Blazing Saddles (1974)

Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks' legendary western parody, was made in the mid-seventies, when political correctness was not yet an issue. It offers farting cowboys, Yiddish speaking Indians, raunchy jokes about men and women, and racist jokes about most people living on the face of this planet. They don’t make ‘m any more like this, neither the film nor the  jokes.

# A sheriff, a gunslinger and a titwillow

The story goes (more or less) as follows: The route of the Railroad had to be changed because it ran into quicksand, and will now go through a frontier town called Rock Ridge, where all inhabitants are called “Johnson” (Don’t ask me why). Legal advisor Hedley Lamarr (Hedley, not Hedy) plans to drive the Johnsons out of their homes with the help of a bunch of ruffians, led by the clumsy Taggart (played by a particularly funny Slim Pickens). When the townspeople ask the governor to appoint a new sheriff, Lamarr tells him to pick a convicted black railroad worker for the job. He reckons the townspeople will be so offended that they will abandon their houses, or sell them for a few bucks.

Of course things go not as planned. The new sheriff is a clever guy who outsmarts Lamarr's secret weapons, such as Mongo, an incredible muscle man who, when addressed by a man on a horse, knocks out the horse, and the seductive singer Lily von Shtüpp (the Teutonic Titwillow!), who falls for him, because she has heard rumors about black men being really well-shaped in certain areas. With the help of an embittered gunslinger, formerly known as The Waco Kid, he manages to scare off the rest of Lamarr’s men. Desperate, Lamarr assembles an army consisting of the biggest scum anyone can find on the face of this earth, that is (in Lamarr’s words): 

“rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperadoes, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, half-wits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass kickers, shit kickers and Methodists”.

The final battle for Rock Ridge will be a fierce one!

# Genre, language & signs

Blazing Saddles is more a series of burlesque vignettes than a movie; it's a true fusillade of jokes, some funny, others not so funny. When watched for the first time, it may seem rather incoherent: instead of making a selection of the best jokes, Brooks keeps throwing in them - by the dozens, or even hundreds. Critical reactions were mixed, but the film was a smash hit: upon its release it was the second highest grossing movie of the year, and its enduring success has turned it into one of the top-grossing westerns of all time (*1).

And yes, it is a western. It's about a railroad, a land grabber trying to frighten decent people of their land, a hero helping the defenseless against the wicked, and a alcoholic gunslinger seeking redemption. That's all classic western stuff, and in the hands of Brooks and his screenwriters (one of them was Richard Pryor), they're turned into a festival of the best in bad taste.

Basically genre movies work on a subconscious level: our 'instinctive' understanding of a genre is built on acquired knowledge of the 'language' of a genre. This is what linguistic philosophers like Roland Barthes or Umberto Eco have called semiotics: a symbolic language, codified by cultural agreement: guns, railroads, sheriffs, gunslingers coming to the aid of defenseless townspeople - these are all signs with a specific meaning within a western movie context (*2). A spoof plays with these genre characteristics, turning them inside-out, but this is only possible as long as people are able to 'read the signs': The best comedy westerns were therefore produced when the genre was still alive and kicking, or moribund (that is: a distant memory in people's heads). This is probably the reason why Brooks succeeded, while many directors after him failed.

# Evaluation

Some of the anachronistic jokes and post-modern tricks (actors breaking the so-called fourth wall by talking to the audience for example), thought to be very hip in the seventies, feel dated today. Gene Wilder is fun as the Waco Kid, a gunman even faster than Lucky Luke, the cowboy known to shoot faster than his own shadow. Madeline Kahn’s Marlène Dietrich parody, for which she received an Oscar Nomination (as best actress in a supporting role), is also quite funny (and sexy), but some of her scenes feel needlessly drawn-out. It took Brooks one more parody, Young Frankenstein to discover that less can be more.

But that's splitting hairs. Some of the jokes, like the farting cowboys and the sheriff's arrival in Rock Ridge (the new sheriff is a Ni *BOING!) have become part of the collective memory of mankind. The end is particularly fine, with the movie literally breaking through the walls of the studio, debouching into a another movie, a musical (directed by Dom Deluise!): the final battle between the townspeople and Lamarr’s army continues as if nothing happened, and is gradually ‘corrupted’ into a Laurel & Hardy kind of pie fight.

It’s often said that Blazing Saddles was a favorite of John Wayne. When he was offered a role in it, he refused because of image problems, but he said he would be one of the first to buy a ticket. I don’t know if this is true, but I sure do like the story.

Director: Mel Brooks – Cast: Cleavon Little (Bart), Gene Wilder (Jim, the Waco Kid), Madeline Kahn (Lili), Mel Brooks (Gov. Le Petomane/Indian Chief), Harvey Korman (Lamarr), Slim Pickens (Taggart), Dom DeLuise (Buddy), Alex Karras (Mongo)


* (1) Many lists offer a distorted view of reality because they are based on box-office results that have not been adjusted for inflation. On most adjusted lists Blazing Saddles comes in second after George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Comparing several lists, this seems to be the picture: 
1. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 2. Blazing Saddles, 3. Duel in the Sun, 4. Dances with Wolves, 5.  Shane . 
Django Unchained, not yet released or still in cinemas when most lists were made up, has not been taken into consideration, it'll most probably join the list.

* (2) John White, Westerns and Semiotic analysis, in: Routledge Film Guidebooks: Westerns, p. 49-55