Though it rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as The Wild Bunch, McCabe and Mrs Miller and the wave of revisionist westerns that came out of Hollywood in the late 60s and early 70s, Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles doesn’t need any artfully hazy Vilmos Zsigmond cinematography to upend Old West mythology. True, it is a comedy where a horse gets cold-cocked, a Native American chief (one of three characters played by Brooks) speaks Yiddish and Count Basie’s orchestra makes an appearance on the plains. Yet from the opening sequence, where Chinese immigrants and recently freed Black slaves work under the white man’s whip to build a railroad, this irreverent Looney Tunes spoof of the genre takes a dimmer view of frontier life than the classics it parodies.
One of the more popular things to say about Blazing Saddles is that it could never be made today, due to its frequent deployment of the N-word. But it should be noted that it barely got made in 1974 for the same reason. As the grinning white foreman who requests the Black workers sing on the line (“When you was slaves, you sang like birds”), Burton Gilliam was so ashamed to use the word that he apologized to the star, Cleavon Little, who reminded him of its villainous context in the script. Throughout the film, the N-word is a hard slap that’s intended to sting – then as much as now, 50 years later – and it’s Little, the sly Bugs Bunny of Brooks’s cartoon west, who makes buffoons of everyone who utters it.
Expecting a grim spiritual like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot or the minstrel song Camptown Races, Little’s Bart instead leads his men in a hilariously anachronistic rendition of Cole Porter’s I Get a Kick Out of You, a tune so modern in 1934 that the line “some get a kick from cocaine” had to be altered for the movies. Yet here Bart is in 1874, clowning on a pack of yokels so racist that when he and another Black laborer run a pushcart into quicksand, they rescue the cart first. For Brooks, the ability to toggle freely across timelines gives him that many more opportunities to make jokes – “I must have killed more men than Cecil B DeMille” is a favorite – but it also suggests that not much has changed in a century.
Brooks had road-tested this kind of audacity before with The Producers, his brilliant debut comedy about a scam to turn a Nazi fantasia called Springtime for Hitler into the worst musical in Broadway history. To Brooks’s mind, the best way to confront human evil is to laugh in its face, and while Blazing Saddles doesn’t quite have the conceptual hook of The Producers, it hinges on the same cheerful willingness to provoke. Brooks and his screenwriting team, which included Andrew Bergman (The In-Laws) and Richard Pryor, put racial disharmony at the center of Blazing Saddles and tickled away the tension.
With shades of Once Upon a Time in the West and several other westerns about the bloody, lucrative fight over the railway line, Blazing Saddles starts with a train that must be rerouted through the humble town of Rock Ridge, which stands to be a boon for developers. In a bid to drive residents out of Rock Ridge, the territorial attorney general (Harvey Korman) and his goon (Slim Pickens) kill the sheriff and convince the governor (Brooks) to show off his progressive bona fides by appointing Bart in his place. They assume that the locals will be so appalled by having a Black sheriff that it will leave the town vulnerable to attack.
The welcoming committee is indeed shocked by Bart strolling into town – they do not extend him “a laurel and hardy handshake” – but he gains an ally in Jim, AKA The Waco Kid, a hard-drinking gunslinger who’s drying out in a jail cell when he arrives. Played by Gene Wilder, who’s much more charmingly at ease than his anxious accountant in The Producers, Jim describes the simple frontier folk of Rock Ridge in less-than-virtuous terms: “These are people of the land. The common clay of the new west. You know, morons.” If Bart can’t win them over, he’ll have an easy time pranking his way around them.
Along with Wilder and Korman, Brooks added an important third member to his ongoing comedy troupe in Madeline Kahn, whose appearance as Lili Von Shtupp, a German seductress hired to seduce and abandon the sheriff, suggests Marlene Dietrich by way of Elmer Fudd. (“I must see you in my dwessing woom after the show.”) Brooks wrote three songs for Blazing Saddles, none better than I’m Tired, the type of splashy burlesque number that’s supposed to arouse the fellas, but is really the lament of a sex worker who’s exhausted by the “stage door Johnnies” who won’t leave her alone.
In making his first spoof about the movies – his classic riff on Universal monsters, Young Frankenstein, would arrive later that year – Brooks not only comments on the western genre, but gives himself license to violate the rules relentlessly. His characters break the fourth wall, like an old woman who pauses her own beating to ask the audience, “Have you ever seen such cruelty?” There are jokes about Randolph Scott, Jesse Owens and other yet-to-be-born figures, including a bit where the film jumps forward to Douglas Fairbanks’ spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to wonder how he performed such incredible stunts with such little feet. By the time Blazing Saddles ends, Brooks has so thoroughly obliterated the separation between the screen and the theater that Wilder kicks back with a box of popcorn.
Despite the sharper edges of the film’s racial comedy, Brooks isn’t a rabble-rouser by nature. He’s more like Sheriff Bart, who wins over a hostile crowd by completely disarming them. So what if Blazing Saddles could never get made today? It still plays.