When thinking of how to describe exactly how I feel about Mel Brooks’ 1974 masterpiece Blazing Saddles, I cannot help but paraphrase Hedy (That’s Hedley!) Lamarr:
My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought, cascading into a waterfall of praise and compliments!
“Funny” doesn’t even begin to describe this film. It’s broad in its gags, but sharp in its wit. The one-liners come fast – so fast in fact, that it seems that one is still laughing at a hilarious line when the next one comes down. The acting is wonderful all around, particularly Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder and Harvey Korman.
Blazing Saddles is probably the most brilliant movie co-writer and director Mel Brooks has ever made. While films like Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights are awesome in their own way, Blazing Saddles is the apex of Brooks’ career – transcending its own time and genre to become a film that speaks to the culture, and making us take a good, long look at ourselves. And it’s a comedy!
What the film says about racism is the most honest, straightforward and politically incorrect way I have ever seen the subject dealt with in mainstream art. It makes racism out to be exactly what it is: stupid. Judging someone by their skin pigmentation is ridiculous. It is also un-Christlike, sowing the seeds of hatred and violence.
In today’s society, where the media and the culture insist that racism exists where there isn’t any, Blazing Saddles still has a lot to teach people about how we as people can get along.
“Excuse me while I whip this out.” SPOILERS AHEAD!
This film is not just a fantastic parody of the western film genre, but a loving tribute as well. Brooks was adamant in maintaining the stylistic integrity of a western. He shot in locations once used by greats like John Ford, and lensed in the epic CinemaScope format. He even tapped famous western balladeer Frankie Lane to sing the title song (which was nominated for an Oscar), though he didn’t actually tell Lane what the movie was about.
Mel Brooks also asked western film legend John Wayne to be in the film. “Nah, I can’t do a movie like that,” Wayne said. “But I’ll be first in line to see it.”
“And now for my next impression: Jesse Owens!”
Blazing Saddles sports some of the best gags in all of film, both verbal and physical. There are plenty of hilarious pratfalls that work on a very simple level, like Mongo punching a horse (which still makes me scream-laugh to this day). But there are countless witty turns-of-phrase that cause the viewer to think while they’re laughing, and really make this film repeatable in order to take in all the clever gems.
The scenes that exemplify this film’s razor-sharp wit are those between Mel Brooks and Harvey Korman. Both men are at the top of their game here, and brilliantly playing off each other like a well-choreographed dance of words. It’s really quite impossible to describe the delight these scenes give me. The zingers and gags come quick, with each one building upon the other. There was clearly a lot of improvisation going on, and I have to respect the professionalism of these two, as well as everyone in the room, to keep their composure through it all.
“Piss on you! I’m workin’ for Mel Brooks!”
In addition to Brooks and Korman, the rest of the cast is absolutely wonderful. Cleavon Little in particular as Black Bart has a natural charisma that makes him a joy to watch and an outstanding leading man. Gene Wilder is spectacular, as always. Wilder’s Waco Kid is a genius who fakes ineptitude to keep his adversaries off their game, like Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
The film really gets into comedic overdrive during the last act, where the final fight between the townspeople and Lamarr’s desperadoes bleeds out onto the Warner Bros. Studio Lot! This entire sequence leaves me laughing at its absurdity and constant stream of hilarious gags. It’s a veritable Warner Bros. cartoon come to life, and it’s glorious! The great Dom DeLuise is the icing on the cake in this sequence.
“Speaking the plain truth is getting pretty damn dull around here.”
Frankly, in today’s hyper-sensitive society, with its politically correct absurdities like “trigger warnings” and “micro-aggressions,” a film like Blazing Saddles could never be made. It’s true that raunchier films have definitely been made since 1974, but the film’s pervasive use of the n-word and all kinds of racial and ethnic stereotypes is a different kind of comedy that is not tolerated, especially if a non-black person is doing it.
It’s a very crass movie with a lot of foul language, suggestive situations, and offensive dialogue. However, there is more to it, and one needs to look past the crass exterior to see what’s really going on.
At its core, Blazing Saddles is about racism, and is probably one of the most honest films about the subject. It does what it seems no one in movies had done or has been able to do with any degree of success since: make fun of racism. Racism is stupid, and this movie definitely makes it out to be just that.
Like Mark Twain and other great humorists, Mel Brooks is adept at pointing out the absurdities in our own culture through good-natured wit and humor, rather than sarcasm and elitist snark. He isn’t afraid to point out the foibles of any group.
It is indeed foolish to think of one’s self as better than someone else in any context, especially because of the amount of melanin in our skin. We are all equally human and equally sinful. As Paul wrote in the Book of Romans, “Do we have an advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous; not even one…'” (3:9-10)
We are all equally susceptible to sin, which is why Jesus’ message is for everyone.
The movie also points to what we should do and how we should act when we are the victims of prejudice. Bart is a good man who beats his adversaries by taking the high road – not lashing out or acting out revenge, but beating them at their own game.
Bart is really the only character in the entire movie with his head on straight from the get-go. He starts the film lashing out by hitting Taggart over the head with a shovel, which gets him into trouble. From that experience, he learns that the best way to defeat his racist adversaries is with intelligence.
When Bart first rode into Rock Ridge, the citizens were deeply offended simply by his presence, and even tried to kill him. Throughout the film, he defends these same racist people from brutes like Mongo and eventually hatches a plan to save the town from the real bad guys, bringing the people of all colors together. The townspeople eventually come to respect Bart, and are sad to see him leave at the end of the film.
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Luke 6:27-28
During His ministry, Jesus was adamant about how to treat those that would hate and scorn us. We are called to react with love. He recalled the Book of Proverbs, which says, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat. If he’s thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head…” (25:21-22) It is true that this is the surest way to gain the respect of detractors, if it is possible. For if they can see that you have character, and are willing to sacrifice for them in spite of their hate, they are more apt to respect you.
There will always be individual racists, of course. But we give them power over us if we react in an unloving way to their sinful curses. The key to making racism more irrelevant is not with material reparations or other revenge-based nonsense. It’s from changing individual hearts and minds, showing class and love to those who would do people harm based on race. How we react in situations is just as important as the act itself. We may want retribution, but it is not the way to achieve a good result.
If you have never seen Blazing Saddles before, do yourself a favor and see it now. If you have seen it and it’s been a while, you should take some time soon to revisit this truly remarkable and funny film. For those that are faint-of-heart and object to racist language and vulgar humor, this film may not be for you.
With Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks set the bar for satirical farce, and contributed mightily to the honest conversation about race in America. Jesus set the standard for how to react when people curse us, and we should follow it.
Originally posted on Reel World Theology.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Warner Bros. Pictures
Starring Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens,
Madeline Kahn, Mel Brooks and Dom DeLuise
Written by Andrew Bergman, Mel Brooks,
Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg and Al Uger
Directed by Mel Brooks