NOTE: Part of a June movie-watching event celebrating Mel Brooks’ 96th birthday.
For the people who study film, either academically or individually, Blazing Saddles embodies nearly every element that would send a project off the rails. It runs about a two-miles-per-minute in the pacing department. It’s comprised of broadly drawn characters. Certain scenes feel hijacked, as if the writers couldn’t make up their mind what the central focus should be. Then you throw in the understandably touchy idea of a white filmmaker writing a movie that has characters casually throwing around the n-word and you’re left with something ostensibly untouchable.
Thankfully, the mastermind behind such a film was Mel Brooks, and it’s no wonder Blazing Saddles finds itself in a battle with Young Frankenstein and Spaceballs in the minds of folks trying to pinpoint his best feature. Your personal tastes will answer that question, and either way, you’ll have a point. Blazing Saddles is mindfully mindless in its complete deconstruction of Western conventions; it’s so brazen in its approach that only rivaling its directness is its frequent humor, which makes it endearing to its core.
Set on the American frontier in 1874, the story — flimsy as all hell, basically a breeding ground for slapstick, camaraderie, gloriously overdone setpieces, and witty dialog — involves a shady attorney general named Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), who intends to run a railroad through the town of Ridge Rock. But first, that involves driving locals out, so the governor (Brooks) sends a black sheriff (of course nicknamed “Black Bart,” played by Cleavon Little) to Ridge Rock, hoping it’ll prompt outrage.
With nothing to lose, Black Bart dials up the charm despite the color of his skin being the ultimate barrier to kindness. He appoints a drunken sharpshooter named Jim (Gene Wilder) as his deputy and slowly sees the town gravitate towards his amiability. Not even seduction from lounge singer Lili von Shtupp — played by Madeline Kahn doing a helluva Marlene Dietrich impersonation — can deter the steadfast sheriff, who also has to deal with slurs thrown his way.
From opening to closing titles, Blazing Saddles is ceaseless in introducing a random assortment of eccentrics, curmudgeons, and slimeballs. One of the more amusing side-characters is Mongo (Alex Karris), playing a role that could’ve feasible gone to André the Giant. He’s the philosophical soul of the movie, and if not for his brutish size, he’d probably have a better life than being a lackey.
Keeping the movie grounded enough not to combust is the chemistry between Little and Wilder. It’s an open secret that the role of Black Bart was to be played by Richard Pryor, had it not been for his ferocious drug use being a turn-off for Warner Bros. Pryor settled for a writing credit on a screenplay he helped tailor. Just think of how our rankings of Pryor/Wilder comedies would’ve changed dramatically had the pair — whose best films are the ones they acted opposite one another — been the centerpieces of Brooks’ parodic assault on Westerns.
That said, Little is more than capable of commanding the screen with affable charisma and a dashing smile. Wilder is significantly more mellow than he was, say, playing Dr. Frankenstein — which means a lot, considering his character is a boozehound. The two make wonderful music in the film’s dizzying climax, which includes an army of Klansmen, Nazis, Methodists, and degenerates storming a dummy town disguised as Rock Ridge, crashing a closed set as well as the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, engaging in a pie fight, and then driving (after riding) off into the sunset.
Blazing Saddles isn’t flawless. It takes a while to solidify its comic footing (Wilder doesn’t appear for the first 30 minutes). Brooks’ love for articulating backstory might be rendered tedious due to the slowburn nature of Westerns. The good news is after the first half, most, if not all, complaints are rendered moot. Brooks will have you laughing it off, as only a brilliant comedic mind could.
NOTE: As of this writing, Blazing Saddles is now streaming on Showtime.
MORE REVIEWS OF MEL BROOKS’ FILMS:
My review of High Anxiety
My review of Life Stinks
My review of The Producers (1967)
My review of The Producers (2005)
My review of Silent Movie
My review of Spaceballs
My review of Young Frankenstein
Starring: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickins, Madeline Kahn, Mel Brooks, Alex Karras, and Dom DeLuise. Directed by: Mel Brooks.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!