The modern parody film is a shameful shadow of its former glory. The 1960s and 70s were a golden age for the genre of satirical comedies with films such as Airplane, Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, and, of course, today's review choice, Blazing Saddles. And Mel Brooks was, in many ways, the champion of that golden age, as three of the four films I named were of his making. Mel Brooks has entered the history books as a legendary comedic filmmaker, but I truly think that most people don't understand fully just how clever and subversive Brooks' films really are. And of all his films, none are victims of this more than Blazing Saddles.
The film is, in short, an absolute comedic triumph, easily standing as one of the funniest and most poignant comedic satires ever made. In fact, its satire is so subtle and scathing that I think most viewers completely miss the thematic criticism at the heart of Blazing Saddles hidden behind the fart jokes and innuendos. I'm not being hyperbolic either by stating that the film is almost blindingly smart in its criticism of American culture.
And comedy is, at its heart a criticism of something. Comedy is the art of using humor to point out an aspect of society and comment on it by tearing it down. Whether this comment be about the use of language, as is the case of "foul language", or about the absurdity of some political idea or societal foible, in the case of political humor; comedy is the art of deconstructing an idea and re-contextualizing it to a viewer in a new, often humorous, light. Blazing Saddles
uses the medium of comedy to comment on race relations in America as portrayed in our media as well as critiquing the tropes of the Western genre.
Blazing Saddles wouldn't be nearly so good at this if it weren't for the excellent performances by everyone involved. It can often be difficult to deliver satire with a straight face, as the key to good parody is take an absurd story or detail and play it completely serious, to act as if the ridiculous is perfectly normal. Cleavon Little performs flawlessly as Sheriff Bart, even though his role was originally going to be played by Richard Pryor who helped co-write the script. Sheriff Bart has the unenviable task of protecting a town of people that hate him and is forced to use all manner of clever tricks and schemes to himself out of trouble, in a performance that is very heavily inspired by Looney Tunes cartoons.
Despite the absurdity, Little brings a great deal of heart and drama to the character, who desires respect and courtesy for his actions and receives only derision and racism for his efforts. There is an underlying tragedy to the character that helps you truly understand and sympathize with Bart and want the best for him.
Playing Bart's sidekick, we have the irreplaceable Gene Wilder as Jim, the notorious alcoholic gunslinger known as the "Waco Kid". Wilder just kills in this role, providing some of the best gags in the whole film and his dialogue moments with Little are equal parts funny and heartwarming. You really get a sense that the two actors were having a genuinely great time on set riffing off one another. Bart and Jim's friendship is steeped in a sense of brotherly affection and trust that immediately endears them both and helps to paint the otherwise absurd and stupid villains in the proper light.
The rest of the cast fits into their roles perfectly. Slim Pickens and Harvey Korman are fantastic riffs on the archetypical Western bad guys and Madeline Kahn's role as Little's love interest is one of the highlights and probably one of the best sequences in the whole film, outside of the Mongo fight.
The story of Blazing Saddles is another high point. A good parody is one that has a serious story on the surface, with elements of absurdity added on. The villains plot of destroying a town to build a railroad is so archetypal to the genre that I'm almost certain that there has been a Western with that very plot. The sheriff and deputy that must team up to overcome a band of ruffians is also right out of John Wayne films like Rio Bravo and El Dorado. Where Blazing Saddles shifts up the formula and elevates itself beyond simple parody into actual commentary on the Western genre is in its application of race as a central point of plot.
The real historical West was incredibly diverse. Women held more power than men in most towns due to them holding most of the wealth. Black men and other minorities were lawmen, outlaws, and cowboys. However, Hollywood in the Golden Age of the Western made a not so subtle effort to whitewash the West, due in no small part to things like the Hays Code, which mandated certain perceived images of minorities in American media. So Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor decided to write a film that commented on this dark secret of Hollywood by making your archetypal Western film, but filling it with all the aspects of the West that are either downplayed or forgotten and then disguising it all in the absurdist and gross-out humor. The film is very careful and nothing is done thoughtfully, especially the film's use of language.
As mentioned earlier in the article, Blazing Saddles has earned a reputation as being the film that could "never be made nowadays". Somehow the idea that people have become to sensitive for a film as vulgar or racially charged as Blazing Saddles to be made. I think this is a poor line of thinking that only looks upon the surface level of the film without taking into account just how careful and purposeful everything in the movie really is. Richard Pryor and Mel Brooks worked together to craft a very tight script and story for the film and its use of language is always deliberate, especially with regards to its use of slurs. If Blazing Saddles couldn't be made today, it is only because I don't believe Hollywood would approach the film with the same level of care that Brooks and Pryor did.
What I am referring to is ultimately how the use of language and the perception of race within the film, which is a very blatant thematic point, to expose the underlying absurdity of Western films and American media's portrayals of the West by creating a much more realistic portrayal of American values at the time. The film never idolizes the use of slurs nor grants them positivity in the eyes of the viewers, especially the N-word. Sheriff Bart is a confident and powerful individual always able to use his wit and guile to overcome any challenge with a smile and friendly attitude. And yet, the film treats the N-word as the dangerous weapon it is and employs it most poignantly in the scene between the old lady and Sheriff Bart to highlight the powerlessness that it invokes. For all that the suddenness of the scene and its casual use by the old lady may make you laugh, it should also leave you feeling sorry for Bart. That for all his accomplishments, the power of that word cuts deep and drives to the emotional heart of this comedy.
In most Westerns, the presence of people of other races and ethnicities is either ignored or coded as the villain or some other "invader" of the pure, unmarred West. The West that was manifestly destined for White Americans, at the expense of other peoples. The West was built not just on the backs of hard-working settlers, but also by the persecuted and segregated slave and freeman, the Mexicans that had lived in those lands before America even "owned" them, and the blood of the First Nations which preceded all of them. The West was born of blood and Blazing Saddles most scathing critique of the Western genre might be its sheer willingness that these minorities existed at all within the West.
For all its comedy, which is exquisite in its own right, Blazing Saddles is a triumph of subversive satire. A commentary on American race relations in media through the lens of the most American genre of them all. If Blazing Saddles couldn't be made today, it is only because our changing relationship with the media and its portrayals of minorities is shifting, sometimes along demographics, and the care and attention to detail that went into its construction would likely be ignored by filmmakers to bamboozled by fart and sex jokes to capture the real emotional message at the heart of this, admittedly, silly movie.
Like the best kinds of comedy, the kind that transforms you on a deeper level. Blazing Saddles hides its true message beneath a wall of slapstick and referential humor. Yet if you look deeper, you will find not only one of the smartest and most well-crafted comedies of all time, but a scathing indictment of the Western genre by one of its own. The magnum opus of Brooks career and one of the greatest comedic films ever made. Blazing Saddles in every single way deserves to be heralded as a classic.
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