Blazing Saddles

This film could not be made today. For all our progress, racial reconciliation, and advances made by minorities, this film would never get passed censors today, and its release would spark outrage among pundits of all variety. Indeed when this film was released in the 1970’s, the studio received many letters of complaint for the racist language and epithets within the film. All of those letters, says creator Mel Brooks, were from white people.

The film depicts a town besieged by a greedy land baron and territorial administrator Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman), who sends bands of outlaws to scare them off. Once the town is gone, he can build a railroad through it and reap great financial and political rewards. With their sheriff out of the picture, they ask for a replacement to help. Lamar sends them a black railroad worker (Cleavon Little) he intended to have executed for assaulting his crooked railroad foreman, played by Slim Pickens.

The resulting scene, in which the town sets out a big party to welcome their new sheriff, and then is horrified to see that he is black, is cinematic satirical gold. This same theme is played on numerous times throughout the rest of the film, as the townspeople adapt to their new sheriff, and he learns that despite their racism, he still must earn their trust.

The plot continues on a standard western theme, making room for Brooks’ signature sense of humor. This humor helps mitigate the sex and racial themes that consume the writing. One of the reasons this film gets away with frequent use of the “N” word, is that it does not take itself seriously. It is a satire, and makes no apology for that. The film really doesn’t say anything bad about any specific race or ethnic group, depicting only stereotypes of Irish, Chinese, Mexican, Jewish, Native American, and other peoples. If any group is outright ridiculed, they are villains such as Nazis or politicians.

The Purpose of Satire

The film’s pretense collapses at the end, when an exaggerated climactic brawl scene spills out of the film and onto the rest of Warner Bros. studio lot. Brawlers break in on lavish musicals, the studio cafeteria, and even onto the streets of Los Angeles, where the final duel between Lamar and the sheriff comes to pass. In the end, Little’s character rides off into the sunset in a limousine with costar Gene Wilder, who played his drunken sidekick, the Waco kid. Little, who died of cancer in the 1990’s, and Wilder’s performances are hilarious and slickly played. They are a perfect pairing and help keep the film together, giving it an unimpeachable level of comedic acting. Supporting cast members like Brooks, Korman, and the late Madeline Khan also contribute to a successful comedy.

Blazing Saddles represents an important benchmark in American film satire. Race is taken out of the context of the 1970’s, and applied to the 19th century. This allowed an audience, who grappled with race every day, to review this subject in a non-threatening light. This is the goal of satire and by proxy, that of comedy as well. Forward-thinking television shows, like The Jeffersons which was still a year away, helped to continue this trend. Today, more than thirty years later, we face different racial challenges. This film could not have been made today, as previously stated, but not just because of racist depictions. The sex, misogyny, and homophobia in the film would’ve also raised the ire of censors, rights groups, and moralists. And despite this animosity towards satirical representation, we are relatively in the same place when it comes to race and similar issues.

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