WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: The railroad’s a-coming, and Attorney General Hedley Lamarr is determined to get rich by snatching the land it goes through. To do this he must empty the town of Rock Ridge, either by good old-fashioned violence or the more subtle trick of sending in a black sheriff. Predictably, the Johnsons who populate Rock Ridge are reluctant to embrace the new lawmaker, but with a little help from The Waco Kid he may just prove to be the townsfolk’s saviour.
In one of the wilder stretches of the Wild West, the white folk watch whilst the black folk build them a railroad, an inequitable situation which smart cookie Bart (Cleavon Little) can eventually take no longer. He attacks tyrannous gang master Taggart (Slim Pickens), landing him in jail with a hanging to surely follow, but he comes to the attention of kinky, avaricious Attorney General Hedley – that’s Hedley – Lamarr (Harvey Korman). Lamarr is desperate to make a land grab on Rock Ridge, and having tried to bully the populace out of town, his next tactic is to send ‘Sheriff Bart’ to look after them. At first the townspeople react with horror and cocked weapons, forcing Bart to seek company with prisoner Jim (Gene Wilder), the sozzled sharpshooter formerly known as The Waco Kid. However, when Bart subdues Taggart’s chief heavy Mongo (Alex Karras) and turns the tables on would-be temptress Lili von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn), the people of Rock Ridge slowly warm to him. Lamarr is forced to mount an all-out assault on the town, gathering ne’er-do-wells from anywhere and everywhere, including (somehow) the Third Reich, but Bart has a plan – as long as they all manage to stay in the same picture, that is.
I have no problem with Political Correctness: assuming they’re not doing anything morally wrong or harmful, it just has to be right that people are treated with equal respect whatever their appearance, orientation, outlook on life or whatever. On the other hand, when non-PC material is delivered well – and specifically, shows up bigots for the thoughtless fools they are – it can be exhilarating; and Blazing Saddles is in many respects an exhilarating movie. The extensive use of the N-word is shocking to modern sensibilities, yet every use of it only serves to ridicule the speaker rather than the object of the abuse. Indeed, in Little’s hands Bart is clever, urbane and commanding, as are the majority of the African-Americans in the cast (the cute rendition of I get a kick out of you sets the tone immediately), whilst the likes of Taggart and Lamarr, though both very funny, are clearly idiots. Furthermore, Blazing Saddles is an equal opportunities offender, having a pop at most races and predilections (Taggart’s first suggestion for terrorising Rock Ridge is dismissed as ‘Too Jewish’).
Were Blazing Saddles just about shock and awe it would quickly pall, much like the more recent Team America: World Police. Luckily, it also pulls off a devilishly effective combination of decent production values (to my naïve eyes, it looks like a Western), impeccable casting and inspired writing (from five writers, including Richard Pryor). I’ve already mentioned how good Little, Pickens and Korman are, but the real key to the film’s success is Wilder. Until he appears, the movie comes across as a very broad and slightly wild spoof; the appearance of The Waco Kid signals a change of gear, and his laconic, twinkle-eyed delivery settles the movie down (for a while, anyway). He makes almost every line sparkle, but my favourite is ‘I shoot with this hand’, a gag which has plenty of distinguished company: ‘Where the white women at?’, ‘Candygram for Mongo’, the legendary campfire sequence or anything Madeline Kahn does in her brilliant Dietrich-inspired turn as the speech-afflicted von Shtupp (“It’s twoo!”). These players pitch everything just right, keeping the plot ticking over whilst being aware that things are on a skew – the fourth wall isn’t broken, it’s bulldozed.
I emphasise ‘these players’ for a reason, however. Though Mel Brooks does great things as both director and writer, his cross-eyed turn as Governor William Le Petomane, mostly spent leering at Robyn Hilton’s underdressed secretary, are far too screwy to be of a piece with the rest of the movie. Personally, I enjoyed the extra-curricular climax to the film (thinking about it, it prefigures a similar joke in Spaceballs) and I like the clever details that go with it – see how Jim’s popcorn accompanies him onto the screen; on the other hand, I can see that some may consider the invasion of the camp musical a cop-out, a cheap laugh and an unnecessary throwback to The Producers. The cafeteria food fight and the appearance of an actor playing Hitler is certainly overkill, but a single joke (“They lose me right after the bunker scene”) makes it all worthwhile.
It’s not got the delirious highs of The Producers, nor the incredible hit rate of This is Spinal Tap, but for sheer nerve Blazing Saddles is hard to beat. Of course it’s dated, and there are many good reasons why you wouldn’t dream of making a similar movie these days – though people do and are rightly and roundly criticised for it. It’s best seen as an extremely naughty relic of an earlier generation, but most of all, thanks to the quality of the jokes and some wonderful performances, it’s best seen.