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Western Parody

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Blazing Saddles: Burning Racists


A goofy western parody is the sharpest satire of American racism since Mark Twain.

With Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks both invented the movie genre parody that became his comedy trademark and gave us its best incarnation. The film combined sharp references to western film tropes, “lowbrow” jokes and surprisingly well-developed characters to tell a story that’s both compelling and hilarious. More than just an early meta-movie, Blazing Saddles also forced audiences to understand the entrenched roots of prejudice and racism in American culture.

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Good filmmakers love movies. Blazing Saddles is a film that literally could not exist without the entire culture of movie westerns before it. Mel Brooks had developed the genre parody style of comedy through his classic TV series Get Smart, but with Blazing Saddles he showed a real awareness of the actual movies in the genre he was lampooning. The film combines spot on references to classic films like Rio Bravo and High Noon with broad strokes about the common characteristics of westerns, resulting in a unique collage of jokes and allusions. Yet the brilliance of Blazing Saddles is that the entire film is a loving homage to an important genre in American cinema that also acknowledges the most glaring flaw in the stories: the less than stellar treatment of characters who aren’t white. While movie parodies don’t necessarily have to justify their existence with anything other than laughs, it’s refreshing when a filmmaker can look critically at the material and offer some degree of insight. It’s also more likely to reach segments of the audience who may appreciate something like the western genre without considering how it reinforces stereotypes and the existing power structures. This is why Blazing Saddles has probably aged a little better than Young Frankenstein, which Brooks released in the same year (not to mention some of his later parodies). And it’s also worth considering the current state of the movie parody genre, which has devolved into a kind of “fast food” franchise model that mirrors the culture of contemporary Hollywood rather than mocking it.

For all the one-liners, references and yes, even the film’s pioneering use of fart jokes, Blazing Saddles remains committed to developing the characters both as sources of comedy and individuals with a certain degree of humanity. Much of this credit should go to performers like Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn, as well as genre vet Slim Pickens and football behemoth-turned-Mongo-portrayer Alex Karras. The central friendship in the film between Little’s Sheriff Bart and Wilder’s Waco Kid grows organically from their status as outsiders – Bart through no fault of his own other than his race, and the Waco Kid through his crippling alcoholism. Even the bad guys portrayed by Pickens and Karras try to overcome their stereotypical treatment at the hands of the genre. The famous farts around the campfire scene (the first use of fart sound effects on film) grows from an astute observation that cowboys survived largely on canned beans while out on the range, which for humans would naturally lead to farting. Brooks takes it even one step further, turning it into a source of camaraderie for the would-be villains of the film.

Even to this day, Blazing Saddles remains the smartest indictment of American racism. The film clearly re-imagines the western genre in light of the civil rights movement and also the Vietnam War, which cast accusations towards the United States as a nation of white imperialist conquerors. To be fair, much of the re-imagining of the western genre had already begun through films like The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man and Buck and the Preacher – this last film a true revisionist piece directed by and starring Sidney Poitier as a scout leading former slaves into the west. Yet Blazing Saddles, perhaps freed from the constraints of authenticity, sends a message about bigotry and prejudice that still resonates. Perhaps this is because the film’s message is so damn funny. The liberal use of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite word, especially when spoken by stock characters like the sweet old lady, is both jarring and hilarious, forcing us to consider how deeply embedded racial ideas have been in our culture. In fact, it was co-writer Richard Pryor who pushed for the explicit overuse in order to shock the audience and make a point about widespread racism. In another classic scene, the protagonists lure a pair of Klansmen with Sheriff Bart asking where the white women are, turning the idiotic racists into victims through their own prejudice. Even the film’s most shocking scene, in which Bart, disguised in a Klan robe, reveals his true identity when his hands stick out of the sleeves, becomes another barb against the inherent stupidity of the Klan’s terrorist rituals (which were still definitely alive in the minds of those who had lived through the Jim Crow south). Comedy is tough without making prescient observations about the shortcomings of human beings, but when a film can be so ridiculous yet so on the mark, it’s definitely worth taking notice.

-The WatchMaker
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Image Credits

Mel Brooks, 1984. Towpilot.

Western Town Cartoon. Annalise Batista from Pixabay

Images from Blazing Saddles


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