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Blazing Saddles (1974)::rating::5::rating::5

When I was ten years old, my mother forbade me to watch Blazing Saddles.  Naturally, when my parents ventured from the house, that VHS tape went straight into the VCR.  Within minutes, I felt a tinge of shame, as I could see exactly what she was talking about.  Blazing Saddles was filthy, unhinged, and scorchingly profane.  That shame was quickly outmatched, however, by the waves of laughter radiating through my young body.  Before the movie was over, my abs were sore from so much cackling.  Eventually, my parents had to have been suspicious when that tape became worn out from repeat viewings.

The story (by Mel Brooks, who co-writes with a platoon, including Richard Pryor) riffs on every quaint Monument Valley Western starring John Wayne.  Somewhere in the sun-soaked frontier, a new railroad slowly snakes across the desert plain, a symbol of the steady march of progress.  As always, there’s a fortune to made along the way, and it beckons the greediest of men to make it.

Enter Hedley Lamar—the name is an ingeniously idiotic play on Golden Age actress Hedy Lamar, who was reputedly none too amused—a sleazeball politician who can smell a get-rich-quick scheme from a hundred miles.  (Harvey Korman has the time of his life as Lamar.)  Turns out, the railroad is being diverted through the Podunk burg of Rock Ridge.  That means…of course!  All Lamar must do is run off the townspeople, scoop up their land, develop it for the railroad, and then sell it for a mint!  Outstanding!

But how?  Well, Lamar hatches a dastardly scheme that’s both racist and dumb:  He’ll install a Black man as the new sheriff.  When Bart (Cleavon Little) arrives, chaos and violence will ensue.  Lamar’s goons will ride in, frighten everyone into hysterics, and then claim the empty land.

As you might guess, there’s one huge complication:  Lamar fatally underestimates his patsy.  Turns out, Sheriff Bart is the smartest and most grounded character in this entire story.  He makes key allies, including The Waco Kid, an amiable outlaw played by Gene Wilder.  The bigoted citizens of Rock Ridge unload slurs onto Bart, but they gradually learn the error of their ways. When Lamar makes his big push for the town, the locals are surprisingly unified against him.

All that plot is essentially a catapult from which to launch an onslaught of gags.  Some of them are brilliant (Madeleine Kahn’s burlesque chanteuse lands somewhere between Marlene Dietrich and Barbara Walters), while others are brilliantly stupid (as when a band of outlaws spots a random tollbooth in the desert, prompting them to double back for a “shitload of dimes.”)

Some of the film’s visual jokes have even entered the realm of legend:  Take the circle of grimy cattle rustlers, hunched over a campfire and chowing on a mess of beans. Of course, this quickly turns into a furious storm of farts, which prompted ten-year-old me to fall out of my chair laughing.  And poor Alex Karras—a Hall of Fame football player—was guaranteed to be forever recognized as “the guy who once punched out a horse in Blazing Saddles.”

Most of the film’s performances are cinematic lore, as well.  Harvey Korman goes delectably hammy as a sniveling bureaucrat.  He’s only a twiddling mustache away from being a silent movie villain.  Slim Pickens, already famous for riding an H-bomb like a mechanical bull in Dr. Strangelove, plays his henchmen with the perfect blend of slack-jawed ignorance and boisterous ineptitude.  And we’ve already talked about Kahn, who steals most of her scenes.  If you haven’t heard her rendition of “I’m Tired,” an epic ballad about makin’ whoopee ‘till you’re just plain exhausted with it, well…you haven’t lived.   (“I’m not a wabbit/I need some wesssssssst”)

For all my love of this movie, I will slap a warning on it:  Blazing Saddles is loaded with racial epithets, including the most culturally charged of them all.  There is no way—no how—this could ever get made now.  But Brooks (and Pryor, whose personality is all over the screenplay) deploy racism to make a larger and deceptively serious point.  Bigotry and intolerance make a person look, for lack of a better word, stupid.  The citizens of Rock Ridge are, as Wilder’s Waco Kid puts it:  Morons.  Humor has a way of boring into the hard surface of Truth, and Brooks isn’t shy about making fools look foolish.  Still, I’ll say it again:  The blunt use of language in this film ain’t for all tastes.

Yet, it also must be noted that Blazing Saddles also functions as a bravura deconstruction of Western Mythology, especially as it pertains to the cinema.  Native Americans weren’t noble savages.  Black people were more than just servants and criminals.  And our heroes often had some less than heroic traits.  Satire has a way of demolishing its subjects, and few movies made a better wrecking ball than Blazing Saddles.

93 min.  R.  Max.

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