Before his career in show business, Mel Brooks was a badass in the Army diffusing bombs in WWII. As a figure of Hollywood, Brooks has written and directed some of the most iconic satirical comedies of all time like History of the World: Part 1 and Spaceballs, just to name a few. He directs, co-writes the screenplays, and writes the lyrics to the hilarious songs in his films. He characteristically breaks the fourth wall in a manner that adds to the comedic timing. It is no surprise then that he is among the few with a coveted EGOT.
This sharp comedic genius can be found in Blazing Saddles, Brooks’ first hit after directing The Producers and The Twelve Chairs. Since its release in 1974, Blazing Saddles has become a worldwide phenomenon raking in 119.6 million dollars. And despite its legacy, Brooks has acknowledged that this film could never be made today given our never-ending social media controversies surrounding the slightest whiff of an “offensive” joke.
Blazing Saddles is more than just a satiric comedy/western or interracial buddy movie. It is a ridiculous comedy that highlights how senseless racism is through humor. No matter how many times I’ve seen this movie or that I know what is coming next, the jokes still land, and I always fall on the floor laughing. The film starts with black and Chinese men working on the railroad. The white men are on horses signifying that the white men are literally and figuratively above the men working on the railroad.
These instances of racist absurdity in the workforce are on full display when the white men dock the pay of a Chinese man for “napping on the job” when, in fact, he passes out from the heat. Instead of sending horses to check out the potential quicksand ahead of them, they send Charlie (Charles McGregor) and Bart (Cleavon Little), making it clear that the black men’s lives are worth less than horses. They save the $400 pushcart stuck in the quicksand, but not the lives of Charlie and Bart. When the two escape on their own, they’re told that their break is over, a response so outlandish that you can’t help but giggle.
This absurdity is escalated when white men ask the black men to sing like when they were slaves. So the black men start to sing “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” written by Cole Porter and famously performed by Frank Sinatra, throwing off the men who requested the song. The white men, being idiots, start to sing and dance around to “Camp Town Ladies” while the confused black men look on. The jokes keep coming, and Charlie states that he “isn’t a nigger because [his] grandmother was Dutch.”
The setup of Bart becoming sheriff of the town of Rock Ridge proves just as humorous and ridiculous. Corrupt attorney general Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman) seduces the governor with talk of a cabinet position and even a presidency if he were to appoint Bart the first black man as sheriff of a town. Governor Le Petomane (Mel Brooks, whose name means ‘Fartomanic’ in French) acknowledges that the color of his skin would have him run out of town, be torn apart, and wouldn’t last a day, all while leaving the town deserted enough to build a railroad through and make them rich. He agrees and orders Hedley to make all the arrangements, “especially the funeral.”
The racism isn’t saved only for black and Chinese people, but also Indians and the Irish. When Bart tells his life story to jail guard/”Waco Kid” gunslinger Jim (Gene Wilder), he flashes back to a story of his family on a wagon train where the white people wouldn’t let them ride upfront so they brought up the rear. So, when the Indians came, they were running in literal circles, producing a visual gag of the wagon running in circles by itself that still makes me laugh because it looks so silly. The Sioux chief (also Mel Brooks) that trapped the wagon train, who just so happens to speak Yiddish, lets his family go under the humorous rationale of “They darker than us!”
Being darker than the Indians comes up again when Taggart (Silm Pickens) says they “took time to slaughter every Indian only to have a sheriff darker than any Indian.” When Bart tells the town his plan to make a fake town with the help of the railroad workers, he says their support will come in exchange for land to build a homestead. This leads Olson Johnson (David Huddleston) to respond, in an ironically racist fashion, “we’ll give land to the niggers and the chinks, but we won’t take the Irish.” Nearly all the white citizens of Rock Ridge are willing to let their own village be destroyed so they can continue to feel superior to the black sheriff, ironically leaving Bart the only person willing to help the town.
Brooks’ approach to racial humor even applies to sexual innuendos. When he first rides into town with his Gucci swagger, matching hat, outfit, and even matching horse, Bart gets up to give a speech to the town and says, “excuse me while I whip this out,” and we hear a woman scream in the background. This type of joke is given two more times, once when he is in the dressing room of Lilly Von Schtupp (Madeline Khan) when she says, “is it true your people are gifted? It’s true! It’s true!” while unzipping his pants. The other is when he gets the help of Charlie (McGregor) and the other railroad workers. Charlie (McGregor) says, “shifty nigga, they said you was hung.” Bart’s response was, “they were right.”
At one-point Jim says their town is filled with people of the land, farmers, and morons. Yet their racism is little different than when Bart gets the attention of some KKK members simply by asking, “where the white woman at?” According to Jim, the people will never accept him, even calling him deputy spade. This is evident when Bart pretends to kidnap himself or when he poses as a delivery man to give Mongo a candygram. The white people bought both ridiculous tricks.
When Bart tries to go out in the town, he is called a “nigger” to his face. Even after he deals with Mongo and receives a pie as both thanks and apology, he is asked to “have the good taste and not mention I spoke to you.” Rock Ridge’s citizens simply cannot bring themselves to publicly accept Bart as a hero, because to do so would make his position as sheriff superior to their position as white people.
It’s Mongo who, in my opinion, has the best line in the movie: “Mongo pawn in game of life.” Being such a dumb character, the fact that it’s him who says this insightful thing makes the joke land harder. With so many visual jokes coming at you every five seconds, the content of Blazing Saddles is not itself offensive. Mel Brooks certainly figured out his formula to highlight any topic into comedy gold, filling each scene with so many off the wall parts that you begin to ask yourself, how can people still be racist?
The idiocy of racism is beautifully highlighted in Blazing Saddles, but I’m sure there are those who still missed that point. In that sense Brooks is correct that this movie could never be made in today’s political climate, but it’s precisely because he took such provocative risks that Blazing Saddles is remembered as a classic over 45 years later. I and many other fans hope that he releases another film like History of the World: Part 2, perhaps a Jews In Space edition?