Should I Watch..? 'Blazing Saddles'
What's the big deal?
Blazing Saddles is a comedy western film released in 1974 and was directed and co-written by Mel Brooks. The film is a satire on the inherent racism in Hollywood and western movies in general and depicts a black sheriff seeking to bring justice to an all-white town. The film stars Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens, Brooks himself in a multitude of roles, Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn. Nominated for three Academy Awards, the film received a fairly warm reception from critics but was loved by audiences who helped make the film only the tenth in history at the time to make more than $100 million (in the US alone as well). The film remains a popular comedy and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry at the US Library Of Congress in 2006.
What's it about?
In the old American West in 1874, a new railroad is being constructed near the remote town of Rock Ridge in order to avoid quicksand. Attorney General Hedley Lemarr realises that this will make the town of Rock Ridge immensely valuable and arranges for his men - led by his right-hand man Taggart - to attack the town and murder the sheriff. Once this is done, Lemarr uses his influence over the dim-witted Governor William J. Le Petomane to install a black sheriff in the town, hoping that such an appointment will lead to chaos and allow him to sweep in and take over the town.
Sure enough, Petomane appoints railroad worker Bart to the position of Sheriff and he quickly finds himself alienated from the people of Rock Ridge. His only hope for getting the townspeople on his side are his quick wits and his friendship with alcoholic gunslinger The Waco Kid. But Lemarr doesn't give up that easily and sends a posse of assorted characters to Rock Ridge to take the sheriff out for good.
Jim, "The Waco Kid"
Lili von Shtüpp
Gov. William J. Le Petomane / Yiddish Indian Chief
Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Alan Uger*
Release Date (UK)
23rd June, 1974
12A (2008 re-rating)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Supporting Actress (Kahn), Best Film Editing, Best Original Song
What's to like?
It might seem a bit rough around the edges but Blazing Saddles was years ahead of its time. Long before Airplane! kicked the spoof movie into a wider awareness among audiences, Brooks' no-holds-barred assault on the Hollywood Western myth feels like a runaway train, indiscriminately taking pot-shots at anyone it damn well pleases. The screenplay is first class, disguising its disdain for the inherent racism and misogyny found in these film beneath a unrelenting barrage of one-liners, sight gags and that legendary camp-fire scene. At first glance, the film might appear low-brow but the film makes some obvious and alarming points about the white-washing of America's history and Hollywood's role in reinforcing these myths.
The cast, all of whom give their roles as much gusto as they can provide, all prove solid comic support for the script but the actor I was most impressed with was Little. Having only really seen him in the drug-fuelled Vanishing Point, I was astonished to find himself proving the equal of his more experienced co-star Wilder and the two of them make a great odd couple at the helm of the picture. Korman, Kahn and Brooks also all get moments of genuine comic brilliance and despite its age, the funny is still funny. It also feels more relevant somehow compared to some of Brooks' later parodies like Spaceballs and Dracula: Dead And Loving It which comes across as old-fashioned these days.
- By pure chance, Brooks spotted John Wayne in the Warner Bros. studios one day and took a chance on asking The Duke to appear in the film. After reading the script, Wayne told Brooks that he wouldn't do it because it was too dirty but he'd be first in line to see it when it was finished.
- Hedy Lemarr sued Brooks over the use of the name 'Hedley Lemarr' and settled out of court. Brooks was said to be delighted and flattered by the attention. Coincidentally, Korman's first day on set makes a reference to a lawsuit involving Hedy Lemarr which, at that point, was non-existent.
- After Brooks advertised for a "Frankie Laine-type" singer to perform the theme music, Laine himself approached Brooks two days later and offered his services. Nobody told Laine the film was a parody as Brooks feared he might not give it his all if he thought he was singing for a comic western.
What's not to like?
However, like all runaway trains, Blazing Saddles veers wildly off the rails before a short and sudden stop. The film feels like a series of rehearsals strung loosely together while the ending in particular felt weak and a bit too 'meta'. Compared to latter spoofs like the aforementioned Airplane! or The Naked Gun, it lacks much of the focus that made those ZAZ comedies unforgettable. However, this may be due to its audience. After all, modern cinema-goers are likely to be less familiar with those classic Hollywood westerns like Rio Grande so a lot of the points raised in the film might not strike as much a chord as it did back in the day.
Thinking about it, that's doing the film a kinda disservice. Blazing Saddles is still a popular comedy film, one that addresses issues dressed in the guise of a mass-market bawdy comedy involving flatulent cowboys and people knocking out a horse with one punch. Brooks' films rarely achieve any kind of high-brow reputation and this film certainly reinforces that view. I just wanted the movie to focus a little more on what it's trying to say instead of going for the gag every time. The least a satire should do is make you think but all you really do watching the film is laugh a lot.
Should I watch it?
Everyone should watch this film at least once but I suspect that Blazing Saddles hasn't aged as well as you might think. It's still very funny and very silly but it makes several points about the dark side of Hollywood's revisionist view of the Old West. The film is packed with the usual Brooks' tropes - silly songs, Jewish humour, the faithful cast sticking with him - but it probably remains Brooks' best film. If you enjoy latter spoofs with Leslie Nielsen then you'll probably get a real blast from this.
Great For: immature viewers, fans of traditional westerns, fans of Brooks
Not So Great For: people taking themselves too seriously, contemporary audiences, the easily offended (the film has some choice language that we simply never hear these day, thankfully)
What else should I watch?
Most agree that Brooks' earlier pictures - specifically The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein - are not just his best films but among some of the best comedy films ever made. Young Frankenstein is a beloved spoof on those black-and-white horror films and once again featured Gene Wilder in amazing form but The Producers is arguably his most successful, producing not just a successful theatrical adaptation but also a remake in 2005 which wasn't exactly as well received as the original.
Parody films have been big business since Leslie Nielsen revived his career as a comic genius in Airplane! Among the many which came after were the under-rated Top Secret!, the first two Naked Gun films (the third wasn't much good) and the very silly Hot Shots! which featured a pre-meltdown Charlie Sheen spoofing Tom Cruise's appearance in Top Gun. To be honest, I thought that film already felt like a spoof...
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