Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Blazing Saddles



Blazing Saddles is a 1974 satirical Western-Comedy written and directed by Mel Brooks. One of Brooks’ many parody films, Blazing Saddles was a huge box office hit, becoming only the tenth film in history to pass the $100 million mark upon its release. It opened to mixed reviews but is now generally regarded as a classic. The film takes place in the Old West in 1874 where the peaceful town of Rock Ridge is under siege from a crocked State Attorney General (Harvey Korman) who wants to clear the town in order to build his new railroad through it. The local townsfolk decide to send for a Sheriff and the Governor (who is under the control of the Attorney General) sends a black man (Cleavon Little) in the hope that his presence in the little, all while town will send the residents fleeing faster than any gun slinging cowboy could.

Like most people, I have seen Blazing Saddles before. It’s one of those films that you’ve probably seen bits of, even if you’ve never heard of it. The beans scene for instance will be instantly recognisable to everyone. The one and only time that I saw the film before today was probably about fifteen years ago, before my voice (and other things) had dropped. I remember laughing a lot at the film and thought I was well over due a second watch. Disappointingly I didn’t laugh much this time. I chuckled occasionally and liked the whole idea of the film but much of the humour either went over my head or under my nose.

As a rule I tend to like at least the premise of Mel Brooks films. They always appear to have clever, often witty ideas behind them and this is no exception. What I hadn’t remembered from my pre-teen viewing was the amount of explicitly racist language. There’s enough N-word usage in this movie to make even Quentin Tarantino blush. What I hadn’t realised was that the plot had a lot of racial themes to it. I assumed/remembered that it was about funny cowboys, farting and punching horses. What it actually is is a subtle satire on both 1970s racial feeling and the erasing of black characters from Western history and folk law. In this respect the film is a raging success. Many of the characters are hostile to the black characters in the early stages of the film but as it progresses, the central character’s spirit, bravery, good humour and cunning bring them round to accepting him as a member and leader of their community.

Apart from the cultural aspects of the plot, it doesn’t differ a whole lot from your average Western. There are good guys, trying to run the bad guys out of town. Gunslingers, drunks, cowboys and chorus girls make up the cast of characters and there is a typical redemption story thrown in for good measure. The movie plays around with some of the Western archetypes though for comic effect. Every person in the town for instance is named Johnson, something which it actually took me a few minutes to pick up on. There’s fun poked at gambling laws, the treatment of native people and the Chinese (who are again almost always absent from the ‘Hollywood West’). Aside from the Western humour, the film is also notable for its more surrealist take on the genre. There are odd inclusions such as the use of a toll booth to slow the bad guys down but the last ten minutes is the weirdest and best of all.

In the final scenes the movie smashes the forth wall like a sharpened knife stabbed with force through thin, wet paper. During the climactic fight scene, an all out battle between pretty much every member of the cast, the camera lifts and pans from the town, showing the entire Warner Brothers studio back lot. It then zooms down to a neighbouring studio where a Fred Astaire type musical is being filmed. After a few moments, the cast of Blazing Saddles comes crashing through the walls, still fighting. The fight then picks up more characters as it storms through the studio lot and out onto the Hollywood streets. If that’s unusual for you then it gets even stranger. A couple of the characters peel off to a movie theatre where they watch their own film on the screen. It’s an almost psychedelic scene and by far the highlight of the whole movie.

I thought that the sets (the actual Western sets) looked very good and were pleasingly authentic. The location shooting was also pretty. The acting was another strong area. Cleavon Little plays the role with just the right touches of seriousness, humour and cool and pulls of what must have been a tough role. Gene Wilder is good fun to watch but his big moments come later the same year in Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Harvey Korman is nicely camp and really thesps up his role. His constant annoyance at people referring to him as Hedy Lamarr was great fun. Madeline Kahn was enjoyable; her role reminded me a lot of Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again. Slim Pickens provides some good solid laughs too.




Overall I enjoyed Blazing Saddles. It was good, silly fun and I can appreciate its appeal. The story is strong and it’s well made but I was expecting to laugh just a little more. Despite failing to find the film very funny, I was generally transfixed by the rest of the movie and would recommend it to anyone who has yet to see it in full.     

7/10

Titbits

  • The central character of Bart was intended for Richard Pryor but because of Pryor's controversial stand up and drug use, Brooks couldn't secure funding with him in the role. Pryor became co-writter instead.
  • John Wayne was offered a part but turned it down. He did however state that he couldn't wait to see the finished movie.
  • The character Hedley Lamarr is a play on words with Hedy Lamarr, the popular and beautiful actress who was also a renowned mathemetician.        

4 comments:

  1. Hi, Tom - nice review. Watched this for the first time in about twenty years the other night and was surprised at how funny I still found it. It's a manic picture that doesn't flag for a minute, and that ending must really have been an eye-opener back in 1974...

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    1. I'm glad it retained its charm after all those years. I'll certainly go back and watch it again one day.

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