by Sachin Gandhi
Mel Brook’s madcap Western spoof Blazing Saddles not only pokes fun at conventional sequences found in Westerns but manages to generate laughter at serious topics of racism and rape with a rapid fire sequence of over-the-top crude and cartoonish jokes. The jokes spare no one, not even cows and horses, and result in multiple outrageous scenes that strip away all logic. The removal of any rational explanation allows the film to pile on a series of improbable moments thereby entering a cartoonish territory. By the time the film reaches its conclusion with a free for all pie fight, the only surprising discovery is that no aliens have landed to crash the party!
The film contains a traditional western outline where two opposing groups have a stand-off but the rivalry does not follow a conventional path. Instead, the rivalry is created when an evil plan blows back on a scheming villain. After quicksand blocks a railroad construction site, the only viable option is to route the rail track through the town of Rock Ridge. Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), assistant to the state governor, senses an opportunity to strike it rich as the passing of the rail through Rock Ridge would make the land worth “millions”. So he devises a plan to drive out the residents to grab their land. His assistant, Taggart (Slim Pickens), volunteers to scare the residents and rape the women so that the people will leave. However, despite Taggart’s efforts, the town folk decide to stay and request a new sheriff after their current one is killed by Taggart’s men. Lamarr then forges another plan to appoint a sheriff that would cause the residents to revolt. He convinces the governor to make a black worker (Bart played by Cleavon Little) the new sheriff so as to infuriate the close-knit white folk of Rock Ridge (where everyone is a Johnson). The plan backfires as Bart, with the aid of Jim “The Waco Kid” (Gene Wilder), becomes the main opponent to Lamarr and fights to save the town.
Blazing Saddles takes every opportunity to poke fun at the Western genre or society in general by ensuring a joke is jammed in each scenario. For example, a man dragged through mud is a standard scene in a western film. But Brooks turns this common scene into a joke by having the man remark “that’s the end of this suit” as he is pulled through mud. As Taggart’s men punch an old lady, the helpless woman pauses to look at the camera and says “Have you ever seen such cruelty?”. Westerns often feature stand-offs decided by who can draw and fire their gun the quickest but Blazing Saddles takes that quick draw to new comedic levels. The Waco Kid is so quick in drawing his gun that even the camera can’t catch him in the act. Instead, a quick edit is all that is required to convince the audience of his lightning abilities. Silence is not present in Blazing Saddles as most scenes are packed with oodles of dialogues that are meant to either offend or incite laughter. In the absence of dialogues, a song continues to provide humor. The lone dialogue free scene, a quiet campfire dinner, is also turned into a lowbrow comedic opportunity when each cowboy gets up to break wind as loudly as he can. When the vulgar jokes briefly take a break, the cartoonish elements takeover, complete with a Looney Tunes background score and even an exploding box of chocolates. When the evil henchman Mongo (Alex Karras) is sent to kill Bart, the sheriff easily takes care of Mongo by gifting him an exploding box of candy. In their plan to slow down Taggart’s men, Bart erects a tollgate in the middle of a wide open landscape. Each person is forced to deposit 10 cents otherwise the gate won’t lift. So each rider dutifully puts his money and crosses the gate with their horse while the vast area around the tollgate remains unused.
More importantly, controversial topics of racism and ill treatment of minorities are integrated in the humor thereby allowing the issues to be digested in an accessible manner. At the start, chinese and black workers are insulted but a few songs manage to cut through any tension and lighten the mood. When Bart and a fellow black worker start to sink in quicksand, Taggart flings a rope in their direction, not to save them, but to rescue the $400 hand rail cart which Taggart considers more valuable than the lives of the two men. This scene is not entirely unbelievable given how slaves and minority workers were once treated but the seriousness of these issues is buried under laughter as is a comment about the plight of Jews or the crimes of the Ku Klux Klan. The film even features a brief cameo by an actor playing Hitler in a movie set.
The jokes reach their zenith when near the conclusion the film jumps outside the fake western set and navigates across studio sets where other movies are being shot. This means that the final stand-off doesn’t take place in the West but outside LA’s Graumann’s Chinese Theater. And to find how the film ends, Bart and Jim head inside the cinema to watch the conclusion of their film with an audience. Since no western would be complete with that ride into the sunset, Bart and Jim ride off on their horse towards a happy ending. However, after a few strides, they get off their horses and enter a chauffeur driven car which then provides the final sunset shot of the film.
Blazing Saddles is packed with numerous jokes and cameos (including Madeline Kahn in a memorable role) whose sole purpose is to continue the perpetual momentum of laughter. Given the crudeness and vulgar nature of some jokes, not everything is in proper taste. However, Mel Brooks works on a model of unbounded excess that seeks to offend as many people as possible and is hard to take seriously. One can only shake their head in disbelief at what appears to be a mess but in reality is a calculated work meant to get a reaction from people. Brooks has created a politically incorrect film which is a mad combination of a spoof, a slapstick and a cartoon.