In lieu of the imminent release of Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West this weekend, I’m going to talk about a movie that many critics keep comparing it to–Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles. Since I haven’t seen the former yet, and don’t know when I’ll get around to it, I can’t really compare the two. All I can say is they both fall into the category of “Western spoofs.”
Blazing Saddles, however, isn’t just a spoof about the West, it’s also a comedic critique of racism in America, specifically, in American Western movies. Anyone who is familiar with Mel Brooks’ work, knows that he doesn’t hold back when it comes to offensive jokes. Mel Brooks is also known for some other comedic films such as Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and Spaceballs.
In Blazing Saddles, it’s the whites who are portrayed as simple-minded buffoons, except for Gene Wilder’s character, Jim a.k.a. “The Waco Kid,” a skilled gunslinger who has “killed more men than Cecile B. DeMille” and is more evolved than the rest despite his heavy drinking. Cleavon Little plays Bart, a smart, sarcastic and likable black man, who becomes a pawn in Hedley Lamarr’s (Harvey Korman) game when Hedley makes him sheriff of a town called Rock Ridge for the sole purpose of driving people of out it to make room for a railroad. Bart beats Hedley at his own game by being a likable guy and winning over the racist townsfolk, including Mongo (Alex Karras)–a slow-minded but strong henchman–sent by Hedley to kill him, as well as Lili von Schtupp (Madeline Kahn), a German entertainer hired by Hedley to seduce Bart. After those methods fail, Hedley hires a bunch of stereotypical bad guys to help him destroy the town. A huge line which includes Nazis, KKK members, Western outlaws, Middle Eastern terrorists and others, forms to sign up. Long story short, they trick Hedley and his men by building a replica of Rock Ridge, which they end up destroying instead, and then the fight spills over, literally breaking through the “fourth wall” and into other studio productions nearby. Hedley escapes the fight, and ends up in a movie theater that is premiering Blazing Saddles and Bart finds him. It’s a nonsensical story for the most part, but that’s the point.
The comedy in this movie is timeless. Comedies these days are raunchy and often have to be in order to get a laugh out of people, but a lot of them don’t hold the same comedic value after you see them a few times. This movie, despite the fact that it is 40-years-old, is still funny every time I watch it. You’ve got the famous scene where a bunch of cowboys are sitting around the campfire eating beans and farting non-stop, and you’ve got Mel Brooks himself playing the sleazy, stupid governor. There’s also some pretty funny quotes in this movie. For example, Jim and Bart try to lure over a couple of KKK members by Bart jumping out and yelling, “Hey! Where the white women at?” It’s just random, sometimes subtle, lines that make the comedy flow.
It’s also vulgar and unforgiving. Brooks didn’t cut out any of his offensive scenes despite being confronted by Warner Bros. telling him to eliminate the “N” word from the film, as well as some other things, resulting in the film almost not being released at all. He and Richard Pryor–a black actor/writer/comedian who worked on the script–figured that the more the “rednecks” used the word, the more victorious Cleavon’s character would seem in the end.
I’m sure there are some out there, but I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t like this movie. It isn’t meant to be anything more than gag humor, making fun of what would otherwise be serious matters, a filmmaker making fun of films–it has crossed many boundaries for its time. I’m sure it was probably more shocking back in 1974 than it is now, but that doesn’t take away from its humor, in my opinion. Anyone who likes vulgar comedies, or “spoof comedies” such as this, should check it out if you haven’t already.