Blazing Saddles is the kind of movie you watch in slack-jawed amazement, wondering how it could be this good. Every time I watch it (many times, trust me), I expect to find some part of it lacking, some part of it disappointing compare to my fond nostalgic memories. But I am surprised anew every time; the film always responds with pure comedic perfection. This is one of the funniest, most artistically progressive comedies ever created, and what makes it even more impressive is the fact that it still holds up so well 40 years later.
Mel Brooks’ seminal western spoof follows the exploits of Bart (Cleavon Little), a black man working on a railroad line in the 1870s-era south. Although slavery has been outlawed, he and his fellow black and Asian workers are technically still enslaved in a country that is still incredibly racist. After assaulting one of his white bosses during a tussle, he is sentenced to be hanged.
But Attorney General Headley Lamarr (the late great Harvey Korman) has other plans. He wants his new railroad to go straight through the tow of Rock Ridge, but the town’s stubborn populace is unwilling to vacate. But the city is seeking a new sheriff, and Lamarr thinks that hiring Bart as sheriff might so repulse the backwards townspeople that they would rather leave town for good that be led by a black man. After befriending an enlightened former gunslinger named Jim (Gene Wilder), Bart makes it his goal to win over the townspeople and foil Lamarr’s nefarious plot.
What’s most immediately striking about Blazing Saddles to modern ears is the language. The “n” word is extremely plentiful, but the film is “racist” in the same way Huckleberry Finn is; which is to say, it’s actually very racially progressive. Much of that empowerment comes from Little, who plays Bart as the sly everyman that each audience member can relate to. He’s keenly aware how much the color of his skin matters, but, rather than despair, he’s intent to use it to his advantage in every situation. It’s obvious that Bart is infinitely smarter than the white hicks who count it as some kind of duty to subjugate and demean him.
The film’s racial themes are worth pondering further, but any Mel Brooks review has to get to the jokes, and these are easily some of his best. Inspired more by classic Looney Tunes shorts than any western, this is as madcap, zany and rapid-fire as movie comedies come. The humor is so lowbrow and yet so sophisticated that it should appease almost every viewer in some measure. Brooks riffs on classic skits like “Who’s on First?” There are some killer running puns (It’s HEADLEY!) and great visual gags, often perfectly timed with sound and music (the anachronistic Count Basie orchestra playing in the middle of the desert is my favorite). The jokes fly fast and furious (I still haven’t caught them all), and gags you think are long gone unexpectedly rear their heads again whole scenes later. But my favorite aspect of the film’s humor is the way it breaks the fourth wall left and right, gently letting the audience in on the humor in a rare and special way.
Of course, good jokes don’t go very far without good performances, and Blazing Saddles boasts some of the best in comedy history. Korman is having almost too much fun as the mustache-twirling villain, getting many of the film’s juiciest lines and speeches. Seeing a Shakespearean-quality actor going broke for the sake of a gag is something to behold. Slim Pickens gets some big laughs as his dim-witted assistant (he gets the punchline on the most infamous fart joke in movie history). And then there’s the magnificent Madeline Kahn, who, as the German seductress Lili Von Shtupp (in an Oscar-nominated performance) boasts one of the film’s high points in an extended (and surprisingly dirty) musical sequence. And I’d be remiss to forget Brooks, who plays several roles, most notably randy cross-eyed governor William J. LePetomane
But the emotional anchor of the film is Jim (most people call me…Jim) played with great subtlety and tremendous warmth by Gene Wilder. He’s a much more nuanced, warm presence than in The Producers, and the friendship he develops with Bart is truly affecting. Jim is the first person in the film to see Bart as an actual human being, an equal. We shouldn’t ask for too much subtlety or heart-tugging from a comedic spoof, but Brooks and his teams of writers go the extra mile here, and it shows.
What truly elevates the film from “great” to “legendary” is its climax, which descends into utter chaos and defies all traditional film logic. This is Brooks changing the language of cinema to do something completely new, and it’s absolutely thrilling to watch. You’ll be amazed how far the film is willing to take the greatest fourth-wall joke in movie history.
Blazing Saddles is everything I want in a comedy. It has clever visual gags, hilarious writing and acting, great production design and surprising (yet always subtle) politics. Best of all, it even has a heart. A great big one. Mel Brooks is a passionate filmmaker, and it shows in every framer here. Blazing Saddles re-wrote the movie comedy rulebook, and catapulted Brooks into his most prolific and creative period. Thankfully, there would be more side-splitting classics to come.