is one step ahead of them and cons the Governor into appointing the worst choice for the job – black railroad worker Bart (Cleavon Little), hoping he would offend the townsfolk enough that they will leave voluntarily.
When compiling a list of films you couldn’t make today, this zany comedy would be close to the top, but is it because of the offensive dialogue or because the satire behind it cuts a bit too deep for modern sensibilities? This is tricky as there is meaning to the racist language, as Blazing Saddles is not just a spoof western but is also a critique of inherent American prejudice, which coming from a Jew, he knows whereof he speaks.
The script was co-written with Richard Pryor, who was originally going to play Bart until the studio decided Pryor’s drug convictions made him uninsurable. Pryor used to mock black people and racism in his stand up shows, and this is carried over into the film. Yes, the “N” word is frequently used as a derogatory term and if stings, it is supposed to – this is as confrontational as This Is England or Detroit but like the Alf Garnett character, it uses humour instead of drama to make its point.
Case in point, the film opens with the ethnic railroad workers being told to sing a song to lift the mood. They sing Cole Porter’s I Get A Kick Out Of You, the first of many typical Brooks’ anachronisms. The white overseers are perplexed, demanding a more “black” song like Camptown Races, which they sing themselves to the amusement of the black workers. I suppose if you don’t get this opening joke then the rest of the racist material will seem gratuitously offensive.
Obviously, a fine line needs to be tread and Brooks did indeed receive many complaints about the dialogue and the studio was also hesitant towards the film, but as director, he was afforded final cut status so it stayed. For those who didn’t get the first joke, a much simpler version appears when Bart rides into Rock Ridge as sheriff and the townsfolk immediately turn on him with their guns. Bart points his own gun to his head and says “Anybody moves, the n____r gets it!”.
If the self-awareness of the satire isn’t obvious now it never will be, so it is fortunate Blazing Saddles is also remembered for its low brow comedy, referring to the infamous camp fire chorus of flatulence from the bean eating cowboys. Then there is the simple minded thug Mongo (Alex Karras) punching the horse, German bar room singer Lili Von Shtupp’s (Madeline Kahn) Marlene Dietrich-inspired innuendo laden song, and the half-naked busty secretary the Governor leers over, which more people should be upset with.
Since Brooks takes a Python-esque approach to his films, many rules are broken like breaking the fourth wall or being meta with the references. The running gag of Hedley Lamarr having to correct people who say Hedy after the famous actress is one example; another is the town of Rock Ridge all having the surname Johnson (I wonder how many people got the Olsen Johnson reference?) This dates the film for some. For the rest of us it is clever wordplay and an underrated aspect of the script.
And I haven’t even mentioned the dry and laconic turn by Gene Wilder as Jim aka The Waco Kid, spoofing all the hot shot gunslingers by making him an alcoholic after being shot in the bum by a six year-old kid! His almost inert presence offsets the mania of the rest of the film whilst making a fun duo with the smart and quick witted Bart, a man keen to have others see him and not just his skin colour.
For full disclosure, Brooks also targets the Germans (natch), the KKK, American politics, and religion so whilst he is casting his caustic net wide, it is the blacks, and by extension Native Americans, he is championing not deriding. It will remain subjective to view this film as a product of its time, a rationale some refuse to accept as the language used was still common place then and not morally opposed or restricted now.
I’m sure though, the big question is whether the humour still works if the contentious dialogue was toned down or removed. Well, any film set in 1874 with the Count Basie Orchestra playing April In Paris in the middle of a desert, ends with the cast brawling across the various stages of a Hollywood back lot, and climaxes with the lead characters watching themselves in a cinema doesn’t have comic value, what does?
Blazing Saddles might be Mel Brooks at his abrasive, subversive best or at his zaniest, but it now stands as his most controversial film. I think it is a brave, clever satire and anarchic comedy with a message sadly still topical 47 years later but can see how some modern viewers might debate if its boldness makes Brooks progressive or simply part of the problem.